When pastor Clark Frailey noticed that his local schools were underfunded—at the time, Oklahoma received less education funding than almost any other state—he stepped in to help provide materials like wipes, paper, and markers.
But he soon realized the problem was much bigger than empty supply closets. School buildings developed black mold. Teachers were rebinding decades-old textbooks. Kindergarteners jammed into classes of up to 30 students.
So in 2016 Frailey and fellow Baptist pastors launched an initiative, Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, to advocate for the students and schools across their state.
“We had a lot of demonization at the time,” he told Christianity Today. “People were saying our schools were Marxist, socialist, atheist—and that just wasn’t our experience as local church pastors.”
They knew the principals, teachers, and superintendents leading locally; school staff attended their churches and volunteered in Sunday school and the nursery. The discussion from fellow Christians, alleging radical ideology in the school system, “felt like a false narrative,” Frailey said. “There was a strong movement to discredit public education in Oklahoma.”
That movement has targeted public education in communities across the country.
Homeschool and private schooling have jumped at unprecedented rates since schools transitioned to online education during the first months and years of the pandemic. Concerns over curricula were heightened too, as stories spread of public schools teaching “gender theory,” encouraging transgenderism, and promoting critical race theory.
Despite the headlines, many Christian educators told CT they haven’t seen cause for outrage in their own school systems and feel convicted to remain in the classroom.
“I have not experienced what I think my church and maybe some of the church members are angry and upset about,” said Brittany Braun, a third-grade teacher who has taught in public schools for 14 years. “I don’t feel like I have been asked to quiet my faith or push an agenda that I don’t believe in.”
Braun said her own experience as a Christian student in public high school, surrounded by people from diverse beliefs and backgrounds, was “super formative in my faith” and was a training ground for college. Her two children, ages 5 and 7, attend school in her district.
“When it came time to have children, it felt hypocritical to send my own children to a private school if I was intentionally working to make public education the best it could be,” she said. “If I didn’t trust my own kids in the public school system that I’m giving my life to everyday, then what am I doing?”
Braun returned to the classroom this fall after taking off part of last school year due to breast cancer treatment, eager to be back with the students she feels called to teach and serve.
Even with public schools developing a negative reputation among some Christians, groups like Christian Educators continue to offer support with prayer, resources, and even legal advice for those worried about protecting their jobs. The professional association aims to “reach the next generation of ambassadors for Christ in our schools.”
“Our light is supposed to shine in the darkest of places,” said Micah Walls, an elementary school teacher in Lapel, Indiana. “If we don’t have any Christians in the public school system trying to love these kids, then who’s gonna do it?”
Despite an uptick in Christian school enrollment and homeschooling, research suggests there is still deep support among evangelical Christians. PDK International, an organization that supports teachers, found in its polling that parents consistently have a more favorable view of their kid’s school and their own local schools than the nation’s public schools. Christians who identified as politically conservative were most frustrated with the system.
“In short,” wrote Marilyn Anderson Rhames, “Disenchantment with public education appears to have much more to do with political ideology than religion.”
Christian parents who pull their kids from public schools may disagree with certain lessons—particularly on sex and gender—or fear not knowing what information their children will be exposed to through the curricula or with fellow students.
“I believe the solution is found in creating healthy dialogue at home,” said Mandy Majors, Christian mom and founder of nextTalk, which coaches parents on keeping kids safe online. Her open communication philosophy draws from Deuteronomy 6:6-7, which says we are to talk to our children “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
Some Christian families, like the Groens in Minnesota, have recently rethought their assumptions about public school. After she and her husband both attended private Christian schools, Jenny Groen intended to do the same with her six kids.
But some of their children were unable to attend private school due to health needs, so Groen homeschooled for a year during the pandemic. The experience made her realize “how isolated we had been living” inside a “very small, insulated Christian bubble.”
