Sabotaging the Lighthouse

As I alluded to at the end of the last post, there is considerable disagreement among Christians over the way in which Christian parents should respond to the reality of public school education. These differences of opinion are clear in the first three letters printed in the Mailbag section of the October 19, 2013 issue of WORLD Magazine. All three are in response to the September 7 issue of WORLD, their “Back to School” issue.

The first letter, from a gentleman in California, says, “The questions and issues listed on your Sept. 7 cover are vital ones that I fear too many, even Christian parents, are unaware of. Do we understand scientism? Do we discern that all schools teach secular humanism in the state systems?” Without coming right out and saying so he certainly seems to be of the opinion that the public school is not a safe environment for Christian children because of the worldview that is presented.

The second letter, however, refutes any assertion that Christians should abandon the public schools. “My husband is a minister and I teach in the public school system,” writes a lady from Missouri. “Our four children thrived in public schools because we taught them Christian values. Things have gotten bad, but if Christians continue to withdraw, schools will only get worse. My children and I are missionaries every day.” This is perhaps the most common objection I hear from Christian parents who do not want to remove their children from public schools. As I have indicated before, I believe each parent is ultimately charged by God with raising their own children and I cannot clearly know God’s will for anyone else, so I am not going to suggest that everyone who holds to this position is wrong. I will suggest, however, that the number of Christian children who are “missionaries” in the public schools pales in comparison to the number of public schools that are missionaries to the Christian students that attend them. By that, I mean that more often than not I think the school influences the students more than the students influence the school.

I heard Cal Thomas address this issue a few years ago. At that time he stated that ninety percent of Christian children go to public schools. I am not sure where he got that figure, but I suspect it is not far off. One of the things he said about the assertion made by the wife and mother in Missouri that the influence of public schools can be countered by teaching them Christian values at home stuck with me. He said, “You wouldn’t send your children off with a healthy breakfast and be unconcerned if they ate lead paint for lunch.” The same, he said, is true intellectually, spiritually and morally when students go to public schools. I would have to agree; after all, students are almost certainly getting more direct instruction from their schools than they are from their parents; even the best case scenario might be only fifty-fifty. So why would Christian parents concerned about the development of their students knowingly and willingly send their children to an environment in which much of what they learn, or at least the perspective from which they learn it, is in opposition to what the parents believe and the Bible teaches?

To the point of being missionaries or ambassadors in the public school setting, I think there is a tremendous amount of merit to that argument for Christian adults working in public schools. I think the weight of that argument diminishes exponentially when talking about children. It is not coincidental that the United States does not send children or teenagers as ambassadors to other nations. I realize that is not a perfect example, and yes, children and teens can absolutely be salt and light in the world. Truth be told, I was probably more bold about sharing my faith with strangers as a child than I am now, much to my own dismay. This argument is flawed, though, because children and teens are still having their faith, their worldview and their understanding shaped. They are still extremely susceptible to influences and their minds are still quite pliable.

I have always considered lighthouses to be a terrific metaphor for Christians and the role that Christians are to have in the world. A lighthouse was a carefully constructed building. The bricks needed to be placed correctly and secured carefully in order to build the structure up high enough for its light to be seen from a distance. It also needed to be strong enough to support the staircase that wrapped its way around the inside of the light tower so that the keeper could make his regular trips up and down the stairs. If the tower fell, the light would be useless. If the stairs collapsed and the keeper could not light the light (in the days before automation) the light would be useless. In other words, the light itself only had any value if the lighthouse itself was securely constructed. There might be a perfectly goof Fresnel lens sitting on top of the lighthouse, or sitting on the ground next to a lighthouse being constructed, but without the properly constructed light and usable stairs within the tower the light would be worthless.

The same is true of Christians. The light the we have is perfect and good and complete, because the light that we have is the Gospel message, the truth of God’s Word. But if our towers are faulty, if we cannot or do not light the light, the light in our towers is worthless.

