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Why there's an ongoing evangelical war on public schools

MSNBC logo MSNBC 5/12/2022 Anthea Butler

“Public education has become public enemy No. 1,” the actor Kirk Cameron opines in a promotion for “The Homeschool Awakening,” his documentary scheduled to hit theaters in June. The documentary, funded by the Trinity Broadcasting Network and Cameron’s own Camfam Studios, argues that parents should be homeschooling their children in the wake of the pandemic. However, as Cameron’s quote indicates, this latest project of conservative evangelical education is another salvo in the ongoing evangelical war against public schools.

This latest project of conservative evangelical education is another salvo in in the ongoing evangelical war against public schools.

It should come as no surprise that evangelicals, fundamentalists and other religious conservatives have fought against public education since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The prospect of integrated schools led to the creation of many “segregation academies,” private schools designed to keep African American children and undesirable immigrant groups away from white children. But there was another, more insidious way to circumvent integration: homeschooling.

One of the main purveyors of homeschooling was a fundamentalist, Rousas Rushdoony, whose work beginning in the 1960s in establishing Christian day schools grew into the homeschooling movement. He saw homeschooling as a way to cut the government out of educating Christian children and to prepare them to take their place in a theocratic government. Julie Ingersoll, author of “Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction,” says Rushdoony “was one of the intellectual godfathers of the Religious Right, but he is often treated like a crazy uncle.”

Crazy or not, homeschooling materials inspired by Rushdoony’s theology are on sale today to parents who homeschool in America, and many of those materials reached parents during the pandemic. Cameron’s documentary promoting homeschooling is not an aberration; it is part of a larger project about dismantling the public education system in the United States.

This dismantling has taken shape over the years in various ways: in segregation academies, in school vouchers, in attempts to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education and even with former President Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos to lead that department. Now that her time in government is done, DeVos is speaking at homeschooling conventions, to promote homeschooling and to disparage critical race theory and other “detriments to education.”

Cameron’s documentary furthers the long-term goal of America’s religious conservatives to dismantle the public school system by promoting homeschooling, an idea that grew in popularity during the pandemic among parents who wanted to make sure their children kept up academically and avoided the coronavirus. According to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau in the fall of 2020, 11.1 percent of parents said their children were homeschooled, compared to 5.4 percent that spring.

Some of that increase may be attributed to Black parents and other diverse groups who are now finding homeschooling as an attractive alternative. Yet some parents have expressed frustration with conservative Christian materials for homeschooling, which drive the current marketplace. And other professional educators have issued dire warnings about homeschooling, including issues regarding a lack of oversight and the increased potential for child abuse.

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Cameron’s homeschooling documentary comes at a time of contentious debate about critical race theory, LGBTQ issues, transgender children and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. Like the documentary itself, those new laws are designed to weaken already debilitated public school systems that are dealing with limited funding, staffing and violence issues. Attempts by religious conservatives to prohibit certain subjects deemed dangerous or inappropriate are not new, but they are now coming in multiple waves across the country.

Homeschooling may have greater appeal now because of these debates and the desire for parents to play a big part in their children’s educational life. It may also arise out of pandemic concerns, but parents unfamiliar with the existing networks of homeschooling run the danger of being drawn into Christian conservative networks and theocratic teaching. Cameron’s says that people choosing homeschooling are having an awakening, but the public needs to awaken to the reality that public schools may disappear if people with his extreme beliefs have their way.

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