Christians in Public Schools: Claire

19 September 2023

Out of the seven ladies I asked to participate in this series, there was only one I had never met in person – and that’s Claire.

This was not an accident. If I’m going to share this space with someone and ask you to listen to them – whether in this series, Marvelous Mamas, or any other – then I want to be as sure as I possibly can that they’ll respect what we’ve built and value the same things we do: kindness, honesty, thoughtfulness, freedom of thought and inquiry, and generosity of spirit, to start. I want them to be a kindred spirit.

Though I have not met her in person, I feel confident that that’s exactly what Claire is. I’ve read her honest and incisive writing for years (I’m a paid subscriber to her Substack!) and was a podcast listener before that, and we also had the chance to work together briefly when she did some freelancing for Cultivate. She’s honest, she’s passionate, she’s principled, and she’s a little spicy in the best way.

And, though she might not know it, she was yet another inspiration for this series. When she wrote months ago about choosing public school for her kids with boldness and grace, it made me think that maybe I could, too.

I’m honored to have you here, Claire – take it away!

Tell us about yourself and your family.

My name is Claire and I live in a teensy-tiny town in southeast Wisconsin. I have three kids, ages 7 (2nd grade), 5 (kindergarten), and 2 (part-time daycare and a prayer).

Why are you choosing public school for your family? 

We arrived at our schooling decision after a lot of prayer, research, and touring. We knew right away that homeschooling wasn’t a good fit for us as parents or for our kids, although I do have many happy, intelligent homeschooling friends! (I even tried to convince one of them to just homeschool my kids along hers, but she didn’t quite go for it – maybe because she has six of her own, ha!) 

In our area, there are many school choices available. The main ones within a reasonable distance are our public school; our Catholic school attached to our parish; a free classical, secular, charter school you need to apply for and cross your fingers; and a classical Catholic school that isn’t attached to any particular parish. We toured all of them. 

We had many priorities: budget! Ease of transportation! Extracurriculars! Academics! Cultural fit! We combined all of those in an alchemy of prayer and chose our local public school. 

Although we as a family are very Catholic, we also believe passionately in public schools. Every kid has a right to an education, and Catholic school is very pricey – especially the classical ones that aren’t attached to, and partly subsidized by, parishes. Our parish school actually had some aspects to it that we didn’t feel were aligned with the Catholic faith (we emailed the pastor to let him know, as I’m sure that wasn’t the parish’s intention), and the classical Catholic school felt too small and insulated. We want to be a light in our community and teach our kids to have conversations with all different kinds of people with differing values in order to best love others and spread the truth of the Gospel in a way that honors the dignity of the human person.

We also felt that they weren’t necessarily following modern science when it came to curriculum choices; there’s always new research being done about how kids learn and while there are some traditional values that go out of style, some of this new information can really affect things like phonics and math strategies. The classical charter school simply felt off – it was a gut feeling after much prayer. (And let me just say that a woman’s intuition is often correct; we learned quite a bit of information about the school’s values in the year since we toured it that made us confident in our decision.)

It’s also worth saying that many typical concerns about public schools for Christians aren’t a huge issue in our area. To be frank, we live in a politically conservative town; there aren’t agendas being pushed in picture books or social studies class that worry us. If anything, we’ve had to push back against some very fringe beliefs in our school that aren’t common in most public schools (for example, people wanting to avoid teaching about Plessy vs. Ferguson or the Holocaust because they’re too “controversial”.).

What has been your experience with public school so far? Give us an overview.

Our public school experience has been positive so far. We committed to being involved in school board meetings to make sure we know what’s going on in terms of curriculum and policies, and I’ve faithfully attended every month! While there will always be interpersonal challenges with any school you choose, our kids have been learning and thriving. 

What has been one of your favorite parts about your school experience so far? Has anything been challenging?

Our favorite part has just been feeling like part of a community. All of our neighbors go to our public school; two of them were even in my son’s first grade class. It’s such a blessing to be able to help each other out (“Is the math test tomorrow or the next day?” “Can my son get off the bus at your house tomorrow so I can take my daughter to the dentist?”) and simply to be rooted in a local neighborhood. It makes loving our neighbors much simpler! 

The challenge has probably been having our kids interact with families that have values that differ from ours. Again, this is how the real world is, and we believe we’re all called to be evangelists and Christ’s hands and feet. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to have difficult conversations at such a young age. I’ll never forget the look on my daughter’s face when she said, aghast, “Some people don’t think God is REAL?!” Part of me wishes I could have protected that innocence a bit longer. But a larger part of me knows that it’s my job as a mother to disciple her in a broken world. 

What do you wish other Christians knew about your life as a faithful family in public school? What might surprise people about your journey in public school so far?

I think people would be surprised that our public school is not actively trying to brainwash our kids. I say this with love – I know that there are schools (of all kinds!) that are attempting to do that very thing. But that doesn’t mean every school is the same! You really need to tour your individual school and ask specific questions. Painting all public schools with a broad brush is a display of ignorance. Small town Wisconsin is not the same as Austin or Boise or Temecula or New York City. All of these places will have unique challenges.

