One expression of “ed choice” in Louisiana, and in other states, has been the influx of charter schools over the past two decades. In the 50s and 60s, there was a push toward private and religious schools. In the 80s there was a substantial growth in home education. In the first decade of this millennium, the new kids on the block are charter schools and magnet schools. This does not mean the others have gone away. Quite the contrary: more families than ever before in Louisiana are homeschooling, more private and religious schools are being created, and more online opportunities are available. However, the newest and shiniest gem in the ed choice chest is charter education. Charter schools use a few things to attract parents:
- Free tuition
- Conventional class schedule
- The context of failing government schools
- A promise of high-quality education
- A commitment to character formation
- Student-centered learning plans
There is much to be said for each of these, but I’d like to briefly address each point from the least important to the most. And I’d like to address them, not as they relate to political freedom but to the religious and doctrinal restraints placed upon Christian parents, or perhaps we could say the freedom and requirement Christian parents have in Christ to educate our children Christianly.
Conventional Class Schedule
While some charter schools operate on a hybrid model, the vast majority utilize the conventional class schedule we have come to know as “school.” This is five days a week, seven hours a day. The majority of that time is spent indoors, in classrooms, now inundated with technology. But a quick survey of child development, human intelligence, civic health, and educational history prove that this model was birthed in an era which put little thought into the civic, intellectual, familial, and spiritual formation of a child. Because the “conventional model” is “school as we know it,” and because the vast majority of parents and even educators have neglected to study the history and philosophy of education, especially in the west, and especially in Christian circles, new schools appear overnight and don’t take the time or effort in getting creative with class structure and a weekly schedule. A model is assumed, and pieces are plugged in. Parents and educators alike do not bother asking whether we can do things better. The conventional class schedule fails to account for the importance of familial, ecclesial, and civic involvement in our child’s formation. On this, charter schools fail.
One of the tag lines on nearly every charter school website is “tuition-free.” While this is true regarding distribution of money directly from parent to institution, it is not true in essence. I often say that there is no such thing as a free education, and the only free education is the one not worth having. While charter schools do not operate on parent-given tuition, they do operate on tuition. The source of that tuition is government-funding. This means tax dollars. And that means compulsory giving to education which someone may not agree with or like or even utilize. South Baton Rouge Charter Academy (SOBA) takes over $7.3M in “state capitation/student” for the 2019/2020 school year. Their revenue total is $8.1M. BASIS Baton Rouge is similar. You can see SOBA’s full budget here.
How do charter schools get state funding? Charter schools must be approved by state-level BESE and parish school boards, and their funding must happen within a state-wide context of legal allowance, voucher redistribution, academic oversight, state standard equivalence, modern assessments and standards, and teacher union power-plays. In essence, charter schools are “free-tuition” because they are government-run schools, even if that infrastructure has slight modifications and has greater initial influence by nation-wide “education companies” operating outside our state. This means that with “free-tuition” comes all the government oversight that has caused conventional “public schools” to fail. As was once said, if you want to deny the world’s trappings, you must first deny the world’s perks, and the shiniest of those perks, in a capitalistic society, always has a dollar sign before it.
A charter school may be “free” to a family, but it is not “free” for a city, for a state, for tax payers, for social, cultural, and theological capital. There is a high cost to allowing and running charter schools, and Christians must think beyond their own family budget when making educational decisions. The “free tuition” fails to account for the real cost of ongoing government-education. On this, charter schools fail.
The Context of Failing Government Schools
Charter schools thrive where conventional government-run school districts do not. The reason charter schools have overtaken the government-run education in New Orleans is because the schools were dead, and there was no better answer after Katrina. It is the same in Baton Rouge. There is an influx of charter school applications to Baton Rouge because public schools are failing. St. George is still vigorously pursuing incorporation, even through litigation, because government-run schools in the parish are failing.
Charter schools, like most ed choice institutions, leverage failing public schools in order to gain their support and base. They tout better facilities, more qualified instructors, the latest educational methods and research, better order, out-of-state and innovative ideas, and higher output, all against a bleak and blistering backdrop of failing government schools. Parents then, out of necessity at times, must move to the charter academy in order to provide their children with what they think is the best education. But, as we will see in a moment, a face lift doesn’t change the essence of a person; a distinction without an essential difference puts us on the same track for educational failure. Imagine a city with thriving, affordable, and world-class academics, far beyond what most charter schools offer, and there would be a much smaller demand for charter schools, if there is a demand at all. As nice of an illusion as it may appear, the context of failing government schools does not mask the real theological, academic, and philosophical problems still within charter education. On this, charter schools fail.