“We felt that we were failing to follow what Scripture says when it calls us to ‘live in the world, but not of the world,’” she told CT. “After a year of homeschooling, we decided to send all six of our kids to the local public school, and I am so happy to be able to truly say that they are all thriving.”
In one study, religion researcher Tyler VanderWeele found little difference in ultimate faith outcomes between children who went to private, religious school and those who attended public school. Homeschoolers, however, were 51 percent more likely to frequently attend religious services in adulthood.
Colorado mom Hadley Heath Manning described her relationship with public schools as “fragile.” She worries that what she sees as a negative sway in schools is partially a result of Christians “retreating from the public sphere.”
As a Christian, she said she feels pressured to remove her kids from public school but also believes that Christians should be part of the discussion on public school policies and curriculum.
“While there are some things I do not want my kids to be exposed to—like bad messaging about gender and sex—I do want my kids to be exposed to families from a variety of backgrounds,” she said. “If I can establish trust with the teacher, be present in the classroom as a volunteer, and have transparency about what my kids are learning, then I not only feel good about the choice to send my kids to this school, but also hope that my family can be an influence on and a blessing to other children and teachers.”
Prayer is a major factor. Manning and her children pray together each morning before school. Stacy Callender, a leader with Moms in Prayer, a Christian group that prays for schools, has seen an uptick in membership since the pandemic.
The battle for children in schools today has intensified, Callender said, and there’s less need to “convince women that our schools need prayer.”
“The safest place for us and for our children is the will of God, and that can be public schools,” said Callender, who said she has seen school administrators welcome in parachurch organizations to help manage the recent onslaught of mental health struggles.
Teachers in Prayer is another organization grounded in praying for schools; it also helps teachers navigate questions about religious liberty in public education.
Church leaders like Maggie Mobley, at Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in Bloomington, Indiana, see a missional advantage to sending kids to public schools over Christian ones.
“We want to be in the middle of the mess,” said Mobley, Sherwood Oaks’s connections pastor. “We can minister to others if we put ourselves in a position to share Jesus with people that don’t know him.”
Mobley said she and her husband have had difficult conversations with her children about things they’ve heard in school, but they rely on a strong foundation of faith. They remind their three children: “Be an influencer; don’t be influenced” and, “Shine God’s light.”
In interviews with CT, Christian parents and teachers alike referenced the scriptural call to be “salt and light” in public schools. But others have challenged whether it’s a child’s job to be on mission or whether parents should prioritize their spiritual development at home while they are young. (An earlier CT article addressed a similar debate involving the children of missionaries.)
“Our children have a job. It is being a CHILD. It is to be trained up by their parents. It’s to hide the word of God in their heart. When they are older, they will be better equipped to go out and serve him,” wrote one Christian parent who advocates for homeschooling.
Bible teacher and CT columnist Jen Wilkin sent her kids to public school but wrote that “we did not try to strategically position our kids as miniature missionaries.”
She did see the benefit of the worldly distinctions that naturally emerged for her children in that educational setting. “Public school drew clear lines for our kids,” she wrote. “They know they are in the minority … we do not have to convince them they are aliens and strangers.”
Amy Perry Goldsmith, whose five children attended public school, similarly saw how public school gave her kids a broader look at their community and allowed them to get comfortable with diversity, new perspectives, and issues of equity and poverty.
Christian students in public schools often participate in the annual See You At the Pole prayer rally, a one-day annual movement when Christians gather to pray around the flagpole in front of their schools. There are also ministries, like Cru and Campus Life, that host meetups and offer support, community, and resources for Christian public school students who want to connect with like-minded people. Smaller, local groups, like Partner with Schools, a nonprofit out of Ohio, also helps connect local churches with schools to offer Christian clubs.
These kinds of efforts were how Frailey thought his peers could hear the gospel years ago. He started Bible clubs and a Christian newsletter in high school, hoping to be “salt and light” to those around him.
“That became my vision,” he said, “to go places that were not objectively Christian and bring light into that.”