In the US every student is entitled to FAPE, a free appropriate public education up to age 21 (or whenever they graduate.) This is a huge positive for our society as every kid in a community is expected and welcomed into a school. If students have poor attendance or simply do not show up, schools are legally required to check in on them. Public schools necessarily reflect the diversity, or lack thereof, of the community they are in. This is a huge positive for me as someone who very consciously chose to teach in a public school.
Of course public schools are not the only options in a country as wealthy as ours. Parents can choose private, religious, or public charter schools. Many choose to homeschool in various set ups for all or part of their children’s education. While I fully support a parent’s right to choose what’s best for their child I also think most public schools provide a clear and invaluable service to their communities.
I bring this up because Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, took a job at a Christian School this week. Presumably this would be a pretty innocuous action but it made the headlines. If you want to read about the background here is the initial more liberal take and here is a more conservative follow up.
First some background. Christian schools across the country have policies similar to the one Pence now works at from elementary to higher ed. Statements of faith or belief, and other similarly worded documents all need to be signed by employees and students. Some schools are tiny, lack clear standards and may trend extremely conservative. Some are huge and rival the best public schools and colleges in the country. I personally coached at a private Christian school in the past because it was a good fit and they wanted me. I even applied for a teaching position there when no public school position was forthcoming. The fact that Pence’s school restricts LGBT students, while understandably upsetting to many, is a reality of thousands of schools across the country. They are fully within their rights to restrict their student body based on their genuinely held beliefs.
Many have responded by condemning Pence while others have defended her and the school. I want to take a slightly different take. The school she works at has a parent’s agreement which I want to quote in part here,
I understand the biblical role of Immanuel Christian School is to partner with families to encourage students to be imitators of Christ. This necessarily involves the school’s understanding and belief regarding biblical morality and standards of conduct. I understand that the school reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission to an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a student if the atmosphere or conduct within a particular home, the activities of a parent or guardian, or the activities of the student are counter to, or are in opposition to, the biblical lifestyle the school teaches…I acknowledge the importance of a family culture based on biblical principles and embrace biblical family values such as a healthy marriage between one man and one woman. My role as spiritual mentor to my children will be taken seriously.
What jumps out to me is that the school does not just require their students to uphold their beliefs and morality but their parents as well. While I do not discount the importance of a safe and stable home life this policy strikes me as unbelievably exclusive and regretful.
I have so many questions. Are kids from divorced homes allowed to attend? Are kids with single parents allowed? Are kids who parents are seen at the local bar expelled? How many students is this school rejecting because they do not have an idealized home or family life?
Every Christian church, camp, and ministry I have ever been a part of is unfailingly inclusive. They have beliefs, statements of faith, and even codes of conduct but everyone is welcome to attend a service, take part in a meal, or come for a week of camp. Every kid, every prospective member, every person who wants a meal is welcome. I cannot imagine working at a school that would base a child’s standing on the conduct of their family members.
While the opioid crisis has been in the news in recent years many people might not realize how this impacts the average public school. I have taught in my building four years now and every single year I have had at least one student with a parent who has died. Every single year. Kids are resilient and many show up every day and are fantastic. But one cannot deny the trauma of losing one’s parent before high school. Schools are on the front lines of this crisis every single day.
Maybe I’m reading it too harshly but by their own standards Karen Pence’s school would reject these kids because their home life does not match up to their ideal. This does not make me want to condemn the school so much as it makes me question why anyone would want to teach in a place that only accepts the good and the pure. Particularly one that uses the Bible as their guide post.
Schools are meant for kids. All kids. Private and religious schools are welcome to be as exclusive or inclusive as they wish, and most do a great job with the kids in their care. But one wonders how much many of these institutions are missing out on by restricting their student body. I head back to my public school tomorrow and for that I am grateful.