Take your children out of public schools.
That's what James Dobson, founder of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family, told more than five million American listeners in a March 28 broadcast of his daily radio show.
"In the state of California ... I wouldn't put [a] youngster in a public school," Dobson bluntly stated. His words sparked a campaign that reveals the extent of parental discontent with public schools.
Why are they discontented? Some parents worry about the lack of religious or "moral" values; other parents point to low academic standards or bias against male students. (Dobson objected to "homosexual propaganda" that teaches, for example, that "bisexuality is normal.")
The common denominator is that parents wish to choose the values and standards by which their children are educated.
The campaign against public schools snowballed April 9 when the popular radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger declared, "I stand with Dr. James Dobson." Indeed, Dr. Laura did not restrict her comments to California.
"Take your kids out of public schools," she advised. The same day, in his Christian talk show Point of View — broadcast over 360 American radio stations — Marlon Maddoux added his agreement.
Marshall Fritz, founder of the Separation of School and State Alliance, described the power of these endorsements in an April 15 press release. SSSA has created an online Proclamation for the Separation of School and State. In the week following the broadcasts, signatures on the proclamation increased from an average of five per day to over 100. Then, on April 23, Fritz circulated an excited memo. An article in WorldNetDaily had reported on the controversy. In one day, the proclamation received over 2,500 new signatures.
The document reads simply, "I proclaim publicly that I favor ending government involvement in education." But the companion list of ten benefits to "school liberation" states as number one, "Parents will be reinforced ... parents will choose schools where teachers support their values." Other benefits include safety, academic quality, decreased cost, and better schools for poor children. From the list it is clear that the anti-public school movement is pro-education in a grassroots sense that returns responsibility for children from the government to parents.
The backlash against public schools comes in the wake of recent horror stories in the media. Some deal with threats to children's safety — and not merely from fellow students with weapons. ABC News reported on a Head Start program that used cockroaches to discipline children. One boy who was subjected to the cockroach punishment at age five remains so afraid of bugs three years later that he refuses to go outside.
Other reports question academic standards. The April 16 Philadelphia Inquirer reported that, for the first time, Pennsylvania would release test results for math and reading by race, poverty and sex. This sparked fears that the quality of future education a child would receive might hinge on race, poverty and sex. Indeed, since the 2000 publication of Christina Hoff Sommer's The War Against Boys, accusations that boys are second-class citizens within the public schools have become commonplace.
What seems to stir up the most anger, however, is the teaching of politically correct values to children against parental wishes. In January, the Pacific Justice Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of distressed parents against a California school that conducted allegedly pro-homosexual assemblies without notice or parental consent.
As parents remove their children from the public schools, however, governmental resistance to alternative education will probably increase. The most vulnerable alternative is likely to be homeschooling. Stories such as that of California mom Sandra Sorenson may become more common.
The Sorensons decided to set up their own private school after their 10-year-old son's public school initiated a policy of having fellow students issue suspensions to each other, which teachers would sign. "Children should not have the power over other children," Sandra explained. "Nine and 10-year-olds shouldn't be giving out suspensions. Kids can be mean."
As a result, she is facing a possible jail sentence for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor" and claims to have been harassed severely by school officials.
For example, the California Child Protective Service investigated the family based on a complaint filed by the son's former principal. The complaint alleged that Sorensen did not provide proper medical attention for her son's diagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. A standard treatment recommended by public schools is the powerful and controversial drug, Ritalin. The CPS investigator found the allegations to be unfounded.
Despite such risks, parents seem more likely than ever before to remove their children from "the system." With reports of homeschooled children outperforming those educated by government schools in national spelling bees and on some tests, parents who would never resist authority in any other area seem willing to step forward for the sake of their children's well-being.
Perhaps Marshall Fritz is correct in believing that Dobson's statements could signal the beginning of a revolution.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the forthcoming anthology Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.