A Commitment to Character Formation
One of the many expressed and obvious failures of contemporary public education is a hyper-focus on college and career readiness (though it doesn’t even do this well). It fails at teaching the whole person, teaching the soul as well as the mind, preparing to be a good human before we try to prepare for standardized testing. But if a school sought to remedy this, to teach the whole child and not just a narrow sliver of them, by what standard does a non-Christian, non-religious institution create lessons and opportunities and requirements for something like character formation? By what ethical standard does an educational institution—which does not teach logic, rhetoric, ethics, politics, philosophy, and religion—come to teach “character formation?” Christian Smith, sociologist and researcher, once recognized that the fastest growing and strongest sentiment among American Christians is something he calls “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD). MTD says something like this, “I’m supposed to be good, because God exists, and God is there to help me feel better.” Smith recognizes that this is a strong sentiment among American Youth in the Church, and he also recognizes that it’s prevalent among our adults. But by what standard is a non-religious institution teaching character formation?
As it turns out, the standard is lower than MTD. It is lower than even the Ancient Greek philosophers would have recognized. The standard for character formation in charter schools is something we may call secular civic humanism. This says that man is the center of the world, we must try to get along, and we must do so without reference to divine authority. But perhaps this is being too generous. “Secular civic humanism” assumes that these schools are not placing the student, the individual child, at the center of the education. But that is precisely the pitch, as will be explained in the next section. So, the real moral baseline for character formation at charter schools is actually secular tolerant individualism: the child then learns “I am the center of the world, we must avoid offense, and we must do so without reference to divine authority.” There is no compatibility between this and the Christian worldview. There is no consistency between raising a child in this ethical framework and also expecting him to love and know the cross of Christ. As the cross teaches us, there is no horizontal formation without vertical formation: all character formation apart from God ends in moral confusion. The character formation in charter schools lacks substance, a lasting standard. On this, charter schools fail.
Student-Centered Learning Plans
Another prized feature of charter schools is student-centered learning. This is no different than what is happening in every modern educational movement of the past fifty years. One recent promo video of one of the largest charter companies in the US ended with “It’s about the children!” and the preceding shots highlighted how student-centered their schools are. However, this is antithetical to a Christian worldview, a Christian philosophy of education, and even a good philosophy of education. The school which says “It’s about the children,” is the least equipped to teach children. At its core, education cannot be about the children, because education must always be about something much larger than the child, longer lasting than the child, something to which not just the child but all of society must conform. The school which says “It’s about the children” will not only fail at fulfilling that promise, they will fail at truly educating the child. Add to this the apparent value and present confusion charter schools have about critical thinking, and we see that a Christian child who enters a charter school will be entering a land that is incompatible with Christian doctrine and practice, and they will be deeply formed in and by that land.
If Christ is not the center of the universe, than the individual is. The individual controls their destiny. The individual determines something’s value and worth. The individual is the measure of all things. But this is not how we learned Christ, and it does not set a young man or young woman up for submitting to things larger than themselves, to conforming to an image that is beyond their own subjectivity. If the child is the center of the classroom, then education is merely an echo chamber, an alley of affirmations the adults must construct day after day, ensuring the child’s tastes are satiated, tastes which change according to every wind of doctrine that may flash on the screen of their smartphones. There is plenty to be said here, but all that needs to be said for our purposes is that a child who spends the majority of their waking hours in these waters will struggle mightily to think, believe, and act otherwise as adults. As C.S. Lewis once said, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
In 1963, Flannery O’Connor addressed the claim that “students do not like to read the fusty works of the nineteenth century, that their attention can best be held by novels dealing with their realities of our own time.” Her response:
“English teachers come in Good, Bad, and Indifferent, but too frequently in high schools anyone who can speak English is allowed to teach it. Since several novels can't easily be gathered into one textbook, the fiction that students are assigned depends upon their teacher’s knowledge, ability, and taste: variable factors at best. More often than not, the teacher assigns what he thinks will hold the attention and interest of the students. Modern fiction will certainly hold it.
“Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning, but that is a part of the problem with which I am not equipped to deal. The devil of Educationism that possesses us is the kind that can be ‘cast out only by prayer and fasting.’ No one has yet come along strong enough to do it. In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular but if he prefers [John] Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.
“I would like to put forward the proposition, repugnant to most English teachers, that fiction, if it is going to be taught in high schools, should be taught as a subject and as a subject with a history. The total effect of a novel depends not only on its innate impact, but upon the experience, literary and otherwise, with which it is approached. No child needs to be assigned Hersey or Steinbeck until he is familiar with a certain amount of the best work of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, the early James, and Crane, and he does not need to be assigned these until he has been introduced to some of the better English novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
“The fact that these works do not present him with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time, and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them. Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable. . . . ”
“The high school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.
“And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.” [from Flannery O’Connor’s “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade,” published in The Georgia Bulletin in 1963, reprinted in Mystery and Manners (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961)]
The student-centered learning plan lacks merit and does more harm than good to the student. On this, charter schools fail.
