Personal Essay: Church, State & Home

“He’ll turn out weird.”

“God, I could never.”

“Like those Quiverfull people?”

Those are a few of the more popular responses that people from back home (home being the northeastern chunk of the country) have given me when I mentioned the prospect of homeschooling my son, now nearly 4. In the past few weeks, however, the responses have shifted markedly. After the confirmation of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the phoenix rising from the ashes of Detroit, panicked parents took to social media to find out more about the practice.

“Can anyone recommend some secular homeschool materials or strategies?”

“Anyone out there do non-religious homeschool? Thoughts?”

In an astonishing inversion of traditional cultural attitudes, a number of highly educated, non-religious, urban parents have started discussing what was previously considered a fringe option, a desperate act taken by those fretting over the fact that most K-12 textbooks have a distinct lack of pictures featuring Jesus on a dinosaur.

Well, city folk, pull up a chair and join us red-staters who have been facing this conundrum for years now.

Eight years ago, due to my husband’s employment, I relocated from New York City to my current city of Knoxville, TN. I was apprehensive about the prospect of raising children there because many aspects of Southern life didn’t appeal to me—the religion, the guns, the lack of sidewalks, the sprawling subdivisions, the dearth of restaurants that did not feature jalapeño poppers on the menu. But fertility does not wait for a good job in a desirable location.

“We’ll still have five years before Kindergarten,” I told my pregnant self.

“We live in a good school district,” I thought, running around after my toddler.

But what good does it do to live in a decent school district if the state insists on legislating public education back into the 19th Century?

A number of recent state laws in Tennessee are slowly pulling religion back into the public school classroom. One such law gives legal leeway for the teaching of creationism in public school. Another allows students to express religious beliefs in their homework and classroom presentations. The state is under pressure to withdraw Islam from social studies classes, and to revise or even remove references to slavery in the history curriculum. To say nothing of the ever-loosening gun laws. Currently, a gun owner can keep loaded weapons in their vehicle on school property, but every year brings fresh and increasingly successful attempts to allow unfettered carry.

In a perfect world, I could trust teachers to present a factual scientific curriculum regardless of their personal beliefs. In a perfect world, I could trust other parents to leave their guns at home when they go to pick up their kids at school. But this isn’t anywhere close to a perfect world. It’s the South, the land of religious fundamentalism and some of the highest rates of accidental shootings in the country.

So where does that leave me and other parents facing similar questions? In my situation there are no great options. We can try our luck at getting admitted to the area’s one secular private school, which is as competitive it is expensive. We can move to the Northeast and try long-distance commuting. Or we can homeschool.

Of these options, homeschooling is the surest bet, but there are drawbacks. Teaching is hard and social interaction is a concern. How will my child be able to connect with other children if he’s never around them? But then again, how will he understand our country and fellow citizens if he knows nothing about, for example, the history of race relations?

The fourth option, of course, is to enroll our child in public school, trusting in our teachers to stick to facts and trusting in ourselves to counter any faith-based instruction he may receive. I still lean toward taking this path, although my doubts grow with each new school-related gun law and each new action taken to revise or limit the school curriculum.

I’m not sure what to do. I want my child to grow up with the same well-rounded curriculum I did, where evolution and slavery were facts. When it’s time for college, I want him to be just as prepared as a student from California or New York. And I want him to understand the world around him, and the people in it. If handling his education myself is the best way to achieve this, so be it.

Meredith McGroarty is a mom and freelance writer and copy editor living in Knoxville, TN. She has one son, Edward, who was born in 2013.