Furthermore, just because a school is Christian doesn’t mean it’s living up to the faith. We asked pointed questions about things within elementary schools that matter to us, and found the public school answers more Christian than the Christian school ones. You can’t see the name of a school and instantly assume its strengths or difficulties. You need to really get in there, see the hallways, meet the teachers, and investigate the curriculum. It’s a lot of work – but so is discipleship! :) 

What does faith formation look like for your family outside of or alongside school? How are you helping your kids to know and love God and their neighbors?

As Catholics, our children start a formal religious education at a young age. Our oldest two currently go to a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd class at our parish every other week, which is basically a Catholic Montessori program (multiple kids from their public school go there, which is great)! We also drench our lives in prayer, read scripture together every night, and pore over beautiful children’s books about Jesus. We’ve always believed that the best way to pass on the faith is to pray, model, and trust in the Lord, so that’s what we’re doing.

This year, I’m going to have them start listening to the Saint Stories for Kids podcast every morning while they eat breakfast, as well. I know in Catholic school they would have different things like a saint of the week or a history of church leaders, so I’d love to incorporate that at home somehow. 

What are your hopes for your kids and their education? What’s the best-case scenario?

Sainthood! I want my kids to discern God’s plan for their lives. That might mean a traditional university. It also might mean the seminary, a vocational school, an apprenticeship program… we’re not at all married to the idea of the Ivy League (although that’s great, too!) I have many issues with our American university system and hope that by the time my kids are eighteen, there are more options available in terms of workforce preparation. 

Mainly, I want my kids to be readers, love their neighbors, have interests, be good citizens, and follow Christ. No pressure – ha!

Do you plan to continue with public school indefinitely, do you plan to change course in the future, or do you hold it with open hands?

We are keeping things very, very loose. Our motto is “year by year”! There are so many new schools being created in our area; who knows when we’ll find one we like better than our public school? We’re also a little nervous about high school, but as my spiritual director says, don’t borrow worry from the future. We have quite a while to discern that. 

Anything else to add?

I would ask people of goodwill to remember that cost is a real factor in these decisions for many families. Could my family have technically afforded a Christian school? Yes. But many, many families can’t. It makes my skin crawl to hear people asking why any Christian would ever choose public school, when many families don’t have a choice. (Even if a school is “free” or partly subsidized, do they have things like a free lunch program? Or a school bus? Or uniforms? All of these can be barriers to families living in poverty.) Also, many Christian schools aren’t properly equipped to educate and honor kids with special needs. There are many reasons a family might choose public school; we all need to cool it on the judging just a tad. 

Claire, you are a gift to me and to many! Thank you for taking the time to share your family and your thoughts with us – it truly means so much.

Friends, you can read Claire’s writing on The Catholic Feminist Substack, follow her on Instagram, or pick up one of her books! (I’ve already preordered her newest, The Funeral Ladies of Ellerie County – it looks so good!) And please feel free to respond to anything she mentioned in your usual kind and thoughtful way. Grateful for you!

Series introduction

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Kelly H
September 19, 2023 7:12 am

I’d love to see a list of example questions to ask schools. This is such a great conversation!

September 19, 2023 12:45 pm

Claire, could you hear me yelling “AMEN SOMEBODY” all the way from North Carolina?! I also plan to go to our county’s school board meetings when our son gets closer to school age. I’d encourage other parents to do the same, especially if you’re trying to decide if a particular public school district is right for you. I attended hundreds of these meetings when I worked as a journalist covering education, and you really get to know the nitty gritty details about what’s happening in your district that way. Lots of counties put agendas on their website or even livestream whole meetings if you can’t make it in person!

Echoing Kelly H for her request to see a list of example questions to ask schools! Would love that!

September 19, 2023 3:22 pm

This was an amazing read. We let go of homeschooling and I felt so much guilt about it! Also taking it year by year. Thanks again for this!

September 19, 2023 9:03 pm

Ahh, thrilled to see Claire here!! She has encouraged, challenged, and inspired me for years in so many ways. Claire, come hang out with us in NC someday! :)

September 20, 2023 1:00 pm

Claire, thank you for sharing and thank you for highlighting what an incredible privilege it is for families to be in a position to weigh their options when it comes to schooling. Many families don’t have the option to consider the alternatives to their public school and I think that is another reason it is important to make sure those school supported to be a wonderful environment for each child that walks through the doors. Hope it’s a great school year!

Kristen M
September 20, 2023 3:08 pm
Reply to  Bethany

Yes I also really loved Claire pointing out that it is a true privilege to have choice and I really am discouraged by what seems to be a real hiding away from the wider world that sometimes creeps into the commentary about homeschooling and private school. Every child deserves a good education and I strongly feel being involved in my local public school helps that happen at least in my own neighborhood and town. I was raised in public schools (and also raised and am Catholic) and my oldest is in 2nd grade in the same school system I grew up in (in Triangle area of NC) and the value I got from my education as well as learning to live as a Catholic in the world was invaluable and what I want for my children. I don’t want them walking into life at 18 or 22 or whenever and being surprised by different viewpoints! We regularly discuss different views on religion, family structure, etc that my daughter encounters at school and I think it opens up so many lines of communication that I hope to keep open as she and her younger sister grow up!
Really love the encouragement to attend school board meetings as well – that’s something I’d love to do!

