NEW YORK — Public schools take a lot of criticism, but a growing, loosely organized movement is now moving from harsh words to action — with parents taking their own children out of public schools and exhorting other families to do the same.
Led mainly by evangelical Christians, the movement depicts public education as hostile to religious faith and claims to be behind a surge in the number of students being schooled at home.
"The courts say no creationism, no prayer in public schools," said Roger Moran, a Winfield, Mo., businessman and member of the Southern Baptist Convention executive committee. "Humanism and evolution can be taught, but everything I believe is disallowed."
The father of nine home-schooled children, Moran co-sponsored a resolution at the Southern Baptists' annual meeting in June that urged the denomination to endorse a public-school pullout. It failed, as did a similar proposal before the conservative Presbyterian Church in America for members to shift their children into home-schooling or private Christian schools.
Still, the movement is very much alive, led by such groups as Exodus Mandate and the Alliance for Separation of School and State. One new campaign aims to monitor public schools for what conservatives see as pro-gay curriculum and programs; another initiative seeks to draw an additional 1 million children into homeschooling by encouraging parents already experienced at it to mentor families wanting to try it.
"Homeschoolers avoid harmful school environments where God is mocked, where destructive peer influence is the norm, where drugs, alcohol, promiscuity and homosexuality are promoted," says the California-based Considering Homeschooling Ministry.
Though the movement's rhetoric strikes public school supporters as extreme, some of its leaders are influential. They include R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who last year said the denomination needed an "exit strategy" from public schools, and the Rev. D. James Kennedy, pastor of 10,000-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and host of a nationally broadcast religious program.
"The infusion of an atheistic, amoral, evolutionary, socialistic, one-world, anti-American system of education in our public schools has indeed become such that if it had been done by an enemy, it would be considered an act of war," Kennedy said in a recent commentary.
Overall, public schools are in no danger of withering away. The latest federal figures, from 2005, show their total K-12 enrollment at 48.4 million, compared to 6.3 million in private schools — most of them religious.
However, the National Center for Education Statistics says private-school enrollment has grown at a faster rate than public schools since 1989, and it expects that trend to continue through 2014. Moreover, the private school figures don't include the growing ranks of home-schoolers — there were at least 1.1 million of them in 2003, according to federal figures, and perhaps more than 2 million now, according to home-school advocates.
According to a federal survey, 72% of home-schooling parents say one of their primary motivations is to provide stronger moral and religious instruction.
The president of the largest teachers' union, Reg Weaver of the National Education Association, says public-school critics use increasingly harsh language, "but they're not as successful as they'd like to pretend."
"The overwhelming majority of our folks," Weaver said of his union members, "are not being pulled off the agenda of great public schools for all children."
Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan civil liberties group, said public education leaders should work harder to convince parents that they aren't against religion by encouraging nonsectarian teaching about the Bible and the formation of student religious clubs.
"School leaders know they're facing the perception that public education has somehow become hostile to religion," Haynes said. "They understand there's no time to be lost."
Some districts have moved proactively to address parents' concerns, he said, "but many more have put their heads in the sand over this, afraid of controversy or litigation."
Haynes says public school critics have gained an audience with shrewd Internet-based communication tactics, quickly spreading anecdotes — real or exaggerated — of incidents perceived as anti-religious or too approving of homosexuality and teen sexual freedom.
For example, word spread among conservatives last year that school officials in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas, had banned students from wearing red and green because the colors represented Christmas. The district sent e-mails to parents denying the "false rumor."
"Parents all over the country get the few bad stories and believe this is what public schools are all about," Haynes said.
Enrollment at conservative Christian schools is overwhelmingly white, as are the ranks of home-schoolers, but faith-based disenchantment with public schools transcends racial boundaries.
Joyce and Eric Burges of Baker, La., founded an association seeking to encourage more black families to follow them into homeschooling.
"African-American children have been beat up so bad in public schools — more parents are looking at the Christian alternative," said Joyce Burges.
Black or white, parents can be financially challenged by a move away from public schools.
Tim Sierer, headmaster of a Christian academy in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania, helped launch a Web site in March — DiscoverChristianSchools.com — to assist parents considering the switch.
"It's not a decision to take lightly," said Sierer, noting that Christian school tuitions in his region range up to $10,000.
Some activists say the financial challenges can be overcome with creativity. Houston lawyer Bruce Shortt, author of The Harsh Truth About Public Schools, says some home-schooling parents are forming co-ops to pool their resources. Evangelical churches should offer space for such programs, he says, perhaps with a computer-based component in which students are taught online by accredited teachers.
"There are many new models evolving for Christian education," said Shortt, who home-schools his three sons. "We need to create a new school system, not supported by tax dollars but public in the sense that it's open to anyone."
The head of Christian Educators Association International, which represents devout teachers in public and private schools, urges parents to reflect carefully on their choices. "One size does not fit all," says Finn Laursen, arguing that public, private and at-home education all might be good options.
"Don't just hammer public schools," Laursen said. "Go in there and take them back."
However, Mohler, the Southern Baptist seminary president, says court rulings and government mandates have sharply limited the ability of parents and local school boards to control public education.
It's become a "new normal" for younger parents to consider alternatives, he said. "It's a very different assumption from their parents' generation."
Yet even as he urges an "exit strategy," Mohler says there will be a cost to America if the call is widely heeded.
"One of the great missions of the public schools was to bring together children of divergent backgrounds — I benefited from that," he said. "There is a loss in this."