No one charged with the task of constructing a lighthouse would spend mornings, evenings and weekends constructing the tower and knowingly and willingly allow another person or group of people to spend six to eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, sabotaging the tower he was building. Imagine how long it would take to construct that lighthouse! Think of the adage two steps forward, one step backward. Even worse, think of one step forward, two steps backward. The one charged with building the tower would have to spend so much time repairing and fixing what he had already done that he would seldom if ever make progress in building the tower higher. Getting to the point where the lighthouse was complete and the light could accomplish its purpose would take an extremely long time! This is exactly what happens when Christian students go to public schools. They have a light to show to the world, but it is seldom visible because the world is continually sabotaging their tower by attacking and undermining their faith and their worldview.

I always find it particularly troubling when parents send their children to Christian school for elementary and perhaps even junior high school and then send them off to public school for their high school years. More often than not this is due to the athletic, music and other co-curricular activities that public schools offer than many Christian schools cannot (or not at the same level). Sometimes it is also because parents question whether or not the academic in the Christian school are as rigorous as those in the public schools. Regardless of the reason, I find the decision incredibly uninformed. Teenagers are perhaps more susceptible to the influence of others than any other humans. They are already trying to figure out who they are and what they think. They are already prone to question authority and what they have been raised to do, think and believe. Why in the world would a Christian parent insert their child into an environment where they are surrounded by the influences of the world at exactly that age? Quite simply, I don’t get it.

I mentioned three letters published in WORLD. I will talk about the point made in the third one next time.

“Social Indoctrination”

No small part of the reason that public schooling has, in my mind, all but ceased to be an option for Christian parents is the increasing desire on the part of public schools to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable–which is, in fact, doing exactly the opposite.

California should almost never be used as an example for anything since it tends to be such a unique entity all on its own, but the foolishness going on there with the gender identity issue is a good example of the kind of thing I am talking about. As you have likely heard, and as I have addressed here before, California enacted legislation that permits transgender students to choose which restroom they want to use and whether to play boys or girls sports. Writing just this morning on this issue CBN Chief Political Correspondent David Brody said, “Critics say it’s all cloaked under the guise of fairness. But supporters say it’s important that transgender students feel comfortable and not isolated.”

That “cloak of fairness” is where the problem comes in. In this instance it pertains to gender identity. In other instances it pertains to sexual preference or religious belief or almost anything you may want to put in the blank other than conservative Christian beliefs. Somehow, the “cloak of fairness” does not seem to extend to evangelical Christians–no doubt because they are considered to be intolerant.

We all know life is not fair. Never has been, and never will be. That does not mean that public schools (or non-public schools, for that matter) should abandon any effort to be fair and equitable in decision making and policy enforcement. The reality, though, is that the “fairness” public schools seem to scrambling for is anything but fair. The first part of dictionary.com’s definition of “fair” reads like this: “free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice.” What the schools in California are doing with their gender identity policies is hardly free from bias. What it is, in fact, is biased in favor of any student who claims to feel like the gender he or she was not born.

The CBN article quotes California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, defending the legislation, as saying, “No student can learn if they feel like they have to hide who they are at school or [are] singled out for unequal treatment.” Absent from that silliness is the reality that no student can learn if they feel like they have to hide at school. I have no doubt that some young girls in California are quite concerned–scared, even–of using the bathrooms at their public schools for fear that a boy will come in to that bathroom. I doubt seriously that their fears are alleviated by the fact that any boy who does so supposedly identifies himself as being a girl. I am certain there are girls who will not join sports teams, or will join and have their play impacted, because there are biological boys who feel like girls playing on the team. I am sure there are boys who will not join sports teams, or will play differently than they would if only boys were playing, because girls who self-identify as boys are permitted to play on the team, too. In order to avoid having what are undoubtedly a very small number of students who claim that they were born with the wrong plumbing feel like they are treated unfairly every other student in the California public school system is treated unfairly instead.

Interestingly, the CBN article also includes a statement from a transgender student named Ashton Lee. I am not sure if Ashton is a biological boy or girl, but here is the statement Ashton made (notice I cannot even use a pronoun because of the ambiguity): “It’s going to take away that extra pressure of not knowing where to go and not knowing what classes you’re going to be in and not being treated the same as all the other boys and girls in your school.” Do you see the irony in that statement? Ashton favors this legislation because as a result of it Ashton will not have to worry about being treated the same as all of the other boys and girls! Translation: Ashton will be treated differently. More specifically, Ashton will have greater privileges and “rights” than the “other boys and girls.” So much for fair and unbiased, huh?

