Baptists turn from public schools to private plans

YONAT SHIMRON
MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS

RALEIGH, N.C. –
Convinced that God has been erased from public schools, Southern
Baptists are now working to open their own schools, where Jesus is writ
large and Bible study is part of the daily curriculum.

Church leaders are not calling
for a wholesale exodus from public schools, which would be a monumental
hit, considering that Southern Baptists make up the nation’s largest
Protestant denomination with 16 million members.

Rather, they talk about
alternatives to public schools capable of educating a new generation
ready and willing to advocate for biblical principles rather than
popular culture.

“In the public schools, you
don’t just have neutrality, you have hostility toward organized
religion,” said Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist
Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “A lot of parents are fed up.”

Southeastern is leading the
push, having sponsored a Christian School 101 workshop Aug. 27 and 28.
The program was designed to train church leaders to open private
schools.

At Southeastern and elsewhere,
Southern Baptists have become convinced that fighting to change the
system is futile. They say public schools have long demonstrated a
commitment to teaching evolution over creationism, world faiths over
Christianity, sex education over abstinence, moral relativism over
Christian claims of truth.

The denomination’s
disenchantment with public schools is not new. It dates to the 1920s,
when states debated the teaching of creationism versus evolution.
Evolution increasingly won out, despite the verdict in the famous
“Scopes Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, which gave the victory to
creationists. The 1962 and 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning
prayer and devotional readings from public schools only increased
Southern Baptists’ ire.

Since then, alienation from
public schools has grown alongside the nation’s culture wars, pitting
evangelical Christians against secularists.

“Southern Baptists see the new
religious establishment in this country as secularism,” said Bill
Leonard, dean of the divinity school at Wake Forest University in
Winston-Salem, N.C. “It dictates pluralism and diversity of values
relative to doctrine, politics and sexual values.”

Southeastern seminary is
fighting back. Ten years ago, it launched a master’s degree program in
Christian school administration to help train principals.

“Are we going to be satisfied
with the thousands of hours children spend in an environment with the
absence of support for what we hold dear, and in many cases, hostility
to it?” asked Ken Coley, a professor at Southeastern who runs the
master’s program for Christian school administrators.

The 40 or so people who signed
up for the workshop were church leaders primarily from small North
Carolina towns, where there are few private Christian schools. They
included the Rev. Ed Rose. Rose, whose church sits next to a 4,000-home
development, sees an opportunity in fast-growing eastern Wake County.

“All our studies show the demand is off the charts,” he said.

The area supports at least 15 private Protestant schools.

most of which are not
exclusively Baptist but enroll large numbers of children whose parents
belong to Baptist churches. North Raleigh Christian Academy, the
largest of the schools, enrolls 1,290 students in kindergarten through
12th grade. About 55 percent are Baptist, said Superintendent S. L.
Sherrill.

Many of these schools bear
little relation to those founded after the desegregation battles of the
1970s, when many Baptists pulled their children out of public schools
to avoid forced busing and integration.

At North Raleigh Christian
Academy, 5 percent of the student body is black, and its
nondiscrimination policy is prominently displayed on its Web site.

“That’s an area in our strategic plan we’d love to see improve,” said Sherrill, referring to black enrollment.

Southern Baptist leaders are
careful to reiterate that they have no desire to harm the public
schools or offend its workers, many of whom are proud Southern Baptists.

And indeed, many Southern Baptists are quite happy with their children’s public education.

“Enloe High School is a great
school,” said Thomas Dresser, referring to the Raleigh, N.C., public
school that his daughter, Virginia, attends. “It’s real diverse, and
there’s lots of opportunities. I think it’s possible to get a good
education about your faith at home. It’s not essential you get it at
school.”

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For an increasing number of
religiously conservative parents who are fearful of what they say is
the culture’s permissive drift, private schools look attractive.

“We’ve had no issues with
smoking, drinking or drugs,” said Kathy Filidoro, who sent her four
children to Friendship Christian School in Raleigh. “My children love
God and want to serve him.”

For many parents, traditional
values, rather than Christian values, drive their choices. Wanda Martin
sent her two daughters to North Raleigh Christian Academy because she
wanted them to respect their teachers, dress modestly and avoid the
glorification of pop culture idols such as Britney Spears.

“As a parent, I want to teach them decent behavior in society,” she said.

Others say the private schools
are more academically rigorous and benefit from lower teacher-student
ratios. Most of their graduates go to college.

That, too, is part of the
attraction. Southern Baptists want to train their children to compete
in today’s culture while carrying the mantle of their faith.

“Most evangelicals are
biblically ignorant and uninformed,” said Edward E. Gamble, director of
the Southern Baptist Association of Christian Schools, a Florida outfit
that hosted the recent workshop. “We think it’s time we took ownership
of the education of our children.”

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