Virtual Voices

Mission creep in schools

Education

"I don't want my children fed or clothed by the state, but even worse would be to have them educated by the state."-Max Belz (1914-1978), Iowa pastor and educational entrepreneur

In the current issue of WORLD, Marvin Olasky drew my attention to a New York Times report on the effect of our extended economic stagnation on school lunch programs. In addition to school breakfasts and lunches, some urban schools are adding dinners as well.

"Many large urban school districts have for years been dominated by students poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches. In Dallas, Newark and Chicago … most schools also offer free breakfasts. Now, some places have added free supper programs, fearing that needy students otherwise will go to bed hungry."

The expansion of public-school-as-social-service-provider has not been limited to these recent lean economic times. For a hundred years or more, public schools have been expanding their understanding of what they are called to accomplish with our children and with society in general. They have gone from teaching the academic subjects that prepare a person for higher education and for functioning as a responsible citizen to absorbing ever increasingly the full parental role.

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In The School and Society (1899), John Dewey predicted the "transformation" of society through a progressive new school system. With a view to the "necessities of the larger social evolution," he proposed a total socialization of the child under the authority of the school:

"It remains but to organize all these factors [of social life], to appreciate them in their fullness of meaning, and to put the ideas and ideals involved into complete, uncompromising possession of our school system."

The influence of Dewey on American education has been profound and enduring.

In 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act to support children's nutrition as well as the nation's agriculture. But when the authorities noticed that children were showing up to school without breakfast and, as a result, were drooping in the classroom, the schools added hot breakfast. Now we see that in some school districts, children get dinner before heading home.

As patterns of family life have changed, so has the school day. With more parents at work, school days start earlier and end later. The school years themselves are pressing ever earlier into the toddler years, as pre-school has expanded from kindergarten down to K2, and then even to K3. With afterschool programs, public schooling in the early years has in some communities become publicly funded daycare.

The next step is obvious. In 2009, Time reported a push for public boarding schools, because in the lives of some children there is simply no functioning family or meaningful parental oversight. Dad is in prison or has never been seen. Mom has three jobs or she's on drugs. The kids are raising themselves, like street kids with permanent addresses. Perhaps some are homeless.

Once we have come to that threshold, we have come too far. Did I mention that schools can also provide a girl with an abortion without telling her parents? Something is profoundly wrong. Instead of government supporting families by changing public policy, the school system simply assumes the family's role in whatever way is necessary, but it's a role it cannot possibly fill.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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