Schools can avert Exodus 2000

Sunday, August 2, 1998

Most public-school teachers react with shock and anger when they first hear about Exodus 2000. That's the movement calling for all Christians to leave public schools by the year 2000.

“Why are they against me?,” a teacher asked me last week. “I'm a Christian too.”

Actually, the evangelical Protestants leading the “exodus” aren't targeting individual teachers and administrators. They're attacking the system. They perceive public education as a network of “government schools” held captive by the “liberal humanist left.” Reform initiatives such as Goals 2000 (the national goals set out nearly a decade ago by the president and the governors) and attempts to establish national standards are seen as coercive efforts to indoctrinate students into a worldview that is hostile to the Christian faith.

The leaders of Exodus 2000 pull no punches. The government “agenda” in public education is described as the “final solution” for the evangelical and conservative movements in America. That's strong stuff.

What's their alternative?: “Bible-based Christian education” in home schools and Christian schools. Christians, the argument goes, must take back the education of their children. For this group of evangelicals, nothing the public schools do (short of becoming Christian schools) will change their minds.

The answer's not so simple for many other evangelicals. In spite of tensions about everything from educational philosophy and sex education to the treatment of religion and values, most conservative Christian parents still support the public schools. Polls suggest that even those parents who criticize public education are generally pleased with their own local public schools.

But that may be changing, especially as more evangelical leaders support the “exodus.” Earlier this year Citizens for Excellence in Education—a leader in the effort to get conservative Christians elected to school boards—joined the call for evangelical Christians to leave the schools.

Some educators, weary of the culture wars, might be tempted to say “good riddance.” But that would be short-sighted and self-defeating. Public schools are in the business of nation-building. They comprise the one institution most responsible for transmitting America's civic principles and virtues from this generation to each succeeding generation. If a significant segment of our population—especially a segment that has been at the heart of shaping the American experiment—withdraws in large numbers from our schools, what kind of nation will we be in the 21st century?

Parents, of course, are free to send their children elsewhere. For some Christian parents, religious schools or home-schooling may be the best option. But if we as a nation are serious about e pluribus unum—out of many, one—then we must ensure that our public schools are places where all Americans feel welcome. If some Christians do leave, it shouldn't be because the schools are unfair or hostile.

How can public education send a welcoming message? Here are a few starting points:

  • Ensure that parents and other community representatives are fully represented in the decision-making process. No educational philosophy, school reform or curriculum change should be made without full understanding and support of the community.
  • Encourage religious parents and leaders to set up released-time programs (allowing students to be released during the school week for religious education). Some districts discourage or even oppose released-time, sending a message of hostility to many religious people.
  • Develop school policies that clearly outline the religious-liberty rights of students. Schools that continue to ignore the need for such policies contribute to the alienation felt by many religious parents.
  • Open the forum so that high-school kids can form religious clubs as part of their school's extracurricular program.
  • Rally parents behind a comprehensive character-education program that is consistent with the core moral commitments of the broader community.
  • Create partnerships between the school and local religious communities. Through tutoring and other after-school programs, there are many constitutional ways for schools and religious groups to work together for academic success and good character.
  • Prepare teachers to teach about religion in the curriculum.
  • Let parents know how they can “opt out” of portions of the curriculum offensive to their religious convictions.

I'm convinced that if public schools do these things, most evangelicals will stick with public education. But if school leaders remain tone-deaf to religion, the problem won't just go away—it'll walk out the front door.