Christian Schools Are Public Schools

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In his Banner article (“Reformed Matters: Supporting Public Education,” Aug. 2011), Thomas B. Hoeksema argues vigorously for supporting public education as a legitimate alternative to private Christian schools. Many Christian school supporters are rightfully irritated by the label private that is often attached to Christian schools. The term suggests notions of elitism, exclusion, snobbishness, secretiveness, isolation, and perhaps even indoctrination. While many schools may be accurately described as private, that is not true for the member schools of Christian Schools International (CSI) or the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) that many Banner readers are familiar with.

The term private is also used as the opposite of public. Christian schools are non-public and therefore private. Public schools, on the other hand, are called public by virtue of the public funding they receive and the enrollment policies by which they accept all students. If we understand the term public to mean civic-minded, open, patriotic, contributing to society, meeting government standards, and making our countries better places, we can contend that Christian schools are every bit as public as publicly funded schools.

School at the Crossroads

In his “Faith Lessons” video series ( m), Ray VanderLaan says that God placed his chosen people at the crossroads of civilization. While God could have placed them in a private, out-of-the-way place, instead God chose the land of Israel—the most public of places. God also wants followers of Jesus to influence the world in profound ways. He wants us to publicly attempt to have an impact on every sphere of life, from politics to agriculture, from entertainment to health care, from biology to linguistics. Notice that God did not scatter his chosen people throughout the variety of public places in the world; instead God placed them together at the world’s most major intersection where everyone could see them.

In the New Testament, the church is described as the body of Christ. Christians are supposed to work together as one body in an effort to reclaim every area of life for our Lord Jesus Christ. So Christian schools ought to be found in public places, preparing tomorrow’s leaders among the community of believers to make an intense and weighty public impact. Like God’s chosen people, Christian schools ought to be found at the crossroads of civilization.

Governments establish public schools to meet a number of goals they hold for the people of the nation, states, and provinces. It is good for a country to require its young citizens to master an official language, to learn skills needed in the workforce, to learn in a caring environment that nurtures ingenuity and is concerned for their physical well-being. To accomplish these goals, governments establish programs of studies that publicly funded schools must adhere to. But many unfunded schools are also obliged to follow the very same government curricula and guidelines. In the sense that Christian schools meet and exceed the goals that governments have set for the education of its young citizens, Christian schools are public schools.

Do Public Schools Have to Be Secular?

For many people, the term public also means secular. Advocates for secular education affirm that the separation of church and state requires that publicly funded education must keep religion out of the classroom. An online dictionary defines secular as follows:

sec·u·lar [sek-yuh-ler] adjective
1. of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal: secular interests.
2. not pertaining to or connected with religion (opposed to sacred): secular music.
3. (of education, a school, etc.) concerned with nonreligious subjects.
4. (of members of the clergy) not belonging to a religious order; not bound by monastic vows (opposed to regular).
5. occurring or celebrated once in an age or century: the secular games of Rome.

Given these definitions, the opposite of secular is not private but rather sacred, spiritual, or religious. It is obvious that if public is to mean secular, Christian schools cannot be public. It is equally obvious that if the term private implies exclusion, public schools are private in that they exclude devout advocates for Christian education from the publicly funded system of schools.

In the case of public education, the working definition of the term secular has expanded beyond any dictionary definition over the years to include science as the only acceptable secular means of truth-finding. If a notion is not supported by a body of science, or at least by a scientific theory, it has no place in a secular school. Multiple intelligence theory cannot include a spiritual intelligence in public schools, so theorists opt instead for the term existential intelligence.

There is more truth than simple physical, scientifically describable truth.

While the idea of a God-created universe is a religious doctrine that has no place in public schools, The Big Bang theory is secular, and therefore can be taught in public schools. This, of course, is problematic for many Christians who believe that Jesus created “things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Col. 1:16). Christians contend that there is more truth than simple physical, scientifically describable truth. Secular public schools, on the other hand, do not simply avoid religious matters. Rather, they contend for “truths” that run counter to the beliefs of many Christians. In doing so, secular schools exclude a large segment of the population from publicly funded schools. Inasmuch as secular schooling is not non-religious but rather an alternative to other religions, truly public schools should not be exclusively secular.

