The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

It is Wednesday, November 15, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Numbers Are Staggering: The Tidal Wave of Homeschooling Surges Throughout the U.S.

If you could look all over the nation at the entire educational landscape, say for K through 12 students, and you were to look at the most remarkable development in the last several years? Well, would it surprise you to know that that most remarkable development is a radical surge in homeschooling families? And now it has reached the front page of The Washington Post in a massive investigative report.

The headline on the front page of the print edition simply announces, “Homeschool Nation. A remarkable rise. Form of education has moved from the fringe to fastest growing in the United States. A Post,” (that means Washington Post) “data analysis finds.” A team of reporters was on this, and frankly, they’ve done a very good job. They’re also honestly shocked.

The Washington Post and others are shocked at the radical growth in homeschooling. And here’s the deal, the most radical increase did not come as a result of COVID. The most radical increase has actually shown up after COVID. So, this is counterintuitive and it’s getting the attention of many people. Now, let me tell you the main reason it’s getting attention. The main reason is there’s big money at stake in education. Public school systems have budgets largely allotted on the basis of enrollment. And so a fall off an enrollment – and this is largely the same when it comes to federal money going to the states – it has a lot to do with how many students are in the system. If the students aren’t in the system, the systems don’t get as much money. And never fool yourself, when you’re looking at this kind of equation, this kind of issue, particularly at the state and national level, yes, it’s about money.

But as much as that is true about governments and departments of education; school systems, it’s not true of parents. Parents aren’t doing this for the money. They’re not withdrawing their own children from the public schools because of the money, because if anything, this is going to cost them money, certainly in most parts of the country, and yet they’re doing so. And so that raises the huge question, why are parents doing this? And the answer turns out to be something that’s not only predictable, but frankly greatly weighted with importance from a Christian worldview. It has to do with parents actually caring about what is taught to their children. It’s about parents being concerned about the environment, even the institutional context in which their children are learning, or at least in which they are seated in a classroom and you hope learning is something that takes place. What you have going on here is, of course, a crisis in the larger society in terms of confidence in the public schools.

But when it comes to evangelical Christians–and evangelical Christians are not alone in this movement, but certainly right now are the vanguard in this movement–it’s not primarily about the money, it’s not even primarily about the institutional context. It’s not even primarily about who was doing the teaching. It’s about what is being taught. And so that appears to be the greatest urgency. The other issues are, as we understand, interconnected and related. So let’s begin to look at them for a moment.

The reporters for The Post tell us, “Homeschooling has become by a wide margin, America’s fastest growing form of education. As families from Upper Manhattan to Eastern Kentucky embrace a largely unregulated practice once confined to the ideological fringe, a Washington Post analysis shows.” The article goes on, “The analysis based on data, The Post has collected for thousands of school districts across the country reveals that a dramatic rise in homeschooling at the onset of the pandemic has largely sustained itself through the ’22/’23 academic year defying predictions that most families would return to schools that have dispensed with mask mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions.”

All the data seems to indicate that there’s actually a continued rise in homeschooling. So COVID may have been a catalyst, but COVID is not the reason. Something else is the reason, and I think most of us know what that reason is. It is because of grave concerns about what is happening to children in the school systems, and most importantly, what they are being taught.

And at this point, things get really interesting because The Post mentioned there, Manhattan and Eastern Kentucky, and that’s not an accident. They mentioned Manhattan and Eastern Kentucky because they’re trying to make the point that this is not happening in just one part of the country. If you’re going to think about two parts of the country that might be most different? Eastern Kentucky, rural, Manhattan, incredibly urban. To put the two of them together in one movement really does underline the fact that something systemic, something big, something structural, something seismic is taking place here.

And from a Christian worldview perspective, this raises an interesting question. What would commonly unite parents in Manhattan, and parents in Hazard, Kentucky; what would commonly concern them that would lead them to pull children out of the public schools? Because we’re talking about two very different communities, and frankly we may be talking about two different worldviews. But the common theme seems to be that there is decreasing confidence in what the public schools are accomplishing, decreasing confidence in what the public schools are teaching. A part of this is easily definable pathologies that are clearly articulated in numbers, and in reports, and in test scores, but there are also anecdotes, there are narratives, there are stories being told by parents to other parents about what is happening. And frankly, there is a messaging about what’s going on in the public schools that is filtering down to the question, why exactly do we have public schools?

In order to think about this we’re going to leave The Washington Post and its massive report and we’re going to look at a bit of history. So, as we think about the United States of America, the early schools were either church schools, or they were parents teaching, or they were community schools under local control. And that would often mean that where you have a small town, they might have to go looking for a teacher who might come to live to the town, might be someone with a bit more learning than people who were in the town as parents and business people, largely in an agrarian context, lots of people were farmers.