California Republican Tim Donnelly, a member of the state legislature, has taken his 13-year-old son out of the California public school system. Why? “The public schools are no longer interested in education,” he said. He continued that his son is “not going back to the junior high school for more of this social indoctrination. To me, they ought to be talking about reading, writing and arithmetic, not sexual identity politics.” Can I get an Amen?

This is the kind of thing that has, more than anything else, made public schooling a non-option for Christian parents. Once the truth of God’s Word has been abandoned there is no longer any guide for right and wrong. When there is no absolute standard for right and wrong those things become defined by whoever is in power. When those in power decide that what is right is for the whims of a miniscule few to override the rights of the overwhelming majority the only thing for the majority to do is take back control. That is what Donnelly hopes to see happen in California; if a half million signatures can be collected, the issue will go before voters next November in a referendum. I hope that happens, and that the law is overturned, but unfortunately, even if that does happen, public schools are not going to be much better for Christian children any time soon, if ever again.

Some people, though argue that leaving the public schools in response is exactly what Christian parents and students should not be doing because they need to be ambassadors for Christ, to be salt and light in their public schools. Why this is a flawed argument will be the subject next time….

“…the answer is increasingly no.”

Al Mohler begins his article “Is Public School An Option?” with this questions and statement: “Should Christian parents send their children to the public schools? This question has emerged as one of the most controversial debates of our times.” As I suggested in the previous post, I would have said “sure” if asked this question anytime prior to the early part of this century, and that was even after I had spent three years teaching in a Christian school. I felt that I had turned out just fine having attended public schools my whole life and, frankly, what I had heard and seen of some homeschooling and Christian school education made me cringe. I was convinced that public school education was usually more rigorous and better prepared students to be lifelong learners. Bottom line, I thought public school education was more legitimate.

Mohler writes, “Until fairly recently, exceptions to this rule [the expectation that parents would send their children to public schools] have been seen as profoundly un-democratic and practically un-American. Homeschoolers were seen as marginal eccentrics, Catholics were seen as hopelessly sectarian, and those who sent their children to private schools were seen as elitist snobs.” Perhaps not exactly, but that fit my way of thinking pretty well.

Of course, as Mohler also points out, public education in America was under the oversight and influence of parents and the local community for hundreds of years; “public schools were public in the sense that they were community schools maintained for and by the citizens of a community.” That way of thinking has certainly changed, and beginning with John Dewey the influence of the parents and local community members on the curriculum and policies of the local schools has significantly diminished.

As Mohler states, “decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court secularized schools in a way that separated the schools from their communities and families.” Of course I am not old enough to remember when there was prayer and Bible reading in school, so that removal happened before I came along. And in that small Midwestern town where I went to high school there was still release time once a week when students could leave the public school during the school day and go for an hour to the church of their choice for “religious instruction.” Students who did not wish to go could stay at school for a study hall. My public high school choir performed their year-end concert in a church and the performances included doctrinally-sound Christian hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” So maybe my experience had not been the norm… And maybe the decreasing influence of the local community had not become the reality in the Midwest yet by the time I graduated high school.

What eventually changed my mind about public schools as a viable option and the legitimacy of homeschooling and Christian schools was the realization that schools were not ideologically neutral, which I had deluded myself into thinking they could be. Mohler writes, “The ideological revolution has been even more damaging than the political change. Those who set educational policy are now overwhelmingly committed to a radically naturalistic and evolutionistic worldview that sees the schools as engines of social revolution. The classrooms are being transformed rapidly into laboratories for ideological experimentation and indoctrination.” If I may be so bold I would disagree with Mohler on that last part, because I am now convinced that classrooms have not been transformed into “laboratories for…indoctrination” but rather always have been. “Indoctrination” means “the act of indoctrinating, or teaching or inculcating a doctrine, principle, or ideology, especially one with a specific point of view.” Public schools have always done that because it is impossible to teach without doing it. Christian schools do it, too; in fact, that is the whole reason most parents who send their children to Christian schools do so!

Am I suggesting that it is not possible to take a non-ideological position on any subject or that a teacher cannot impartially present information to students? No; that can be done–though it often takes real intentionality to do. What I am suggesting is that every teacher has a belief system, a worldview, that influences their way of thinking about every subject, and that worldview comes through in their teaching.