Christian school supporters in the United States have long lamented that the separation of church and state becomes a separation of religion and state where publicly funded schools are concerned. Christian school supporters in many Canadian provinces lament how a system of schools that was initially Protestant and Catholic has become officially secular and Catholic. The purposes for which our nations established public schools never included promotion of a secular understanding of the world—and certainly not an advancement of the scientific religion which secularism has become.

All schools—whether they are publicly funded or not—that build citizens by teaching an official language, by training in skills for the workforce, by nurturing ingenuity, by supporting physical well-being, and by teaching the government approved curriculum, are part of a system of public schools.

Whether they are funded or not, Christian schools are public schools.

About the Author

Robert Duiker is the principal of Rocky Christian School in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, and a member of First Christian Reformed Church in Rocky Mountain House.

See comments (19)


Well said. I've often had to remind our neighbors that our school is a Christian school and not a private school. I'll remember to use some of the points in this article the next time I have this discussion. I also like your assertion that government schools are just as religious at their core.

I appreciate this article.

Labelling is so often used to make something seem bad, or conversely to make something seem good.

The labelling of "public schools" is in large part intended to make them sound good. Although it might be argued that decades ago, when "public schools" were actually run by local communities (their 'public'), the label of "public school" might have been appropriate. Today, most of the local community control is gone, substituted with state and federal control.

Today, the most accurate labelling for so-called "public schools" would be "government owned and operated schools." Of course, that also means they are "taxpayer funded" (involuntary assessment). This labelling doesn't sound as nice of course but is much more accurate. Are these government schools "without religion"? Certainly not. Government owned and operating schools proceed on religious assumptions just as does any private, parochial, Christian, Muslim, or other non-government school. All human institutions proceed from religious assumption. Like gravity, that's just the way it is.

It's good to know there are still those in the CRCNA who understand and appreciate basic Reformed worldview concepts. May that number increase.

I get the author's point - sort of - although I would not consider a Christian school to be a "public school." I just fail to see the harm in calling a school funded by a Christian organization a "Christian school" as opposed to a public school funded by the state. Then again I'm not much for labels anyway.

But then I reached this phrase, which I consider odd:

"that build citizens by teaching an official language"

What does that mean?

If Christian schools were "public" in the sense of being "open" and "making our world a better place" (oh wait--apparently we want to make our *countries* a better place--that seems to imply "private" to me as much as anything else), then why do they fail to reflect the ethnic diversity of our larger society?

Hint: It's NOT because people of color/ethnic minority people aren't Christians.

As retired administrator of a number of Christian schools throughout the country, including Elim Christian School for Children with Disabilities, I whole-heartily agree with Mr. Duiker's response to the article written by Dr. Thomas Hoeksema's article in 'The Banner'. I recently mailed a letter to a local newspaper editor who referred to the secular schools as public and the Christian schools as private.
I realize that there is choice in education, but tax dollars are not a 'choice' to be paid to the school of one's choice. Parents who choose to send their children to 'private' schools pay Caesar what is Caesar's when they also pay tuition in an education which expouses their world and life view. Where's the choice? Well done, Mr. Duiker!

Mr Duiker is right that at least some Christian schools participate in a societal public school philosophy. The heart of that philosophy is the notion that schools belong to the community (thus "public"), and historically the schools within the old Dutch settlements adopted something of this line.

Two items erode that understanding: the notion that schools are family based, and the rising tuition. The latter is especially cogent, since it begins to restrict the ability of the school to serve a wide socio-economic swath of the community (another value of "public" education). This burden of cost and tuition pushes the schools away from supporting communities and toward the sending homes. This is more individualized and far more market driven.

The family-based philosophy of the past generation further reinforces, even sanctions this move up the socio-economic ladder. From the very beginning of the public school movement in the United States, the schools were contrasted with the European and aristocratic model of family-centered education.