September 20, 2023 4:12 pm

Thank you for sharing about your family, Claire. After reading the first three posts in this series and seeing a theme in each about how so many Christian families are having conversations about where to send their children to school, I’m honestly quite puzzled. We’ve moved around a bit and have faithfully attended churches in northern Virginia, central North Carolina, Boston, and Northern California, and to be honest families in all of these churches have not been so focused on where to send their kids to school because they are Christian. So I’m curious, is this a conversation happening more in particular denominations? If families do choose something different than public schools, it’s often for very specific reasons that have nothing to do with their faith tradition – like us. We will be considering an alternative only because we do not think our public school has a global enough perspective and since our kiddos have parents from different continents, it’s important to us that there be a strong global and worldly influence in their education. It is fascinating to me that these same conversations about public school aren’t happening amongst the Christian families in the churches we’ve attended, so I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading about what a deep topic this in other corners of the country.

September 20, 2023 7:45 pm
Reply to  Erin

I had the same thought. In the circles I run in (including the Christian ones) this is not conversation I’ve had with folks. And as the writer emphasizes, theoretically, in America, we like to think that people have a “choice” on where to send their kids to school. But most people don’t really have that choice. I’m my circle of middle to upper middle class families raising young children, most of us can’t wait to STOP paying high daycare bills and send our kids to the free schools! Lol

Kelly Strawberry
September 21, 2023 11:19 am
Reply to  Erin

I agree with you Erin that I am not sure that it’s primarily a faith issue that’s driving a lot of families out of public school in my area of NC. I primarily see it as a race issue here, but that’s just my take. Families will move and relocate, especially out of Durham, for a “better” public school system, which usually is a “whiter” school system, to be blunt. White parents typically are higher-income and have more options. For instance, I was curious about the diversity of my son’s neighborhood public school compared to our zip code. I looked up stats and I live in the whitest zip code in Raleigh (80% Caucasian) and yet my son is a minority in his public school (33% Caucasian). The public school systems aren’t doing that well academically, and to be transparent, no one really wants their child to be in the minority (I think that’s true for any race), so white parents often choose private/charter/etc. It’s a cyclical problem – the schools won’t improve if the parents with time, money and resources are pulling out their kids in droves! I think there’s also a lot of added fear that schools are no longer safe places, which is sad because of all the school shootings, but that doesn’t seem to be just a public school thing since they can occur at any type of school, as we’ve seen.
As far as faith reasons, for our Southeast region, Christians/churches lean conservative (generally speaking), so the public school debate has become a conversation in light of recent LGBTQ/transgender/etc trends. I do know of a public elementary school in our area that celebrated Pride week last June and taught about gay pride to K-5th graders, which raised a lot of concern for Christian parents, so that is an example.

September 21, 2023 1:06 pm
Reply to  Erin

Erin, I think a lot of the Christian anti-public school discourse is an online argument. I would say 90% of my friends homeschool or do private school and I live in a very conservative homeschool friendly city (Greenville, SC), but no one I know really cares where Christians send their kids and see it as each families personal choice and mainly between them and God. Now of course, the extremists are out there! And the online ones get a big platform and do a good job of making everyone feel scared or ashamed. I’m thinking some of that is because homeschooling especially is still a counter-culture thing to do, and so many people have to get community and encouragement online. It’s an easy topic to manipulate people’s feelings with because it hits all the most sensitive targets. Liz Breunig has written some on that I think.

I’m mainly commenting though because I’m a homeschool turned private school mom and we mainly made that choice because, number one – Gods leading, and number two- we didn’t want our elementary kids having laptops and learning from smart boards. Public school is most likely in our future so I would love to hear how other families are managing that. If there’s one issue I feel like flies under the radar in this whole debate it’s technology companies profiting on our education system while being able to write it off as “donations”.

September 21, 2023 1:16 pm
Reply to  Heather
September 21, 2023 9:41 am

I love these thoughts so much and agree with so much of what you have shared. Thank you for sharing your story, Claire!

October 4, 2023 10:31 am

Just want a chime in as a Catholic New Yorker that we also love our public schools here. NYC is one of the most Catholic cities in the country and many Catholic families here happily attend public school. I can only assume since no specifics were mentioned that the assertion that some public schools brainwash kids is a reference to public schools that are welcoming toward LGBTQ families. For many Catholics (most in the United States according to this Pew study) this acceptance is consistent with our faith and an added benefit of public school. I feel much more confident about my children’s schooling knowing that they will be safe, seen, and celebrated for who they are.

Last edited 9 months ago by Emma