What has happened is that the right and wrong that public schools used to teach have become various versions of right and debate over wrong because everything is relative. What has happened to the public schools is the removal of certainty and absolutes and facts and the substitution of questioning and relativism and opinion. This is what has led to the ridiculous stories we hear and read about graphic sex ed classes, infringement of student rights to gather or pray or express a minority viewpoint and the support by public education leaders for teaching an acceptance and even and embrace of sinful behavior.

What caused me to change my mind about public schools, and to pretty well determine that my own children will never attend a public school, was the realization that what the schools teach–even the decent ones–is almost always taught from a perspective and toward and end that is completely at odds with what I believe and what I want my children to believe; specifically, what the Bible says. Local control of public schools is increasingly rare. There is more local (and school-level) control than many of the loudest conservative voices claim there is, but it is not enough. The tidal wave of mental manipulation and cconvictionless character has crashed into the public school system and as the water settles the ruins are increasingly visible.

Paula Bolyard, blogging for PJ Lifestyle, has responded to Mohler’s article, too. She correctly writes, “This is one of the most difficult questions a Christian family must wrestle with as school curriculum and speech and behavior codes increasingly stand in opposition to Christian teachings.” I am not by any means attempting to make light of this issue or suggest that it is an easy decision. There are people I know well and respect (indeed, people I am related to) who have chosen to send their children to public schools, and I am not sitting in judgment of them. I personally think that many of their reasons are flawed, but that does not mean they do not hold them sincerely. I will address some of these arguments in a future post.

I think what it comes down to is this assertion by Bolyard: “The stakes are very high. Consider the effects of thirty or more hours a week in a government school where you have no control over what your children are taught — where your local teachers have little or no control over the content of their lessons. Where the federal bureaucrats — many of whom have antipathy toward your Christian values — dictate what your children learn, all day long. How much time are you willing to invest in debriefing your children?” That’s just it. Students will spend some fifteen thousand hours of their lives–their most formative years–in school. Does it make any sense for me to knowingly and willingly place my children for that length of time into an environment that I cannot control and that I increasingly am in opposition to? I don’t think so. If I do, I will have to deal with these candid questions Bolyard asks: “How will you convince them that you are the authority on any given subject — that what you’re teaching them is right — and not their teachers? Is it fair to put a young child in the position of choosing between what their teacher is telling them and what their parents and Sunday school teachers say?”

Nearing the end of his article Mohler asks and answers the question that is the basis for the entire article. “Is public school an option? For Christians who take the Christian worldview seriously and who understand the issues at stake, the answer is increasingly no.” I absolutely agree. In fact, I may well have left the word “increasingly.”

Changing My Mind

Now back to our previously scheduled programming…I will resume my multi-entry look at education in America.

In the October-December 2013 issue of Answers Magazine Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. wrote an article entitled, “Is Public School an Option?” The title of the article struck me for two main reasons: (1) As a Christian school administrator I was curious to read what Mohler would say, and (2) I am well aware that my own position on this question has changed completely in the past decade and a half. Mohler writes, “I spent every minute of my school life from the first grade to high school graduation in a public school.” I can say the same thing, but throw in kindergarten for me, too.

I had some cousins who attend Christian schools, but they did not live in my community. Other than them, I do not recall knowing anyone who went to a Christian school. I grew up being in church every time the doors were open. No one in the two churches our family attended between my ages five and thirteen attended Christian schools that I know of. I surely do not remember anyone who was homeschooled, either. When I was thirteen my family moved from just outside of Washington, D.C. to a town of 20,000 in the upper Midwest. (At the time I thought that had to be the smallest town in the country. Ironic, given that I now live thirteen miles outside of a town of about fifteen hundred people…not all that much bigger than my high school in that town of twenty thousand!) I was satisfied with my education in public schools. I had good teachers, there were minimal blatantly unbiblical influences that I recall, and only once do I remember my parents having me “opt out” of viewing a movie that was being shown in class. I went on to attend a private college, but not a Christian one.

