Should parents be able to dictate what schools teach their children? Should schools be able to hide information about a student from their parents? What rights and responsibilities do parents have when it comes to engaging the public schools in their area? These are not new questions for Christian parents, but the frequency with which they are being asked seems to have grown significantly in recent years.
Three years ago, our family moved to a new ministry assignment in a familiar location. We moved to my wife’s hometown to work at our alma mater, but nearly 20 years had passed since either one of us had lived there. We weren’t the same people moving back either. When we left, we both had just earned college degrees and had not yet married. When we arrived back two decades later, we had married, lived in two other states, and had four children—all of whom were about to enroll in a different school for the first time. What lay before us was the monumental responsibility of choosing what the next stage of our children’s education would look like.
We are not alone in making these types of decisions. And our choice to enroll our children in the local public school system (a first for us) did not come without some fear in light of the unknown. For us the decision has been a good one. Our children have benefited from excellent academic and extracurricular opportunities. In addition, they have learned what it looks like to live out their faith in a environment that is not exclusively Christian. Even with these benefits, the most important part of our decision is that it came with intentional choices on our part to be involved parents.
So how should we exercise our rights as parents and engage our local school systems without burning bridges to these core institutions in our communities? Let me share a few lessons we have learned in the last three years as we have engaged a new school system.
Get to know your school’s leaders. When we moved back to my wife’s hometown, there was a sense that we would know everyone. In fact, our kids constantly rolled their eyes as we would walk into the grocery store or a local restaurant and run into people that we knew from college or that my wife knew from growing up. But we also quickly realized that so much had changed. From the beginning, we made an effort to get to know leaders at every level of our schools. I had a phone call with the varsity girls’ soccer coach within days of moving here. We went to “meet the teacher” events. We eventually got to know the administrators at the various schools in town and even built relationships with some of the school board members. Today, if I had a concern with something at one of our schools, there is a teacher, a principal, a coach, or a school board member that I can call because I have a relationship with them.
Ask questions. This can happen at any level of the school system. I’ve asked questions of teachers, coaches, office personnel, principals, and school board members. Sometimes I get responses right away. Sometimes they say they need to get back with me. Because I have built relationships with them (see #1), I am confident they will reply with honest answers. These relationships mean that I have built a trust with them and they with me, so that these questions are received in good faith, not as hostile or accusatory, but aimed at what is best for my children.
Be constructive in your criticism. At the beginning of this semester one of our children brought home a form to be signed that listed potential books that would be read in class for the year. In reviewing the list with my wife, we came to the conclusion that a couple were not our preference, but one was certainly problematic. Rather than firing off a critical email to the teacher and talking about how this teacher could be corrupting the children in the classroom, my wife sent an email expressing our concern with the book in question and offering a few alternative options for our child that could stand in place of that particular book. The next day she received a kind response explaining that the teacher had decided not to assign that book to the class and that they would be reading something else that did not undermine our convictions. The teacher even thanked my wife for expressing her concern.
Stand up for your children. The previous three lessons all point to this one as the culmination. Building relationships, asking questions, and constructive criticism all serve the purpose of standing up for your children. There is a time and place for various actions to meet this goal. This can mean making a public statement in a school board meeting. It could involve scheduling a meeting with a teacher. It could even reach the point of changing the educational option for your children. At the end of the day, these are your children whom God has entrusted into your care.
As we are experiencing with a senior in high school this year, we only have our children under our roof for a limited time before we launch them out as arrows into the world (Psalm 127:4). What they likely encounter in their schools and our neighborhoods and what they will face in the world requires that we diligently and prayerfully disciple and equip them with a biblical worldview to the best of our ability. We owe it to them and to our communities, and ultimately to the Lord, to engage the process of their education. And we can do so in such a way that prepares them for a life of worship — loving God and loving our neighbors — and demonstrates a healthy and biblical civic engagement at the same time.