If They Leave...

Baptists turn from public schoolsYonat Shimron, Staff Writer Published: Aug 26, 2007

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. "A lot of parents are fed up."

Southeastern is leading the push, sponsoring a Christian School 101 workshop Monday and Tuesday. The program is 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.

A history of alienation

The denomination's disenchantment with public schools is not new. It dates to the 1920s, when states debated the teaching of creationism vs. evolution.

Evolution increasingly won, despite 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 with 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. "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 have signed up for the workshop Monday are church leaders primarily from small North Carolina towns, where there are few private Christian schools. They include the Rev. Ed Rose, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Wendell. Rose, whose church sits next to a 4,000-home development called Wendell Falls, sees an opportunity in fast-growing eastern Wake County.

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

The Triangle 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 Triangle 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 African-American, 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 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."

Values in the classroom

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 of Raleigh, who sent her four children to Friendship Christian School in Raleigh, an offshoot of Friendship Baptist Church on Falls of the Neuse Road. "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 is hosting this week's workshop. "We think it's time we took ownership of the education of our children."