Why not just send your kids to a private school?
February 17, 2007 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Church/State, creationists, private education in the US; why don't all the "intelligent design" folk just send their kids to private religious schools?

A point came up in a discussion with my wife tonight; why is there such controversy regarding the teaching of "religious dogma" in public schools in the United States? If parents are so concerned about the need for their children to learn creation myths in school, why do I get the impression very few US parents send their children to private religious schools?

Here in Australia, it's not that expensive. It's my understanding that there are typical, suburban Lutheran schools, for example, with annual tuition fees of only AU$2,000 or less - not a great commitment for a religiously conservative, low to middle class family to make in order to ensure their kids are educated the way they want. I was unfortunate enough to have attended a private Christian school myself; we were infact taught evolution, but only after a letter was sent to our parents first, asking if they raised any objection.

Indeed, my (primarily TV and movie-driven) knowledge of America suggests that public schools really do handle the great majority of education; the only movie I can think that features a private school is Dead Poet's Society, and possibly Donny Darko, although in that case it isn't clear if it's a private school, or a public school in a very nice neighbourhood.

My question is wandering; so back to the point. Why aren't private religious schools more common in the United States; if they were, would it solve the constant "teaching creationism in public schools" mess?
posted by Jimbob to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's becoming very trendy for evangelicals to homeschool their children for exactly this reason.

A lot of evangelicals are wedded to the idea that the US was founded as a Christian country and therefore the state should support Christianity at all levels; they're not comfortable paying tuition on top of the taxes they're already paying to support the public schools, to have their kids taught something they should be taught anyway.

Also, my understanding is that only Catholic schools in the US have a tradition of fairly cheap private education... and a lot of them teach evolution in some form or another.
posted by Jeanne at 6:00 AM on February 17, 2007


Yeah I avoided mentioning Catholic schools in Australia in my question for that very reason; they have a tradition of providing cheap education, but they teach evolution. But many Protestant schools aren't significantly more expensive here.
posted by Jimbob at 6:17 AM on February 17, 2007


Because sending your own kids to such a school would take care of them, but it wouldn't do anything about all the Godless evolution being taught to other children in public schools.

There are plenty of religious schools in the States. Some are expensive, some are not. But you're looking at this too pragmatically. I don't want to get off on a "culture wars" tangent, but it's not just about what their own children get taught in public schools, or my (theoretical) children get taught there -- it's about the role that science and religion play in public life. Schools are just one prominent battleground.
posted by veggieboy at 6:29 AM on February 17, 2007


"Separate but equal" doesn't really fly here in the US. The Christians in question don't just want nominal equality of academic opportunity, they want their beliefs to be endorsed and expressed by the culture at large. They want their religion to be part of the normative American lifestyle, so they demand that our indoctrination centers public schools teach their (very silly) version of biogenesis.

If this seems strange to you it's because your evanglicals just aren't whipped up into the same culture-war fervor ours are. No-one's making American Christians marry people of the same sex, but they're all up in arms about that too.
posted by nicwolff at 6:37 AM on February 17, 2007


I don't know what the numbers are, but evangelical families who can afford it often do send their kids to private school. But it is very expensive in the U.S. Where I live, (a fairly poor area), the average household income in $31,000/ year, and the local Christian school charges about $5000/ year. No way is that happening for most families.

As Jeanne mentioned, homeschooling is popular, and it is becoming much better organized. Increasingly, multiple families join together to educate their kids, sharing expenses and letter various parents specialize in math, science and humanities. In effect, the create personalized private schools without campuses (or, usually, state regulation).

But the main reason is that evangelicals belief that creationism is right, and should be taught to everyone, not just their kids, or the horrific effects of teaching evolution will continue to ravage society. That's pretty much the majority thinking. You can hear a lot of "they're out to get our kids" and "it's a battle for America's children" at evangelical rallies.

I'm a post-liberal pastor at a 500-member largely-evangelical church and trying to persuade my congregation that their time is better spent helping the poor than picketing the school board meetings is one of the main things I do.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:38 AM on February 17, 2007 [8 favorites]


Protestant religious schools are often fairly expensive in the United States. The South is less affluent, while holding onto more conservative religious values. Same goes for the Midwest, although incomes are little better there. A Catholic school is fine for many people. For a dedicated Protestant, it may not be. Homeschooling truly is a common option, especially in areas where subpar education and high delinquency are as worrisome as evolution.

Beyond this, there is the evangelical angle. These are people who believe it is their duty from God to spread the word, and allowing evolution to be taught openly is sinful. By no means is this the entirety of Christians. However, between those who openly crusade against evolution and those who passively support removing evolution from schools, it remains a forceful movement in some areas.