You had to hire a teacher, you brought a teacher, and that teacher might teach in a one room school and might teach ages all the way from the first grade until what would amount to what’s now considered high school graduation. You’ll be talking about very young children and teenagers in the same room, and they were progressing at some point under the tutelage of a teacher. But of course, now you’re talking about an educational industrial complex of massive schools, and school systems, and comprehensive school structures that frankly would defy the imagination of early Americans.

By the midpoint of the 19th century. Most towns, not to mention cities in the United States, considered education to be something of a civic responsibility. It wasn’t just a small town in early America where parents said, “Let’s get together and hire a teacher.” It was actually the establishment of formal schools. But thinking about that, it’s also interesting to note that there was an ideology that went with it. There was a cultural concern that drove it. The cultural concern was, how can we be one nation? Especially in the second half of the 19th century into the early decades of the 20th century when so many immigrants are coming from European nations, in particular places like Italy and also Ireland.

Furthermore, you had an influx of say Jewish families coming largely from Eastern Europe. They landed especially in the eastern seaboard in the big cities, also in some of the great lake cities as well. And you had the development of the vision for what was called the common school. The common school became the public school, but the issue of the common school was that children from many different backgrounds, from all kinds of different families will be brought into one school to have a common school experience. This was a part of understanding how civics would be taught to Americans.

But of course then you raise some other questions, who’s going to determine what is taught? And so by the late 19th century and in particular into the early 20th century, you had the development of teaching as a profession. You had the development of educational expectations, of college and university degrees before one could teach. Then you had the development of education schools with even graduate degrees within colleges and universities. And what that means is the standardization of education, because if you’re going to have a common school, well, it’s not just for those who happen to be commonly living in a neighborhood. Eventually it becomes a far larger context of common.

In the United States, by the way, local control of the schools has been a prized concept, but it has been eroding. It’s been frankly subverted in recent decades. And one of the reasons is because you have the impulse towards standardization. You ought to know, it is claimed, that what is taught in say, Birmingham is what’s taught in Berkeley. At least when it comes to say math, common curriculum and all the rest.

But there was another thing going on here, and that had to do with the fact that there was grave concern that in particular the children of immigrants will be marked by what many educational progressives called the prejudices of their parents. And thus, one of the ideals, one of the ideologies of the common school movement was to separate children from the cultural prejudices of their parents. No one made that point more emphatically than the American philosopher, and frankly the most influential person in the public school movement in the 20th century, that’s John Dewey of Columbia University and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College.

A couple of other things also developed at the same time. For one thing, the ideal had been not only local control, but neighborhood schools. But then in the 20th century, we also had the invention, and yes, I’ll use that word, the invention of adolescence. Now, let’s be honest, adolescence is a physical process, even as a cultural hallmark had been taking place throughout all of human history. But when it comes to adolescence in the 20th century sense, well, the development of the teenager as something of a subspecies became a great educational focus, and that’s why you had the development of the high school. And the high school was often intended to be not just neighborhood, but comprehensive.

You also had the urgency towards efficiency. People were saying, look, you have all these neighborhoods, you have all these children. It would be better to consolidate some of these districts, some of these neighborhoods into schools that were larger. They could offer, it was promised, better facilities. They can have larger athletic programs. They can offer a larger array in the curriculum. And for some time, bigger is better seem to be the mantra of much public education.

By the time you get to the second half of the 20th century though, the cracks are beginning to show. The cracks aren’t in enrollment. At that point, enrollment just kept getting bigger and bigger. Particularly with the baby boomers and the children of the baby boomers, school districts were more worried about buying enough buses, hiring enough teachers, building enough buildings. Of course, right now, the situation is almost the reverse. Actually in numbers in many places it’s dramatically the reverse.

But there were other developments, two in particular, that demand our attention here. For one thing, you have the exodus of many people from the public schools into private schools. And those private schools were often established because parents that were dissatisfied with the public option. There were some private schools that were established on the basis of educational concerns, a different educational model. There were some that were established explicitly on the basis of religious, or theological, or doctrinal concerns. The rise of the Christian school movement, particularly from the 1960s to the present is a big part of that.

We can also note that frankly, we shouldn’t deny: there were some parents who made the decision to pull their children out of the public schools out of other concerns, including the fact they didn’t want their children with other children from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. It’s hard to believe that that was once a big issue in America, but it was. But that is clearly not the driving issue now.

Another big issue that arose was the development of what is now called homeschooling, and that’s the focus of this front page article in The Washington Post. But it’s really interesting, and frankly will be shocking to many conservative Christians, to know that homeschooling in the United States was not won as a right by evangelical Christians, nor was it first popularized by evangelical Christians.

