This is the second of a two-part article.
Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will return on the Tuesday after Labor Day.
By George Clifford
When U.S. parents opt to send their children to private schools or to home school their children, I invariably wonder why. Half of the students at the college from I which graduated matriculated from private prep schools. Generally, their parents had enrolled their children in prep school to provide a better education than the one they believed their children could obtain in the public schools. Ironically, after overcoming my initial sense of inadequacy, I discovered that my public school education was roughly comparable to my peers’ private school education. Public education is not inherently inferior.
During my high school and college years, white flight into private schools and home schooling dominated the educational scene in parts of the country, Raleigh included. The allegedly racially separate but educationally equal schools of the Jim Crow south were in truth far from educationally equal. These segregated public schools failed at the enculturation of most minority children into valued citizens of our democratic society, deprived many of the prosperity that education frequently produces, and denied all the equal opportunity expressive of God's equal love for everyone, regardless of race.
During the five years I lived in Hawaii, I observed a public school system that largely enrolled children of parents unable or unwilling to afford private schools, i.e., mostly parents from lower socio-economic strata. The unofficial, pervasive public school ethos included strong elements of racial prejudice and violence. Funding and political support for the public schools was low, a result of elites and the even modestly affluent paying private school tuition and therefore having little interest or incentive in paying the higher taxes necessary to fund the public schools adequately. From a Christian perspective, Hawaiian public schools, like public schools in the Jim Crow south, had failed; lack of interest and greed rather than racism caused the failure.
Ministry as a military chaplain brought me into conversation with hundreds of families who had opted to home school their children or to send their children to “Christian” schools. Typically, these parents both wanted their children to acquire values and ideas that cohered with the parents’ evangelical Christian vision and were willing to pay the price to achieve that goal. This is not a new phenomenon. Immigrant Christians (and others) in prior generations sometimes established parochial schools for similar reasons. Economics have since forced the closing of many of these schools; many of the schools that remain open have joined the ranks of secular private schools whose mission, formally or informally, is to educate the children of one or more socio-economic elites. Others have established themselves as helpful options for children who fail to thrive in the public schools.
In some significant respects, the curriculum of most self-identified “Christian” schools and homeschoolers bears more resemblance to Islamic madrasas than to any U.S. public school curriculum. Both types of religious schools emphasize the primacy of a narrow religious perspective that instills religious and gender bigotry, distorts history, and demeans science (the “Christians” interpret scientific data through their religious lens; the Islamists ignore science). Neither provides an adequate foundation for their graduates to contribute to a democratic society, achieve economic prosperity, or genuinely value equal opportunity.
In Christ, there is neither black nor white, red nor brown, rich nor poor. God does not love or judge people based on net worth, income, or skin color. So why do Wake County residential patterns, like the patterns across America, broadly reflect an unchristian homogeneity, the nation’s affluent majority living in one set of neighborhoods, middle income people in another set of neighborhoods, and poor minorities in yet a third set? This pattern tragically alienates poor and affluent children alike from those who are different, sinfully perpetuating racially and economically determined patterns of friendship, employment, and opportunity. The Episcopal Church at General Convention 2009 adopted Resolution C049, endorsing equal opportunity for all.
Only when indiscriminate love for neighbor replaces self-centered economics and racial prejudice as the driver in determining residential patterns will Wake County (or any area) more fully incarnate the gospel. One essential long-term step toward achieving that goal is municipalities adopting development and zoning policies that promote real economic diversity in all neighborhoods. Another important long-term step is creating numerous small parks, designed for the young children who live in those neighborhoods. Young children rarely care about race or family income; they enjoy playing with any friendly peer. Some of the friendships spawned in those parks will surely endure into the teens and even adulthood. Day care programs with diverse populations can achieve the same result. Finally, parents (and others) instead of relying on public school alternatives should strive through political action, adequate funding, and civic support, to provide public schools with diverse student bodies that offer quality education to all children.
Collectively, those changes will help to tear down the sinful racial and economic barriers that presently stratify people in unchristian ways and leave too many children unprepared for a global community shaped by the gospel. I’m certain that other public policy ukases can also aid in attaining that goal. Christians, called by God to incarnate the gospel vision on earth, can usefully articulate and then wholeheartedly support such policies.
However, the Church’s most important and probably unique contribution is to motivate energetic Christian community support for achieving quality and diverse public schools. In a branch of the Church that today can easily appear myopically focused on internal issues and politics, the needs of some of the most vulnerable and least amongst us – children who are victims of racial, economic, and social injustice – deserve our focused and prioritized commitment. Indeed, by boldly working to transform public school systems in Wake County and elsewhere into instruments of social justice, we will live more fully into the gospel mandate, experience individual healing, and organizational renewal. Alternatively, if we ignore the children, we, like prior generations, will inflict our sins on today’s children and future generations.
The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, ministered as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh, is a visiting professor of ethics at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.