To sum it up, there's a variety of reasons. Private schools are generally more expensive. Even at AUD$2000, or not quite USD$1600, that is too much for some families barely scraping by, or with poor money management. According to Education Week, the average tuition for Catholic schools is USD$3236, and for Protestant schools, it is USD$4689. Even on a fairly middle-class income of $50,000, that is a decent chunk of change. Go down to a bit less comfortable income of $30,000 a year, and that would require some painful belt-tightening in a nation that loves a gluttonous consumer.

Sometimes, homeschooling just isn't an option. Both parents may be working, whether together or divorced. Maybe the parents don't remember anything about algebra or sentence diagramming, and feel unfit to teach. Unless they have a community homeschooling group, it's not always easy to provide an education even at the level of public schools.

Then, on occasion, people just can't be happy if someone doesn't believe in the same stuff they do. Funny, it seems to me that these people with the least necessity are the most vocal about evolution vs. creationism.
posted by Saydur at 6:38 AM on February 17, 2007


I think Mighty Ducks 3 also featured a private school. :)

I'm one of those intelligent design folk. If I had kids, I would send them to a public school because I wouldn't want them to learn in a vacuum. They're going to have to live in the world after they graduate, so why put them in a bubble for thirteen years?

If I really want my kids to know something, I'll teach it to them myself. It's not fair, to my kids or the school, to send my children away to learn everything they need to know about God, the world, respecting other people, etc. That's why homeschooling would be an appealing option. I agree that there's a trend toward that -- homeschool co-ops take a lot of the burden off of parents who feel unfit to teach.

I think there can also be a difference between "private Christian school" and "private Christian school that provides a good education." A private Christian school that offers as good an education as a public school will cost more than one whose teachers pray at the beginning of every class and then teach crummy lessons. Though ID people can make a lot of noise, their first consideration in choosing a school may not be its attitude toward religion, but rather its cost. The private Christian schools in my area (of which there are several) cost about the same as my unaffiliated private school education. We chose my school because it offered better financial aid.

To answer the other part of the question: If good, affordable private Christian schools were more common, I think it would help clean up the mess, but it wouldn't solve the problem. The motivations of many staunch ID people go beyond "teach my kids creationism." The whole "Well, I'm paying taxes, so they should teach my children what I want them to learn" thing comes into play, for one thing. For others, it could be a way of asking for persecution, taking up your own cross for the reward in the afterlife. The silent majority of dissatisfied Christians would send their kids to the private schools, and the vocal minority, who are getting something out of the fight, would keep Fighting For America.

on preview: Yup. Saydur basically said it all, and better than I did.
posted by ramenopres at 7:23 AM on February 17, 2007


Because sending your own kids to such a school would take care of them, but it wouldn't do anything about all the Godless evolution being taught to other children in public schools.

Got that right. That's why people whine about "banning prayer" in public schools but not the lack of prayer, say, before you get your drivers license*, Kids have to be in school and they are used to authority, like schools, telling them what's important. Fundie kids are going to pray in school anyway. Fundie kids are going to dispute evolution anyway. But this woudl be the chance for the fundies to force everyone's kid to be taught that.

And the whole banning prayer in public schools is totally fictional anyway. Just official, state-sanctioned prayers. Kids pray in school all the time before their math tests. I did. Nobody stopped me.

* OK Mr. _____ you passed your road test, before I give you your license, we have to say a non-sectarian prayer, you're free to ignore or look bored. Would never happen
posted by xetere at 7:35 AM on February 17, 2007


It can vary a lot from community to community. In some areas, religious schools first became popular as a way to avoid court-ordered desegregation and "busing" in the 1970s.

In some other areas, Catholic schools have a good reputation for quality, and motivation for sending your kids there may have nothing to do with religion.

If I put myself in the place of a person running a private school, if I were to consider marketing the school on ideological or dogmatic values, I might be limiting my pool of possible students. That's not to say that doesn't happen, just that market forces may tend to push schools to be a little more broad in outlook.
posted by gimonca at 7:39 AM on February 17, 2007


I am also a pastor, and I stand alongside Pater Aletheias on this one.
posted by 4ster at 9:09 AM on February 17, 2007


why don't all the "intelligent design" folk just send their kids to private religious schools?

People are raising a lot of other issues in their answers. ID itself however, is a simple enough issue, easily discussed over dinner, and hardly worth the expense of paying for two educational systems or giving up quality of education or failing to socialize your kids. For the vast majority at any rate.

If you're actually wondering why people who don't like their local public schools in general don't go private, well the answer is money. If one could opt out of paying for the public system I believe we'd see stratification along economic lines almost overnight with further subdivisions into race, language, religion, political orientation, and various combinations of those categories soon to follow.
posted by scheptech at 9:18 AM on February 17, 2007


Interesting question

There's the number game: Pater Aletheias already touches on the cost in poorer towns. However, in major cities, it's not uncommon for private education to cost $7-8k for the cheaper post-secondary schooling, with norm prices be in excess of $10k. If you have more than a few kids, that gets very expensive very quickly. However, pricing and payments is a whole other subject.

