Christian education leaders: No rush from public schools yet

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WASHINGTON (BP) -- The Obama administration's transgender directive for public schools does not seem so far to have provoked a widespread rush of families toward other education options, but it could be a factor if such a movement develops in the future, say leaders in the Christian school and homeschooling movements.

The May 13 guidance issued by the Departments of Education and Justice directed public schools and universities to permit transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms of their gender identity instead of their biological sex. That dichotomy between gender and sex conflicts with the biblical teaching as expressed in a 2014 resolution adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention that affirmed "God's good design that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one's self-perception."

The transgender directive "leaves millions of parents and families with difficult issues to think through," said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

The church has a responsibility to guide parents on this issue, Moore said.

"There are many reasons for schools and communities to acknowledge the differences between boys and girls, reasons that have nothing to do with discrimination," Moore told Baptist Press in written comments. "Our churches should be helping families navigate these issues, with the ultimate goal being faithfulness to the Gospel."

The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) has seen only "a slight increase in interest from parents," said Thomas Cathey, director for legal legislative issues of the world's largest Protestant education association, which has 25,000 member schools globally and 2,500 in the United States.

"I am not sure we will see any increase from this," Cathey said in a written statement for BP. "[W]hen school districts implement the transgender policies," there could be more interest, he said.

Homeschooling appears to be experiencing a similar response at the national level, said one of the movement's leaders.

"From social media, we hear an increase in people thinking about alternatives to public schools," said Michael Farris, cofounder and chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association. "I think there is a bit of a wait and see attitude to see if their local districts will actually implement the directive. When the directives are in full swing, the potential is likely to become a reality of people starting to leave public schools in increasing numbers."

The Southern Baptist Association of Christian Schools (SBACS) has not had "an avalanche of people running through the door" to enroll their children in its affiliated schools, said Ed Gamble, the organization's executive director. The full effect of the directive won't occur until "you actually start seeing people want to go into the girls' shower room or the girls' bathroom," he told BP in a phone interview.

Gamble has received phone calls from four pastors in the last couple of weeks whose churches are interested in starting Christian schools and cited the transgender directive as part of the reason, he said.

In contrast, some local and state education leaders have seen a marked upswing in contacts from families.

David Baker -- a Kansas City, Mo., area pastor who also serves as superintendent of his church's Christian school -- told BP he has received "a lot of phone calls" from parents of high school and junior high students, "but whether that's going to translate into enrollment I don't know."

Suzanne Nunn, a homeschooling leader in Florida, said, "We have certainly seen an increase in interest to home school [since the recent directive]. We have seen this interest not only in our local support group but also across the state."

The directive spurred opposition from some governors, who pledged to fight it despite the implication states could lose federal aid if they do not comply.

Florida Baptist leader Tommy Green urged Gov. Rick Scott to take similar action in a May 18 letter in which he called for the Republican to use "the full weight and power of your office to oppose" the guidance.

"On behalf of Southern Baptists across Florida, I implore you to take every step necessary to protect the young citizens of our great state from the damage these polices would inflict," wrote Green, executive director-treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention. "We urge you to refuse to accept these polices at the state level, and we urge you to support the local school districts which seek to do the same."

While some public officials work to prevent implementation of the guidance, parents who might desire a Christian or other private school education for their children face a common problem -- money.

"The key factor is always finances for most families," said Baker, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Belton, Mo., and superintendent of Heartland Christian Schools. "For a lot of families, private school is just unrealistic for them just because of finances, although we're seeing some people really becoming sacrificial in order to put their children in private school."

The departure of Christian families from the public schools appears likely, both homeschool and Christian school leaders said.

The transgender directive is "putting it on the front burner for a lot of families," but Common Core -- a controversial education reform plan -- also is a "huge issue," Baker told BP in a phone interview. "We're anticipating that there's going to be a long-term movement of Christian families out of the public schools."

Farris said in written comments for BP, "The philosophical drift of the public schools into advocacy for moral deconstruction will continue to alienate more traditionally minded people. This is not good for America or for public education.

"We want people to choose homeschooling because it is a great choice for a family -- not because they feel like they must become refugees from public schools." Farris said. "But, whatever their reason for starting, the homeschooling movement is ready and willing to help families provide a solid academic education in a morally sound setting for their own children."

Nunn -- co-chair of the board of the homeschool ministry of Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., and chair of the board of the Florida Parent-Educators Association, a statewide homeschooling organization -- told BP, "Many recent changes in the public education system have caused families to consider homeschooling, whether concerns over Common Core or concerns about social agendas that do not resonate with these families.

"The option to home school is becoming more desirable to many," she said. "I believe that we will continue to see a rise in interest to homeschool for many reasons -- it is an opportunity to provide an excellent, custom education for our children as well as an opportunity to disciple and raise our children up to be men and women of strong character."

The latest figures from the National Center for Education Statistics showed in 2012 there were 1.77 million homeschooled, American children, which was an increase of more than 60 percent in a decade.

Churches can make the difference in helping parents provide their children with an education in a Christian school, Baker and Gamble said.

"I think the growth of Christian schools is not limited by the number of people wanting to come there," Baker told BP. "I think the growth of it is limited by churches that are willing to actively get involved in Christian education through the Christian school. And I think that until churches are a lot more intentional about that, it's going to be hard for many parents to make that move."

Gamble said, "The church has not made up its mind to take ownership of the weekday. And when it does, we can create a new public school system, not owned by the public, owned by the churches, by God's people."

SBACS, the association Gamble directs, has about 100 member schools and about 750 in its database.

The church should help parents seeking options for their children's education, said Christian worldview spokesman John Stonestreet.

"Many families feel they have no choice but to send their kids to public schools, but there are more options than ever when it comes to educational alternatives," said Stonestreet, fellow of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, in a recent letter to supporters of the Manhattan Declaration, a statement on life, marriage and religious liberty. "And churches need to find ways to help those families currently unable to take advantage of the alternatives."

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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