Interestingly, after college I was teaching in a Christian school and even then I was adamant that there was nothing wrong with most public schools. Given that I was back in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I was well aware that there were some poor public schools (and some dangerous ones) but I was not a die-heard devotee of the Christian school movement. I was even further away from the homeschooling movement. I was skeptical of the ability of most parents to effectively teach their children, skeptical of the quality of the education those children who were homeschooled were receiving, and skeptical of the futures those homeschooled children would have. I can remember telling my wife early in our marriage that if we ever had children we would not homeschool them and I was not even sure I would send them to Christian school. This was a bit brazen for me to say given that my wife had only ever attended Christian schools until she was in high school when her parents began homeschooling her and her five younger siblings. My in-laws were, in fact, still homeschooling until the end of the last school year.

In the years since then my mindset has changed dramatically. I have been married for fourteen years and now have two children, neither of whom has ever attended a public school. We have homeschooled and both are now in a Christian school where I am also the administrator. How did my mind change so completely? What does Al Mohler have to say in his article, and do I agree or disagree with him? Come back next time to find out….

True Education

My plan is to spend the next several entries addressing education. For starters I would like to reflect on an article R.C. Sproul, Jr. wrote for the May 2013 issue of Tabletalk entitled “The School of Christ.”

Sproul correctly points out that “it is not hard to complain about the government’s schools,” and that just about everyone seems to have something to complain about–atheists complain about prayers, Christians complain about sex education and everyone complains about graduation rates and standardized test scores. From there, though, Sproul makes an assertion that many will undoubtedly find startling: he says that American schools “are not actually designed to train up scholars…their goal is neither intellectual nor moral giants. Rather, they function to prepare men and women to work.” He continues, “The entire system looks at children as if they were widgets, entering the education factory as toddlers and coming out the other side when they are grown.”

Sproul takes issue with this approach and, whether or not you agree that schools operate this way, I suspect you would, too. “This is not how God designed the rearing of children,” Sproul writes. “To be sure, our children must learn things, but they are not so much widgets in a factory as they are plants around our tables (Psalm 128). They are not products to be manufactured but lives to be nurtured.”

One obvious problem with the widget approach is that widgets are produced best and most efficiently when there is a system that treats every widget exactly the same, replicating the same process hundreds or thousands of times a day, day after day, month after month. Once in a while an improvement or adjustment comes along, and the improvement or adjustment is input into the system, calibrations are altered, and every widget thereafter has the exact same improvement or adjustment. The workers have no personal relationship with or attachment to the individual widgets; their sole concern is that the machinery works properly, the procedures are followed precisely, and the product output is maintained if not increased. Children cannot be treated this way. Well, they can be, actually, but treating children this way will have the exact opposite effect as treating widgets this way. Rather than increasing productivity, efficiency and consistency this approach will hinder learning, frustrate children and result in little if any learning.

Another problem with this approach though, and the one that Sproul dwells on, is that the Bible addresses the responsibility of raising and teaching children by using “natural and organic terms, rather than mechanical or industrial terms.” In other words, education, properly done, cannot be confined to the hours between the first and last bell of the school day like manufacturing can be restricted to the time between the first and last bell of the work day. Referencing Moses and Old Testament instruction for teaching children Sproul writes that parents are to provide their children with “an immersive educational experience–we are to talk about the things of God with our children always and everywhere. The things of God are to be the very warp and woof of our daily conversation.”

The greatest (read biggest) part of that responsibility for parents to recognize and accept that the education of their children is their responsibility. The education of children is not the job of the state, is not the job of the pastor, youth pastor or Sunday school teacher, and is not even the job of the tutor or teacher. Minus the state, each of those individuals can have a role and an influence on the education of children, but the responsibility is ultimately and preeminently on parents. As an educator I am obviously not opposed to schools or advocating that every parent homeschool their children (though homeschooling is a terrific option for many families). What I am advocating is the point that Sproul is making–that parents must see the school and the church the same way they see the doctor and the coach. The school and the church are important pieces of the education of children and they each play specific and necessary roles. So too does the doctor and the coach. These individuals have expertise (or, in the case of the coach, a willingness even if the expertise is lacking) that can benefit children when they are sick or are engaging in athletic activity. But those roles are finite and restricted. Parents, on the other hand, have a never-ending role.