In terms of a constitutional right for parents to educate their children, that was not undertaken by evangelical Christians, it was undertaken by the Amish. In a series of court decisions, you had several states claiming that the state had the authority to educate Amish children, and those Amish parents, in a series of court victories, won the clear right and recognition of parental privilege.

We need to recognize how important those court decisions are when evangelical Christians make the decision to exercise our responsibility and privilege to educate our own children outside of the public schools.

The second big factor, and this is going to be shocking to many, is that as I said, homeschooling really didn’t begin on the cultural right, it began on the cultural left. As a matter of fact, it began among the people in the sixties who were often called hippies, and it wasn’t called homeschooling, it was originally called unschooling. The hippies weren’t complaining about too much sex education or intersectionality in the public schools. No, they were complaining about the institutionalization of education. They didn’t want their children taught by the man and the machine. They wanted their children taught in a more organic setting. And you had the hippies who simply said, “We’re going to unschool our children rather than school them.”

You had all kinds of experiments on the left in alternative education. But here’s the thing, once you had the Amish win the court decisions, and then you had the cultural left begin the experiment in unschooling. Well, that led many conservative Christians to understand, “We can do this too. Maybe we not only can do it, maybe we ought to do it.” And then conservative Christians begin to think more seriously about the fact that, “Not only could we do this, but maybe there’s a biblical responsibility that is invested in parents, and maybe parents need to take that so seriously that we will homeschool our children.”

By the way, my serious word to parents here biblically and theologically is that that is your responsibility from God to take primary responsibility for the education of your children. And furthermore, the biblical worldview makes very clear that all parents, biblically defined, are homeschoolers. Now, that doesn’t mean that your children aren’t in any other school context part of the day, but it does mean your primary responsibility, a non delegatable responsibility as parents under God’s authority, is to teach your children, to raise your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Now, that means Christian parents may choose so many different options, but just to speak honestly at the most basic level, all Christian parents must be homeschoolers. And to put it another way, every Christian home should be a school.

But that’s not the sense that has caught the attention of The Washington Post. They’re thinking about formal homeschooling, which means pulling children out of the public schools, even out of most institutional educational settings, and instead making the primary educational setting the home.

Now, The Washington Post suggested several data points that are worth our consideration. Number one, in states with comparable enrollment figures, the number of homeschooled students increased 51% in the past six school years. Private school enrollment grew 7%. So 7% private school enrollment versus 51% increase in homeschooling. Public school enrollment during that period dropped 4%. The second point, “Homeschooling’s surging popularity crosses every measurable line of politics, geography, and demographics.” They point out the number of homeschool kids has increased 373% over the past six years in the small town of Anderson, South Carolina. But the very next statement is this, “It also increased 358% in a school district in the Bronx.” That means highly metropolitan, highly urban New York.

When something’s happening in Anderson, South Carolina of that magnitude that’s also happening in the Bronx and the key decision makers, the agents of change here are parents and the issue is homeschooling? Guess what? This lands on the front page of The Washington Post. It announces, “This is an absolutely massive story,” and quite frankly, it represents a clear and present threat to the entire edifice of the public schools in the United States. And as this article makes clear, homeschooling is a part of a larger set of challenges and competitors that may mean a much reduced enrollment in public schools, and that’s going to raise huge cultural and economic issues in the United States.

Now, this at least is partly during the period of COVID, but listen to this, “In the 390 districts included in The Post analysis, there was at least one homeschooled child for every 10 in public schools.” Now, when you considered it, COVID meant that the majority of American school children were homeschooled in some sense during that period, this particular data point means ongoingly. This is not just because of COVID. Now simply because of time, I’m not going to look much more at The Post’s massive analysis here. It’s most important not only for what’s in it, but for the very fact that it exists as a front page article in the most influential newspaper in the nation’s capitol.

Part II

Progressive Educational Ideologies and Big Government: The Enemies of Homeschooling Parents

Now, the second thing I want to talk about is the fact that homeschooling has enemies and some of those enemies also show up in this article. Now, what would be their arguments against homeschooling? Well, number one, they argue that parents aren’t really competent to be educators. We as Christians need to press back on that and make very clear that parents are after all the parents of the children that God gives them. Parents not only have the authority to teach those children, they have the responsibility to teach those children. And quite frankly, over time it’ll be very interesting to see how you would evaluate the educational outcomes from students taught at home versus those taught in school. I can tell you as the president of a seminary in a college, that when we look at incoming students, homeschool students are by no means educationally and academically behind students trained in other educational contexts.

But the next thing we need to note is there are two other enemies of the homeschooling movement. One of them is just the big movement towards big education and the very impulse towards the common schools that produce them in the public schools in quite frankly, what is now this enormous edifice of the educational administrative state. And let’s just face it, when government has control of the schools, government doesn’t like losing students. And government doesn’t appreciate parents who intervene in that process. So at least part of that’s very understandable.