Also, the majority of private schools I'm aware of teach Evolution.
posted by jmd82 at 9:21 AM on February 17, 2007


I wouldn't be surprised if "intelligent design folks" on average have slightly bigger families than the general population. (And I'm not even talking about the "full quiver" people, who I assume generally homeschool their 17 kids.) So we're not just talking about one private school tuition; we're talking about three or four.
posted by craichead at 9:34 AM on February 17, 2007


I think someone already mentioned this, but keep in mind that in the US you pay for public schooling with your taxes (usually property, sometimes income) regardless of whether your child is in public or private school... or if you even have a kid.

So, while tuition may be, say, $7000 (which is what Seattle Christian Schools charge) a Seattle resident is also paying another $1000+ in property taxes to fund Seattle Schools, and then another $1000 to the state directly or indirectly (through the state's business tax). In other states, there's income tax involved.

Thus, the school voucher movement.

Sometimes, homeschooling just isn't an option. Both parents may be working, whether together or divorced. Maybe the parents don't remember anything about algebra or sentence diagramming, and feel unfit to teach. Unless they have a community homeschooling group, it's not always easy to provide an education even at the level of public schools.

OTOH, homeschoolers are starting to band together more -- regardless of religious beliefs. My mother had next-door neighbors who were very conservative Catholics and homeschooled. They banded together with other homeschooling parents, some hardcore fundamentalists, some raging liberals who thought the school system sucked, to form what became kind of a group buy program. In their case, they were able to find a retired priest who taught Latin for 30 years at a local school, and then had him teach their kids and a few others at their house once a week.
posted by dw at 9:43 AM on February 17, 2007


I think one reason is because most, or at least a significant plurality, of the private christian schools are catholic. A lot of evangelical protestants don't even consider Catholics to be "Christian". Some of them probably wouldn't even send their kids to a school run by any religion other than their particular flavor of christianity.

Also, the school in Donnie Darko is definitely private, though I think secular, or at least only nominally religious.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 9:47 AM on February 17, 2007


I think someone already mentioned this, but keep in mind that in the US you pay for public schooling with your taxes (usually property, sometimes income) regardless of whether your child is in public or private school... or if you even have a kid.

I know what people are saying, in terms of feeling their kids should get the education they want them to, for their tax dollars, but I'll just extend my question a little bit here; primary and secondary education funding in Australia is complex, but essentially, private schools get some tax dollars too - they don't rely completely on the fees parents pay. This may be what makes them relatively cheaper than in the US.

Is this also the case in the US? Or does the religious nature of some private schools preclude them from receiving any tax-payer funding?
posted by Jimbob at 9:55 AM on February 17, 2007


Is this also the case in the US? Or does the religious nature of some private schools preclude them from receiving any tax-payer funding?

The latter is correct, a separation was enforced by the courts for hundreds of years in the name of pluralism, but the religious right recently waged a populist battle for direct funding of church activities such as drug treatment and education, and got them. The voucher system is still unpopular because it asks the government to redundantly fund a school that excludes people based on belief. Consider that the attack on public schools is two-pronged, framing the issue as atheists spreading secular beliefs by their silence of not preaching theirs exclusively.
posted by Brian B. at 10:09 AM on February 17, 2007


Is this also the case in the US? Or does the religious nature of some private schools preclude them from receiving any tax-payer funding?

The Establishment Clause prevents this. You can't use public money for religious instruction. The government does offer Pell Grants and Stafford Loans and HOPE Scholarships that can be used at religious universities for general instruction (i.e. you can get a business degree from Notre Dame with Sallie Mae money, but you can't study to be a priest with that money). If they were to do the same with elementary and secondary education, it would probably be legal, but it will never happen for three reasons:

1. K-12 education has always been seen chiefly as the purview of local and state government. The feds hand out block grants and pay some teacher salaries, but they don't do much more than that. And running a grant/loan program for elementary/secondary schools would cost the feds tens of billions of dollars.

2. The teachers' unions would never allow it to happen. The NEA and AFT sign their contracts with local school districts. Pumping federal money into Pell Grant style programs would break up their power by boosting private schools.

3. The Establishment Clause. Even the hardcore fundies know that this means that if Christian schools are getting federal money, so are madrassahs. And even with this conservative of a Supreme Court they'll overturn anything that benefits one religious group more than another.