Regarding the command in the Shema to talk to their children about the things of God all the time, Sproul writes, “in order to do this, of course, we who are parents first must be thinking about the things of God all the time. Most of us are the products of schools that taught us to divide our lives, to separate what we think about Jesus and what we think about our work, to separate what we think about our work and what we think about our play. We give time to Jesus on Sundays, perhaps on Wednesday nights, and, if we are particularly pious, every day during our quiet times. These all may be terribly good things, but not if they are hermetically sealed. We dare not believe that Jesus matters only during these times while he is beside the point the rest of our days.”

This is true education. Dictionary.com defines education as “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” As significant a chunk of the early lives of children as the 15,000 hours they will spend in school may be, it is not sufficient by itself to accomplish that task, regardless of how terrific the school may be. Many of the next few entries will address the formal education that takes place in institutions of learning, but I felt it important to state that education is, first and foremost, the responsibility of parents. It is an incredible responsibility but it is also a tremendous privilege. Think about it…God Himself knits together little lives and then hands them to human beings and entrusts them with the power of molding and shaping that life, of educating that human being. Between you and me, if I were God I think I would deliver the little ones pre-programmed. But I am not God (for which we can all be grateful!), and He has chosen to give the task of educating children to the parents. Do not take that role lightly, do not abandon it to others. Seize it!

The Real World

I have one other issue with the column I addressed yesterday by Joy Pullman on the topic of online education. At the conclusion of the column Pullman quotes Angelika Weiss, the pastor’s wife and homeschooling mother of four from southern Minnesota who provided most of the material for Pullman’s column, saying this: “With online education, there is so much time not wasted in the classroom. My son can be out in the community volunteering or working. Let’s face it: The inside of a classroom isn’t the real world.”

That’s true, Mrs. Weiss, the inside of a classroom is not the real world. But then neither is the inside of a church. Should we all skip church on Sunday morning so we can spend more time working or maybe volunteering in the community? After all, we can read the Bible on our own, listen to Christian radio and watch or listen to sermons from respected pastors on our computers, so why go to church? Going somewhere where everyone either professes to be a Christian or to be open to the gospel, where we sit in classrooms to study the Bible together and in pews or padded chairs to sing hymns and praise songs before listening to someone teach the Bible…none of those things are anything like “the real world.” Given that Mrs. Weiss’s husband is a pastor, though, I suspect it would be safe to assume that neither she nor her husband would agree that we should all skip church in order to avoid “wasted time.”

Now I can already hear Mrs. Weiss and others responding with utter shock that I would suggest such a thing. “That’s not the same,” I can hear. Really? And why not, may I ask? Why do we go to church anyway? I mean sure, the Bible says we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together but why not? What do we get by going to church with fellow believers that we cannot get by staying at home and tapping into the multitude of resources available online, on TV, on radio and in print? We get interaction with other human beings. We get the accountability. We get the fellowship. We get to talk and question and wrestle with how to deal with “the real world” when we leave the church. With all due respect to my pastor and yours, I could find “better sermons” from “better preachers” than I am going to get when I go to church (and the people who sit and listen to me when I preach surely could!) but that does not mean I should skip church.

Sitting in a classroom may not be “the real world,” but it does prepare students for the real world. As with church, the experience of being in a school with other students–and teachers–provides a much richer educational opportunity than does sitting in front of a computer screen and interacting through typed text. That kind of interaction has its place, don’t get me wrong–and the opportunity to interact with people from around the country and around the world makes that kind of interaction very valuable as an element of a well rounded education. But I would suggest to Mrs. Weiss and to anyone else who laments the “wasted time” in school classrooms that–at least in a good school with effective teachers–there is not really much time that is truly wasted…and even that which might be is probably far better than the multitude of other ways students waste time every day.

The Right to Read

In an attempt to force a unique application of an obscure law in Michigan, the ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Michigan and a school district in Detroit, claiming that the state and the district have not educated the students in the district schools at an adequate level, and have therefore violated the students’ “right to learn to read.” According to the lawsuit, there are hundreds of students in the Highland Park School District that are “functionally illiterate.”

Quoted in an article in the Washington Post, Kary L. Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said, “None of those adults charged with the care of these children . . . have done their jobs.” Moss alleged that the Highland Park district–a district consisting of only three schools–is one of the lowest performing districts in the nation.

