News21 A Journalism Initiative of the Carnegie and Knight Foundations

Project Banner

Medill Belief and Public Life

Skipping Out on Public Schools

By Leah Fabel, August 26, 2007

Increasingly frustrated with secular education, Christian parents are finding a growing number of educational, and religious, alternatives.

LYNCHBURG, Va.--Maddie Logan is set to begin fourth grade this fall in North Port, Fla., in the comfort of her parents’ home. But the Logans are not quite home schoolers.

In Marble Falls, Tex., Donna Bowman’s home will be empty each weekday for the first time in 20 years now that her youngest daughter, Brianna, is heading to college. But much like the Logans, the Bowmans didn’t quite home school, either.

Though not completely sold on traditional home schooling, both families have found options to achieve an overriding objective: stay out of the public schools.

They share several beliefs: a supreme faith in Jesus Christ, far less in public education, and a conviction that new schooling models can best guide their children.

For the Logans, the prototype is an online academy to be launched this fall through the late Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg, Va.-based Liberty University. For the Bowmans, it’s a hybrid called University Model Schools, a blend of home- and campus-based education.

Using the new models, a growing number of Christian parents have fulfilled what many consider a biblical directive: provide for their children a solid education grounded in family-based, evangelical beliefs. But even as leaders have praised the successes, they’ve exposed an ever-widening gap between those who share their world view and those who shun it.

The Logans foray into online education began in Lynchburg where Falwell long had a vision of Christian education that began with the founding of Liberty University in 1971. On September 1, that vision will see one more stage of completion with the launching of Liberty Online Academy, an extension to students in grades 3-12 of Liberty’s vast distance-learning enterprise begun in the late 1980s.

University officials hope 1,000 academy students will be enrolled over the coming year, compared with an expected 25,000 post-secondary distance students. They’ll pay an estimated $3,000 per year, roughly half of tuition a Christian private school, and all of which can be credited upon graduation to on-campus tuition at Liberty University.

“One of Falwell’s visions from the get-go in the ‘60s was to create a Christian education environment where a child could start in pre-school and go through a doctorate without ever having to sit under a professor who wasn’t born again,” said Jay Spencer, Liberty’s executive associate for online projects. “This is an extension of that to the academy level.”

Falwell’s vision is paramount to parents like Denise Logan, who along with her now-husband attended Liberty University as an undergraduate and wants her daughter to share in the institution she so trusts.

“I love Liberty—the whole ministry has made my husband and I who we are today,” she said, then paused. “And I guess I do believe that online schooling will be a part of our future. I’m excited to know that our child is one of the first in this area. I’m excited for her and for Liberty.”

Liberty will be using a licensed version of Rock Rapids, Iowa.-based Alpha Omega Publications’ Switched On Schoolhouse, a distance-learning program tailored to individual students and packed with games and colorful graphics. The same program, according to Alpha Omega President Beth TeGrotenhuis, is used for home education by several other giant Christian ministries: Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Cornerstone Ministry in San Antonio, and World Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio.

“Online education is one of our largest growth areas,” TeGrotenhuis said. “It is the wave of the future.”

Backing her is online education expert Thomas Nixon, who has written four books on the topic, including “Complete Guide to Online High Schools: Distance Learning Options for Teens and Adults,” published in 2007 by Degree Press.

“What I have been telling people recently is if I had money and wanted to open a distance-learning program, it wouldn’t be a college,” Nixon said when asked about industry’s growth. “I suspect that Liberty will be immediately successful, particularly at the high school level. It’s a matter of applying what’s already worked for them [in post-secondary distance learning]. In Liberty’s case, it’s an easy transition.”

Like those at Liberty, Barbara Freeman, executive director of Arlington, Tex.-based National Association of University Model Schools, envisions the ideal education as grounded in conservative Christian principles—specifically a rejection of worldly excesses, a return to biblical commandments and an embrace of the traditional two-parent family.

At a NAUMS school, such as Faith Academy of Marble Falls where Brianna Bowman attended, elementary students spend three days each week home schooled in a NAUMS-approved curriculum. The remaining two days are spent on a campus with actual teachers instructing a variety of electives, such as language or art classes.

In junior high, the schedule flip-flops; students spend two days at home and three on campus. Finally, during junior and senior year, they manage an on-campus college schedule with 60-minute classes three days per week and 90-minute classes the remaining two.