However if some follow a public philosophy, others do not. Short of government support (high unlikely in the U.S.) the socio-economic pressures are likely to push more and more Christian schools into a functional private school model, this independent of the desires and efforts of faculty and parents.

Lastly, the functional difference between public and private is as much about governance as it is about philosophy. A public school is one that has institutional accountability to the community at large. It is hard to see how a philosophically focused school can participate in such a system without compromise, no matter how open it is, or how well it teaches patriotism.

Mr.Duiker makes a valid point in his article. The question then could be asked - should we expect public funding for the portion of Christian Education which is not "Christian"?

@Carl Wiersum

Because government has a legitimate interest in ensuring a certain educational level of its citizenry, it should play a role in ensuring the funding of that education. At the same time, government must (under the US Constitution at least) and should respect its citizens' rights to live a life relatively free of inappropriate government intrusion and dictation (i.e., allow political pluralism).

If these two principles are both respected, an educational voucher system is the best way for government to provide funding for education. I would even suggest any other method, including the current one, is seriously unjust.

Indeed, if one really wants to change the mindset of the population of this country, there is no better way than to change the current public education system by implementing a voucher funding system and allowing voluntary associations to create whatever educational systems they want and receive at least partial funding from those vouchers.

One would think the CRCNA Office of Social Justice would be all over the current political injustice in education. To my knowledge, this is even on OSJ's radar screen.

The US constitution guarantees freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly. A school is speech, press, assembly or religion. You can't have one without all four. Ask a supreme court justice, "If a matter comes up and the question is, 'Is this religious?', who should decide that question?" If a court or any other government entity declares something religious, it is establishing that as a religion. That would violate the principle of separation of church and state as now understood. The Bible says, "Do everything you do to the glory of God." No state may say either "do that", or "don't do that." Either would be establishment of a religion.
The main problem is loss of freedom of assembly. Because the dictator decides by monetary control where my children assemble, he has to restrict the freedom of what is said, what is read and what is believed there.

In his first paragraph, the author states that "Public schools...are called public by virtue of... the enrollment policies by which they accept all students" and then promptly goes on to adjust this definition to suit the purposes of his argument. This is all fine and good, unfortunately, he never comes back to address this central point of public schools accepting all children.
As a gay First Nations man who was raised in the CRC, and grew up from K-Calvin College in the Christian education system, I can tell you quite honestly and without bitterness or anger that homophobia and racism is alive and well within your communities, and quite honestly, nobody wants to talk about these issues in a way that meaningfully connects with people who are actually different than you.

I woiuld simply point out that you may be as annoyed as you want, but ignoring or barring children of different faiths or raised by parents with different values or ethnicities certainly is exclusionary. It is unfortunate that people within your own community would choose to be annoyed by opposing viewpoints from the outside world, instead of facing such criticism with prayerful humility and and a serious reflection on how you might compassionately and kindly face difference and diversity in your school system.

Private schools are not run by the government. Public schools are. Simple as that.

Secular means non-religious. Exclusion of religious ways of "knowing" from public schools is not "an alternative to other religions", it is public schools being non-religious, or secular. Again, not a difficult concept.

There may be a case for allowing some public schools to be religious, but this incoherent article doesn't begin to make it.

@Johnny Blackstar

You say "homophobia and racism is alive and well within your communities...." OK, but such is also the case in all other communities, and it isn't just homophobia and racism, but selfishness, arrogance, adultery, covetousness, hatred, and all other sorts of sinful thoughts, words and deeds.

So, what's your point?

You then accuse this community of being very exclusionary (it is to some degree, but not the degree you say), but then somewhat contradict that, claiming to be an outsider (gay, First Nations), but yet having attended this 'exclusioary schools' "from K-Calvin College."

So, which is it.


You say "secular means non-religous." If so, ain't no such thing as secular. No matter what you teach, you must, have to, have no option but to, ultimately find a foundation for what you teach in some religious perspective, "religion" being nothing more or less than that foundational set of pre-rational assumptions that anyone and everyone has to make before proceeding to any conclusion about what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad (or whether good or bad even exist). Religion is like the axioms in geometry. You don't prove anything without first making them. Necessary starting points.