So no, private schools don't get tax money, with one exception (voucher programs in certain states). They receive nothing from the Feds because of the Establishment Clause. And unless the Constitution gets thrown out tomorrow, they will never receive federal money.
posted by dw at 10:13 AM on February 17, 2007


I think the magnitude of and potential answers to your question do vary region-by-region. Cost is certainly an issue, but there are plenty of other factors at play as well.

I'm from the Chicago area where private Catholic schools have an enormous presence; many, many of my friends entered the private academic system at high school (my sisters and I went public). This report (.pdf) features some actual census numbers on private school attendance. 17% for Chicago, 18 for New York City, and 21 (!) for Philadelphia. (I would expect that the percentage is a tad higher for high school and a bit lower for grade school based on my own experience.)

My aunt and uncle sent their four daughters through private protestant schools without stressing their budget too much but have also lived in several primarily Dutch Reformed regions of the Midwest (northwestern Iowa and southwest Michigan) where this approach is -in my impression- pretty standard.

Of course, go a little further east in Michigan and you get to Detroit where the census reports only 8% attend private school.

I can also say from experience that many fundamentalist protestants "send" their little cherubs to home school, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated as others have pointed out.

Even in the Midwest there are huge cultural rifts in subregions on the matter of education, and it is a debate that is had in religious communities to no fucking end.

Now, with that established, it's important to realize that in the regions that are most publicly vocal about the creationism-vs-evolutionism topic, the inmates may run the asylum -so to speak-. As someone who grew up in the fairly church-vs-state neutered metropolitan Midwest public school system, it floors me to hear the kind of presence religion has in public schools in certain regions: public prayer, public bible readings, etc. You have to realize that a vast majority of the folks in some areas go so far as to think evolution should be banned from schools. Telling them to just send their kids to private school is a fairly ridiculous notion, since that'd leave two kids in the public schools.

Your idea certainly works (and is fairly commonplace) in some regions but is farcical in others (not to say they are right). Maybe that changes over time, but there will plenty of bickering before that occurs.

A Tangential Anecdote:

Many years ago on a James Dobson radio program, a caller asked the good doctor what he should do about his children's schooling. If I remember correctly, he had a few kids, some collegiate debt and had been laid off and was now working a job where he made far less and his wife was unable to work for whatever reason (might have even been dead); he couldn't afford private school for the kids anymore. Dobson and his cohort told the guy that if he had to work two jobs and work out some discount with the school by doing custodial work for them, that's what he should do because goddammit, it was God's will for his kids to go to Christian school. W T F. It seemed to me that God's will was for the guy's kids to NOT go to Christian school, and I was simply appalled that Dobson refused to even consider the situation in this way. That was one of the fundamental moments of my life that soured me to the Christian community.

Moral of Tangential Anecdote:

God's Will is often misinterpreted as keeping what you have, so if you have prayer and Creation in public school you are sure as shit not going to let it go without a fight.

Private School Movie Recommendation: Saved!

Private School Movie Recommendation 2: Rushmore
posted by pokermonk at 10:28 AM on February 17, 2007


Is this also the case in the US? Or does the religious nature of some private schools preclude them from receiving any tax-payer funding?

The Establishment Clause prevents this. You can't use public money for religious instruction.


It's much more complicated than that. Private religious schools can receive many different kinds of state assistance.

Most obviously, nonprofit religious schools are classed as any nonprofit and receive the usual tax advantages.

Private religious schools can also receive state aid for textbooks or state provided textbooks, money for instructional assistance, money for special-ed or the use of state special-ed teachers, and a variety of other things. Aid to religious schools is largely governed by the "Lemon test," which imposes certain conditions on the aid.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:59 AM on February 17, 2007


[A few comments removed. DO NOT START THIS FIGHT HERE - question is about schools and parental choices.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:02 PM on February 17, 2007


It's much more complicated than that. Private religious schools can receive many different kinds of state assistance.

Well, yes, but the funding examples you cite are nothing like the funding that UK and Australian religious schools get from their governments. Those schools are basically getting money for their operating budgets, while the forms you're citing are targeted for specific uses, e.g. special ed.

And while being a 501(c)(3) organization ensure these schools operate tax-free, public schools don't pay taxes, either.

So, yes, you're right, but the point I was making was that the Establishment Clause blocks the sort of front-door funding of religious schools you see in other countries and what the OP was asking about.
posted by dw at 2:15 PM on February 17, 2007


Point of order, everyone seems to be assuming that Catholic schools will teach Creation or Intelligent Design, and not teach Evolution.

I thought the Catholic church was quite modern thinking when it comes to evolution, and I believe the last Pope said in no uncertain terms that evolution isn't incompatible with religion, and that Intelligent Design isn't good science?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:14 PM on February 18, 2007


« Older My friend's friend saw so-in-so at a Melissa...   |   Pain in the Butt? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.