Like Liberty’s online model, NAUMS schools offer significant cost savings. At Faith Academy, elementary classes cost $290 per semester and high school classes cost $370 per semester. Depending upon the class load, tuition is generally one-third to one-half of that at a private Christian school, according to Freeman.

Having worked as a public school teacher for 35 years, Freeman came out of retirement in 2002 to run NAUMS. In that time, the non-profit has grown from 12 schools to 32. Up to 50 are expected by 2009 as Christian groups from Georgia to Illinois complete the process to secure students, teachers, administrators and a building.

Growth has been seen at the individual school level, too. Faith Academy, located about 50 miles northeast of Austin, has grown to 180 students from 78 in 1999, said Donna Bowman, who now works there as an academic assistant. “The spirit of God, he works every day here,” she said. “Everyone says that.”

With similar gusto, Freeman cited Deuteronomy 6 when extolling the program. “Parents are able to follow God’s commandment to teach his word diligently to their children while knowing their child will be instructed in a rigorous college-prep education,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

And, she believes, it’s certainly better than the alternative—namely public schools overridden by what she sees as a liberal agenda.

“There is a stronger need today for parents to take their children out of public education,” Freeman said. “Good things continue to happen, but [American society] really is getting worse, and that’s reflected in our schools. But that doesn’t mean we give up hope. Raising a child for Christ’s kingdom is a great start, and it’s one of the reasons that University Model Schools exist.”

The language of the underdog bolstered by Christ is shared by Freeman and one of her most ardent supporters, the Rev. E. Ray Moore. In 1997, Moore, a retired Bible Church, or Brethren, Navy chaplain, founded the Exodus Mandate, a broad-based evangelical movement to liberate Christian children from public education, which Moore derides as “pagan and anti-Christian.”

To support his cause he lists U.S. Supreme Court cases removing prayer and the teaching of intelligent design from the schools. He also cites findings by the Lexington, Ky.-based Nehemiah Institute, a conservative Christian polling and research group.

“They’ve tested 15,000 students and 83 percent of those raised evangelical and public schooled are testing Marxist, socialist, or secular humanist on exams,” Moore said. “That’s how coercive schools are becoming philosophically.”

Since 1997, the Exodus Mandate has made modest gains through persistence and, he said, divine inspiration. “I knew it was something God wanted me to do,” Moore said.

In the early years, he said, Moore tirelessly worked the Christian radio circuit and claims to have won over the faithful town by town, interview by interview. Then, in 2004 with the help of a handful of Southern Baptists, the Exodus Mandate was presented as a resolution to the annual Southern Baptist Convention, the decision-making body of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, to “create more Christian alternatives to the public schools.”

Though it didn’t receive the support to win adoption, it received media attention from outlets such as USA Today and the Washington Times. “It was debated for 10 minutes [at the SBC],” Moore said. “It was the most glorious 10 minutes I had ever seen. Losing was winning to us at that time.”

Since 2004, the Exodus Mandate has continued to be introduced as a resolution to the SBC, and it has continued to fail. Despite strong support for home schooling from influential pastors like the Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, the movement has not gained significant traction in traditionally conservative areas where Christian parents don’t feel overly threatened by public education, according to David Keys, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

Beyond the challenges waged by the faithful, Keys said he believes the movement will face a broader challenge from science and an evolving society.

“Part of the challenge with the exodus movement is they have to pass to the next generation a worldview that continues to be threatened by discovery,” he said. “I think it will ultimately not be successful because there’s a certain understanding that despite what you’re taught, you learn for yourself. Even Southern Baptist kids will do self-discovery.”

Keys’ thoughts wander to a Southern Baptist church in Decatur, Ga., that recently hired a senior female pastor, a nearly unheard of move for the denomination and one that many of the faith found unacceptable. “Little girls see that,” he said. “It shifts the paradigm every time.”

Even so, Moore doesn’t sound anywhere near a defeated man, and he takes great heart in models like Liberty’s and NAUMS, calling them “absolutely breathtaking” examples of Christian creativity and entrepreneurship.

His thoughts on protecting an increasingly threatened worldview are, as expected, at odds with Keys.

“We don’t think we’re taking these children out of society, but preserving them to be strong and vital individuals. So that when they engage they can engage strongly into the culture. They become useful to society because their faith is so ingrained and so strong with them.”

The Latest

Students from Medill School at Northwestern University spent eight months examining the connection between belief and public life in the United States, a pursuit that carried them everywhere from tattoo parlors to much more traditional venues and yielded an abundance of revealing stories.

Blog Reactions

See all results ...