So all schools teach from a religious perspective. Each teacher does. In so-called public schools, different teachers tend to teach from various religious perspectives, although some do that in a more 'clandestine' way thant others. If public school teachers are atheistic materialists (yes, a religious perspective), they can teach from that perspective quite openly. Not so much if they teach from other religious perspectives.

This is why government should butt out of education as much as possible. You can't teach without starting from a religous point of view. Thus, trying to do that tends to "establish a religion," which is a no-no under the First Amendment.

@ George, you said "Parents who choose to send their children to 'private' schools pay Caesar what is Caesar's when they also pay tuition in an education which expouses their world and life view. Where's the choice? Well done, Mr. Duiker!"

I would like to point out that those who do not have children also end up funding public schools through their taxes and Christian schools through their offerings (depending on how the church budget is set up). So, there is even less of a choice :-) Paying for something one does not use . . .

Good article, Mr. Duiker.

Perhaps the best labels would be: "state schools" and parent run schools. I understand that in California for example, parents can by petition take over a state run school and manage it themselves. Christian schools would be a form of parent-run schools. So would charter schools, Jewish schools, all-girl schools, and homeschools.

Funding ought to follow the student in every case. Even a form of proportional funding is appropriate, where charter schools could receive 90% and other parent-run schools could receive 80% of state-run schools, and homeschools perhaps 20% or 25% of state-run schools. Depending on the community the schools exist in, and the choices available (which are less in smaller communities), the parent-run schools could have increasing latitude for entrance requirements with regard to philosophical agreement and moral behaviour. Some restrictions on tuition requirements might apply in some cases.

An interesting article. Perhaps even further blurring the line, here in Edmonton, AB, Canada the public system funds most of the Christian schools (as charter schools) with parents paying a "top up" fee for instruction fees associated with teaching the Bible, and instruction that goes beyond the provincial curriculum.

The government here has embraced diversity and parent choice so there are charter schools available for many faith and special interest groups (Muslim, Christian, Arts, Science, etc.). So far the experiment has been working quite well. The Christian schools are booming and more diverse than ever before.

Oh - and I should add the teachers are well paid, the schools are held to consistently high professional standards, and the public funding has made it possible for children from all socio-economic groups to attend.

I'd be curious if this charter school model is being explored in other parts of North America.

A signpost for the future of public Christian education might be the following comment made by Michael Coren(excerpted from a longer article) Michael is Catholic:
" .... In Ontario, as well as most of Canada, state-funded Catholic education is generally about as Catholic as an Orange Lodge meeting in East Belfast. Non-Catholics assume that eager little Papists are indoctrinated into the Roman faith, but if only this was the case. The vast majority of Catholic teachers — while often decent and dedicated — are non-practising and even anti-Church.

"They are divorced, gay, abort and use contraceptives, live together, never attend mass, reject Catholic teaching, are indifferent or even hostile to the religion they are supposed to be part of.

"There will doubtless be official letters and complaints denying this, but I challenge anyone to spend time in Catholic schools and with Catholic teachers and draw a different conclusion. Believe me, I have done so. To the perhaps 20% of teachers who try to behave as Catholics, I salute you. To the rest, have the courage and integrity to teach in a public school....."

So, don't think it can't happen to us too. JZ

An interesting development here in Alberta recently. Bill 2, an education bill, has been drafted which is getting some opposition from Catholic schools and homeschools. It seems to give authority to the Minister of Education to combine Catholic and public school boards in some cases, and to combine facilities. It also seems to intrude into the classroom by insisting on the supremacy of the Human Rights Act to prevent dissent on certain ideologies and lifestyles. And it seems to deny parents abilities to withdraw students from certain classes such as sex ed and similar things. These things are upsetting to the Catholic schools and homeschools, who both agree that parents have the paramount authority and responsibility for the education of their children, and want that to be assured for the future as well.

The intrusion of the state into parent's jurisdictions for education can be subtle and slow and steady, in spite of funding for a lot of alternatives and choices. Even in a province like Alberta which has one of the best education systems along with funding options, in North America. So vigilance is necessary.