It's very hard to put the two pieces of news together. One talks about the dreadful failure of government schools, where in Washington, D.C., eight high-school graduates out of 10 are functionally illiterate. The other news item tells about the government, right there in Washington, D.C., wanting to take over a larger role in education-this time in the day care of our very youngest children.
Yet, disturbing as it may be for the federal government to be carving out a new jurisdiction where it can botch up still another educational assignment, such should not be our main objection to President Clinton's newest proposals for federal involvement in day-care operations. Even if the government were getting top grades for what it's doing in the field of education, it would still have no business moving into the care of small children or into preschool education.
Shaping the minds and the value systems of our children is simply not the proper function of government-federal, state, or local. If such government education does a bad job of influencing our children, that is testimony enough that the state should get out of the task it carries off so incompetently. But there is something to fear much more than having the state do the job of education badly. The thing to fear is that the state might learn to do the job of education well.
If your child's school chooses never to mention what Jesus calls "the first and great commandment" of life-to love the Lord our God with all that we have-all the rest of that school's education is as hollow as it is shallow. Even worse is the effort, so often attempted by secular educators, to address some expression of the second great commandment-"loving your neighbor as yourself"-without having dealt seriously with the first one. The first puts a bone structure into the second.
Society needs to understand, and so do evangelical Christians, that the real problem with state education today (and with much private education as well) has nothing to do with teachers' salaries or funding levels or phonics or curriculum or how many months of the year or hours of the day children go to school. All those things have their significance and are worth discussing at the right time.
But the right time to discuss such issues is always after settling what education is really about. That question is best resolved by focusing on three main themes: Where did we come from? What went wrong? How can the wrong be undone? Ultimately, those questions are what all good education is about.
That is precisely, however, why government (at any level) shouldn't be involved in education. It has neither the right nor the competence to deal with such profound matters.
So what does all this have to do with the recurring proposals about federal involvement in day care? Simply that we should be vigilant not to get involved a third time with a mistake we've already made twice.
Our first mistake was to turn over nearly 90 percent of all elementary and secondary education to the state. Charles Hodge, two generations ahead of his time, predicted in the 1890s that state education would by its very nature become the mightiest engine for atheism our society could ever imagine. But why not? The requirement that the great God of the universe be systematically excluded from every discussion about everything that is important means either that state education will ignore all important questions or that it will sidestep all correct answers.
Now, and especially since World War II, we've repeated the mistake on the college level. Until the 1950s, it was taken for granted that the private (and often church-sponsored) colleges and universities set the pace for higher education. But since then, the incredible resources of the states and the federal government began to be poured into public institutions. If not by quality of instruction, then by peer pressure, big campus glamour, and the appeal of a steeply discounted tuition bill, public institutions have now succeeded in stealing away a substantial majority of the evangelical church's young people. Many claim they have no other economic choice. So it's now a safe estimate that at least two-thirds of all evangelical young people are being educated in the empty and sometimes even hostile value system of the state.
To fall into that trap now still a third time, by giving away another two or three of our children's most formative years, would mark us Christians as fools. We ought instead to be rising up en masse to reclaim the years we've already lost, insisting that the state no longer penalize us economically for the freedom to teach our children the way we want to.
Congress will be pressed hard in the weeks just ahead-and nearly all its choices will be bad ones. Nine years ago, in a similar debate, day-care facilities sponsored by churches and those operated under other religious sponsorship were targeted for exclusion from support. To be sure, inequities like that should be avoided. But what should really be avoided is any state encroachment of any kind in the field of day care for small children. If you can backpedal on a tricycle, now's a good time to shift into that particular gear.