The lawsuit is attempting to apply a 1993 Michigan law requiring that students receive special assistance if they are not proficient in reading according to standardized tests given in grades 4 and 7. The “special assistance” in question is supposed to bring the less-than-proficient students up to grade level reading proficiency within one year.

While there are samples of the writing efforts of several students provided in the story in The Washington Post, one getting the bulk of the attention in that article is a young man named Quentin. Quentin just finished seventh grade, but according to ACLU experts reads at only a first grade level. Students were asked to write a letter to Michigan governor Rick Snyder with suggestions for improving their schools. Quentin’s effort reads: ““My name is Quemtin [last name blacked out] and you can make the school gooder by geting people that will do the jod that is pay for get a football tame for the kinds mybe a baksball tamoe get a other jamtacher for the school get a lot of tacher.” (There is a link in the article on washingtonpost.com where other examples of student letetrs can be viewed).

Quentin’s writing sample is both disheartening and frustrating. According to the WP article, 65 percent of fourth-graders and 75 percent of seventh-graders in Highland Park are not proficient in reading according to scores on their most recent tests.

The Highland Park district also faces a crushing debt and a severely-decreased enrollment over the past several years as a result of Chrysler no longer employing people in the area.

All of the above, at least according to the ACLU suit and the WP article, are the facts. And while I will be curious to see how this suit proceeds in the courts, several questions come to my mind.

One, what is the home situation of the students in Highland Park? While schools and teachers are responsible for educating their students, they do not bear this responsibility alone; rather, they share the responsibility with the parents of their students. Well, according to Highland Park’s own web site, the number of single-parent families outnumber the number of two-parent families nearly three to one. Obviously not all students from two-parent families succeed and not all children from single-parent families struggle or fail, but there is significant research that indicates that students from two-parent families tend to do significantly better in school.

Second (and I realize this relates, in many ways, to the first question) what accountability is there outside of the school for the students to do their part in learning? When I first started teaching I took students’ failing grades personally. I felt that if a student received an F on a test or quiz, I certainly must not have taught effectively. And while less-than-adequate student performance may be an indicator that the teacher is incapable or not fulfilling his or her responsibility, is does not necessarily mean this. Even the best teachers will from time to time have students who fail, either because they do not care, because they do not apply themselves, and/or because the student has not been appropriately placed (i.e., he or she is in a grade requiring skills he or she does not yet possess). Based on the information in the WP article–specifically the high number of students testing below proficiency in reading–it seems that the teachers/schools may bear a significant portion of the blame, but this is a legitimate question nonetheless.

Third, how is that even with laws like the one at the heart of this case in Michigan and the No Child Left Behind act mandating highly qualified teachers and adequate yearly progress, there are still students–and entire school districts–failing to meet the established standards?

One answer has to be the teacher’s unions, and the manner in which they fight tooth and nail against any kind of meaningful evaluation and accountability within the public school system. One need look no further than the way in which Michelle Rhee was treated when she attempted to transform the public schools in Washington, D.C.

Another part of the answer has to be the way in which the public school system works, if not perhaps the very continued existence of a public school system. The federal government has demonstrated an inability to effectively manage most of the things it tries to do (see the Post Office as Exhibit A), and yet the federal bureaucracy involved in education at the state and local level spends millions and billions of dollars, yet continues to produce (among successes, granted) school districts like Highland Park. The truth is that the public school system in the U.S. is nothing more than government subsidy of education. If true competition existed within the educational sphere in America I am convinced that we would see a drastic improvement in the scores of American students within a very short period of time. School choice and school vouchers programs have proven incredibly effective wherever they have been given the opportunity to be tried fairly. As I have argued here before, true competition will produce better results than any alternative every time.

What it comes down to at the end of the day, though, is that Quentin and his fellow students are the ones are suffering, and will continue to suffer. They are the victims of one or more of the following: adults who parent children and fail to fulfill their responsibilities as parents; teachers who fail to teach students and ensure that they are really learning; administrators who fail (or are unable) to remove ineffective teachers; teachers’ unions that look out more for the good of their members than for the good of the students; bureaucrats that are more concerned about the implementation of various laws than about the success of students; and politicians who continue to think that the government is more capable of making decisions than the people are.