A Promise of High-Quality Education
What goes into a good education? The ancients and the medievals—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Alcuin, Hugh of St. Victor, Petrarch, Boethius, Bruni, de Pizan, Rabelais, Erasmus, Aquinas, at alii—did not leave us in the dark on the blueprint or purpose or aim or methods or principles of a great education. They handed it down to us, and we don’t even know it was once there. Our education departments, our schools, the majority of our seminaries, fail to give these authorities and sources to students, parents, and future educators. And so we are left to feel about in the dark, in a room which has been stripped of its furniture, in a home which has had its décor, architecture, and very foundation stolen. If we want to test whether a charter school is indeed going to keep its promise for a high education, let us test it by the five academic competencies,
- Thinking. Will students take core classes in logic, the art and science of reasoning well? Formal logic? Informal logic? Symbolic logic? Will the architecture of their mind be formed by basic courses in linguistics, like Latin? Will they be acquainted with core philosophical writings and enduring questions on humanity, knowledge, goodness, happiness, truth, beauty, love, faith, courage, and civility? Will the student learn to order and discern their thoughts or simply learn to identify and speak them?
- Speaking. Will the students take courses in classical rhetoric, the art and science of speaking well? Will the students be required to present and defend controversial topics? Will the students be required to memorize Scripture, poetry, and great speeches, and to present them for assessment along with and in front of their peers? Will the students study the works of great orators, and consider a biblical conception of speech?
- Writing. Will students read the best writers of our tradition? Will the students read the classics? Will students write argumentative prose in the great rhetorical tradition? Will the students learn and write poetry each year? Will students memorize and recite prose and poetry, so they can emulate in their writing? Will students learn how to distinguish grammar, eloquence, and content of their own writing? Will they be accountable for their writing beyond mere affirmation of personal expression?
- Listening. Will students learn to listen to lectures? Will they be required to listen carefully and with discernment to classmates during in-class debates? Will students be required to sit long enough to listen and take notes? Will students be required to obey quickly and joyfully to authorities figures who love them and want the best for them? Will students have technological distractions minimized in the classroom to facilitate better listening habits?
- Reading. Will students read a lot and read often? Will students read great literature or only familiar literature? Will students read across a wide range of literary genres? Will students learn about the Bible as literature? Will students compare all their literature to Biblical literary features and teaching? Will students be read to? Will students be required to read aloud? Will students be in homes which care much for reading?
A charter school may promise high-quality education, but if it not pursuing excellence in these five academic competencies, it will not deliver on its promise. When charter schools enter the context of failing public schools, of course they look promising. But when we compare them with a great education, with an education worthy of Christian children, of Christian families, charter schools fail. And they fail fully. They don’t just fail to teach the Bible as holy and sacred literature. They fail to disciple our children in the Lord; they fail to buttress the discipleship, catechesis, and formation our Christian children should be getting at home and at church. The promise of high-quality education in charter schools is not met with the curriculum, pedagogy, staff, or purpose which make a high-quality education a reality. On this, charter schools fail.
Martin Luther once said, “I advise no one to place his child where the Scriptures do not reign paramount. Every institution in which men are not increasingly occupied with the Word of God must become corrupt…..I am much afraid that schools will prove to be the great gates of hell unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures, engraving them in the hearts of youth.”
Gordon H. Clark once said, “The school system that ignores God teaches its pupils to ignore God; and this is not neutrality. It is the worst form of antagonism, for it judges God to be unimportant and irrelevant in human affairs. This is atheism.”
Harvard’s Rules and Precepts, to our great surprise, once said, “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”
J. Gresham Machen states, “A truly Christian education is possible only when Christian education underlies not a part, but all, of the curriculum of the school. True learning and true piety go hand in hand, and Christianity embraces the whole of life – those are great central convictions that underlie the Christian school.”
Charter schools are not neutral. They are not classical, and they are not Christian. Charter schools may be a shining win to the alternative: government-coerced and government-run schools. But charter schools are far from the kinds of schools Christians should be supporting, building, and sending our children to. Douglas Wilson once said, “Education is a religious endeavor for every student. ‘Make that godless, and his life is made godless.’ In the nineteenth century, secular education was established because many Christians were fatally persuaded of the myth of neutrality. They were told that there were many areas of life that could be studied apart from any reference to the authority of Scripture…Christian education cannot be sustained apart from the exclusive worship of the Triune God.” (The Case for Classical Christian Education by Douglas Wilson). Christians ought to re-think charter schools in their city. We ought to re-examine what it means to educate our children, and we had better, if we want to take education seriously, be courageous in building the kinds of schools which are worthy of fulfilling the great responsibility we have as Christian parents to “raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
Further Suggested Reading
“It’s Not Classical and Christian” by Patch Blakey
The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
Excused Absence: Should Christian Kids Leave Public School? by Douglas Wilson
The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers
None Dare Call It Education: What’s Happening to Our Schools and Our Children? by John Stormer
The Story-Killers: A Common Sense Case against the Common Core by Terrence O’ Moore