The other enemy of homeschooling in this sense are the educational ideologues who want to say, look, the big problem is what these parents are going to teach. Because these parents are going to be, say, Orthodox Jewish parents are going to teach their children consistent with Orthodox Judaism, or they’re going to be Mormon parents are going to teach their children according to the mandates and the doctrines of Mormonism, or they’re going to be evangelical Christians, and they’re going to teach their children in line with evangelical doctrine and the Christian worldview.

And of course, that is the very point of this, but it’s also very significant to note that there are those who will say, parents shouldn’t have this right, and frankly, we ought to evaluate and maybe even rate or license parents on their relative ability to be homeschooling parents. This is where Christians need to know, it is our job to press back logically, persuasively, socially, economically, politically, morally, and in every other way against that argument. We must make very clear that the government doesn’t grant parents the rights to be parents, it must nonetheless recognize the rights of parents as parents.

All this bears a lot of watching, but frankly, what alarms so many is a great encouragement to me, and I hope today a great encouragement to you. There’s more to this story and we’ll be tracking further developments, but the most important thing to recognize is that a surprising number of parents in some surprising places from Birmingham to the Bronx, they are now united in teaching their children, and that means outside of the institutional school setting.

I think that’s one of the most unexpected developments, certainly in terms of the diverse demography here, it’s some of the most unexpected developments of modern times. And I think it tells us something about the Christian worldview, something very important about the love of parents for their children, and the protective impulses that parents in various parts of the country driven by different worldviews and even religious beliefs, they share a common concern that is reflected in now a common movement towards homeschooling.

Part III

A Regressive, Isolating Ban? Students in Florida Irate (and Lonely?) After School District Bans Cell Phones

All right, before leaving today, I want to mention a development coming from the state of Florida in the schools, and in particular, Natasha Singer of the New York Times reports about something that has happened at Timber Creek High School near Orlando, Florida. It turns out that the school has banned the use of cellphones at school on the part of the high schoolers. Headline in the article is, “A Florida District Bans Phones. Students agonize, but perk up.”

It turns out the teachers are saying, “The students are actually making more facial contact, they’re paying more attention once the phones are out of reach and turned off.” Some of the parents are saying, “I should be able to contact my student any point in the day.” Students are saying, at least some of them, they don’t like it. An amazing statement made by an eighth grader is this; this is a young girl, by the way, a 13-year-old named Catalina, who said, “Imagine that the device you use on a daily basis to communicate with other people is completely gone.” She went on to saying, “It feels completely isolating.” Now remember, she’s not alone, she’s at school. She’s in a classroom, she’s in a lunchroom, she’s in the gymnasium, she’s with other students, she’s with a teacher. But without her phone, the experience is completely isolating. And by the way, before you think, “Well, there goes a 13-year-old,” I think honestly, there are a lot of 33 year olds and 63 year olds who share pretty much the same pattern and the same fear.

You got to love this paragraph. “Orange County students describe the band as regressive, noting that they could no longer use their phones to check their class schedules during school, take photos of their projects in art class, find their friends at lunch, or even add the phone numbers of new classmates to their contact lists.” So how difficult can it be to find your friends at lunch? Has this become something like a lost social skill that now requires a generation of younger Americans to discover, say, the great social mechanism of how to find your friends in a lunchroom? Maybe someone needs to go to Orange County and organize a seminar for these students on how to find their friends. But of course, if you did organize that seminar, you’d probably have to create an app for students to register on their phones, but not at school.

The article also tells us why school leaders led in the development of this new policy. “Orange County educators said many students’ attachment to their phone seemed to deepen. Students rarely looked up from their devices as they walked down school hallways. Some teenagers covertly filmed their classmates and spread the videos on apps like Snapchat.”

By now, you’re pretty much aware that this is not just a trivial issue. There are very serious issues at stake here. And of course there are always serious issues, Christians understand, in the application of any technology. And especially when you add the relative youth and young age of the students in these schools, and you realize how much awesome computing power is being put into this little package of a smartphone, not to mention all the pluses. But let’s be honest, the even more massive negatives when it comes to the use of social media and smartphones on the part of teenagers. Of course, the big issue for parents is this can’t be just about what happens at school, what happens at home, and everywhere else is of equal if not greater importance.

One final issue here that arises when you think about parents and children, and in particular teenagers and smartphones. One other thing we need to note is that many parents, quite frankly, are also using this shortcut of texting to their kids rather than looking them in the eyes and talking to them. And requiring those same teenagers and children to look the parent in the eye and talk back respectfully.

Or as my mom used to say, “If you’re not looking at me, you’re not listening to me.”

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from San Antonio, Texas, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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