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JEFF JACOBY

Making the case for parochial schools

OF THE ROUGHLY 50 million children enrolled in American grade schools, all but about 5 million attend government-run public schools. Of those 5 million, approximately 800,000 attend secular private schools. That leaves just 4.2 million who attend the nation's religious schools -- only one American child in 12.

That isn't much, particularly for a country in which more than 60 percent of adults say that religion is very important in their lives. The United States is by far the most religious of the world's industrial democracies. Yet the vast majority of American parents would no more think of sending their children to a parochial school than they would of sending them to an orphanage.

Two Americans who aim to change that attitude are T.C. Pinckney, a retired Air Force brigadier general, and Houston attorney Bruce Shortt. Lay leaders in the Baptist church, they have drafted a resolution -- which they hope to bring before the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis next month -- urging the denomination's 16 million members to take their children out of public schools and either home school them or send them to parochial schools. Their argument is straightforward: Christian parents owe their children a Christian education, not the relentlessly secular and often antireligious instruction provided in public schools.

"Millions of children in government schools spend 7 hours a day, 180 days a year being taught that God is irrelevant to every area of life," their resolution says. Consequently, "many Christian children in government schools are converted to an anti-Christian worldview" -- which helps explain why "88 percent of the children raised in evangelical homes leave church at the age of 18, never to return."

The resolution accordingly "encourages" all Southern Baptists to "remove their children from the government schools and see to it that they receive a thoroughly Christian education, for the glory of God . . . and the strength of their own commitment to Jesus."

To which I say: Amen.

I'm not a Southern Baptist or even a Christian -- I'm a religious Jew -- but I vote with Pinckney and Shortt. Parents who take their faith seriously ought to think twice before putting their kids' education in the hands of the state. If war is too important to be left to the generals, the shaping of children's minds and values is surely too important to be left to government educators.

For the first two centuries of American history, it was taken for granted that education included not only reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic, but religion as well. That changed in the 19th century, however, and by the late 1800s, the burgeoning "common school" system was resolutely secular.

Nonetheless, many schools continued to affirm the importance of God and religion in American life. Well into the 20th century, for example, daily prayer and Bible reading were a familiar part of the public-education experience, and students sang Christmas carols in annual school pageants.

No more. Government schools today routinely suppress any trace of religious influence. Not only do teachers no longer lead their classes in group prayer, students have been reprimanded for uttering private prayer, such as grace before meals. Public schools have barred children from reading Bible stories during their free time or giving bags of jelly beans with a religious poem attached to their classmates before Easter. In a case now being litigated in Virginia, school officials want to ban a graduating senior from singing Celine Dion's "The Prayer" during commencement ceremonies because the song asks God to "help us to be wise in times when we don't know."

This isn't neutrality toward religion, it's hostility. And children immersed from K through 12 in an environment that treats religious faith as a superstition to be suppressed frequently reach adulthood with little interest in God or church. Students trained from the age of 5 to see science as the highest source of truth and all value systems as equally valid often come to share Jesse Ventura's opinion of religion: it's "a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people," the former wrestler and Minnesota governor once said. "It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people's business."

None of which may be a problem for parents who are quite secular themselves. But for those who want their children to live God-centered lives, the animus against religion found in so many public schools is indeed a problem -- or should be.

Sending a child to parochial school isn't always easy. Tuition can be steep. The environment can be insular. But if they gave parochial education a serious look, countless American parents would find that the values it promotes are their values, and the truth it inculcates is their truth. With 45 million children in public schools, parochial education will never be the popular choice. But surely it can be, for many more than one child in 12, the right choice.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com. 

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