Public vs. Christian Education

For many members of the Protestant Reformed Churches, Christian education is the only type of education that they have ever known. As a student of Christian education from the age of five in a room of Hudsonville PRC to the age of 21 at a Christian university in West Michigan, the same can be said for me. Morning devotions, prayer, and Bible readings both before and after lunch, Bible classes, and a Christ-centered curriculum were normal to me. They were too normal to me. I can say that over the course of my 17 years of Christian education, I didn’t fully appreciate it for the blessing that it was. However, my experiences student aiding in an urban public school of Grand Rapids have given me a greater appreciation for my Christian education.  

Students of a Christian education share a common faith. As a result, the community created in the Christian classroom is one centered around Christ. Each member of the classroom, both teacher and students alike, are bound together by Christ, and their lives reflect this.  

They worship the same God, share common values, attend many of the same churches, and observe the same religious practices. The same cannot be said for most students of public education. What unites these students is the school district in which they live. Now, this is not to say that a positive community cannot exist in a public school classroom. On the contrary, I have been in many classrooms of public education in which such a community existed; but the relationships within this community are not deeply rooted. They are classmates and peers, not brothers and sisters. In my internship classroom alone, there were students who were Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christians, and atheists. Not all students serve the same master.  

Each student and teacher of a public school is guaranteed the right to practice his or her own religion by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States. Students and teachers are free to pray before and after meals, wear religious garb, and read their own religious texts during school hours. However, a teacher in a public school walks a fine line in expressing his or her faith to ensure that those actions do not endorse one religion and violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The public school teacher must remain neutral in how he deal with religion in his classroom.  

This means that a teacher or student can silently pray alone before lunch, but he or she cannot lead the class in prayer. Likewise, teachers and students can read their Bibles in school, but this must be done individually and during a time when students can read any book of their own choosing. Obviously this means no class devotions take place during school hours. This was probably one of the weirdest parts of my time student aiding. It felt unnatural to begin each school day by jumping straight into a lesson instead of with prayer and Bible reading, or for students just to leave for the cafeteria without praying first. Students may have come to God in worship throughout the day, but they did so alone and without the guidance of their teacher.  

It is also up to the students to see God in their learning about his creation. In a Christian school, all subjects are taught from a Christian perspective. Students are led to see God’s orderliness in mathematics and his wisdom in the creation of the complex systems of the human body, along with many of God’s other attributes. In a public school, however, students study the subject neutrally and without examining it in the light of God’s word.    

The necessity for neutrality toward religion means that many opportunities for Christian comforting are missed out on in a public school. I vividly remember a second-grade student telling me that his cousin had died in a car crash and had gone to heaven. I wanted to tell him that he was right, that his cousin was in heaven with Jesus, and that someday he would be there with him too. Instead I told him that I was sorry to hear that news. The public school teacher cannot pass his or her own religious views as those endorsed by the government. If I had been in a Christian school, I could have spoken my mind instead of giving a cheap, neutral response.  

While I may have found myself in an elementary school in which I could not freely talk about God with students and faculty, several of my peers did not find themselves in such an environment for the first time. Hearing my college classmates who had never experienced Christian education before college was one of my favorite experiences of my internship. They raved about how beautiful it was to hear students sing songs of praise to God, how teachers could freely lead their students in prayer during the day, and even how the entire school assembled each week for chapel. What my peers couldn’t keep to themselves had become ordinary to me.  

Past and present students of Christian education, do not take for granted the great blessing that you have been given. Value the oneness that you have with your peers and teachers. Treasure the moments that you and your classmates spend in worship, no matter how frequently they occur. Cherish viewing the world through the lens of scripture. Enjoy your ability to learn from men and women who have already been where you are now. What you have is something that not every child of God has the privilege to experience. Hold dear your Christian education, and don’t let it go to waste.