October 22, 2017

Steve Mcfarland: The Internet Monk Interview

Friends are among the greatest gifts in life. Steve Mcfarland has been my friend for 4 decades and I am a richer man for it. He’s also an eloquent voice for the issue of Christians in public schools and a person who has invested his entire adult life in being an influence for Christ in the public square. He’s the Director of the Family Resource Center at the Owensboro Middle School in Owensboro, Kentucky, a position he has held for 13 years. He is the husband of Lisa and the dad of Heather and Justin. He has a degree in Social Work from Kentucky Wesleyan College. He’s a deacon a Bellvue Baptist Church. Before coming to the public schools, he worked with the Boys and Girls Club of Owensboro. He also has a fine singing voice, and once raised pigeons. He teaches a mean Dave Ramsey seminar (and he’s cheaper.) His only flaw is his devotion to the Pittsburgh Pirates, which is more irrational than being a Reds fan.

I sent him the questions, and he wrote the answers. Thanks for your time, Steve.

1. Describe your community in terms of racial, economic and social diversity. How does that translate into the school options available to families.

Owensboro is a city of 55,000 people that has struggled through the years with economic development due, in large part, to lack of interstate highway access. Aggressive industry recruitment has had moderate success. Service and education have emerged as the main industry of our community. Retail, fast food and other minimum wage jobs are plentiful.

Owensboro has a moderate population of African Americans that have had stagnant growth for several decades. Most young, educated African Americans choose to move away from Owensboro for better jobs and opportunities. African American professionals with a college degree are rare in our community because of the migration away by the young people. The Hispanic community of Owensboro has seen steady growth particularly in the last five years. Most Hispanic families are considered migrant workers, employed in agriculture.

Education options in Owensboro are limited to the two public school systems (city and county) and a couple of private, church related schools that serve students through the 8th grade. One parochial school serves the entire community. Owensboro and Daviess County have a strong Christian influence and would be considered conservative in terms of family values and traditions. Some non-traditional groups have attempted to make inroads only to be met with enormous opposition.

It is surprising that a private, church supported school has not flourished in our community due to its traditional values. Home schooling has grown modestly in the last decade and many of the home schooled students enroll in high school in the public county school system.

For the most part Owensboro has been supportive of the public schools and take great pride in their traditions. The city school system has the greater mix of ethnicity and has a strong history of working with lower income families and students from single parent homes. Both systems have made great strides since the early 1990’s increasing achievement scores and graduation rates while decreasing drop-out rates. Approximately 15% of the city school student population are minority. Ninety percent of those students live in public housing and qualify for free lunch. The city system serves all students who live in public housing while the county system serves the suburban neighborhoods and higher income families. Because of the wide dichotomy of the two systems, there has not been an outcry for additional private school options. That could change if the city and county school systems merge.

2. What is your answer when someone writes that we must “abolish” the public schools in America for the good of our children?

I think it is a tremendous idea. Private endeavors almost always produce a better product with less cost. So I say go for it! But I have ten questions (and this is just the start):

1. Does everyone get to attend those private schools, including low income families who can’t afford a bus token to their child’s band concert let alone a $1200 tuition? If a family cannot afford to attend the private school, what happens to them?
2. Will private schools allow students with special needs, including extreme behavior disorders, physical disabilities and other special education needs?
3. What about transient students in foster care, migrant families, homeless shelters, and public housing?
4. Parents who argue in support of home schooling talk about negative influences of the public schools including teaching humanistic values. How can a private school system allow for students from non-traditional, non-Christian environments, or will they?
5. If we abolish public funded schools how can we be certain private schools will be financially solvent over the long term? Many of the private schools now operating are struggling financially.
6. What control will the private schools give their customers i.e., the parents and students? If a parent who pays tuition learns that her child requires special education- will the school be obligated (as public schools are now) to provide that service?
7. Will there be any consequence for the students who are habitually truant? If students refuse to attend, will the court system step in and will the government have any regulations?
8. Will athletics be “pay to play” where students must pay a fee in order to participate? What about students who cannot afford to pay?
9. Will other extra-curricular activities be “pay to play” such as band, orchestra, cheerleading, etc.
10. Will there be elected boards to oversee the schools or will they be governed by the owners with a CEO and board of directors?

If we can answer these questions while keeping in mind the need to educate all our children, then I am not only listening but on board. The fear I have is that privatizing education completely will leave out 60% of our population.

It is easy to say abolish the public schools. It sounds radical and out of the box, something that I confess appeals to me on a certain level. And I cannot disagree with the proponents of abolishment that public education is financially draining, often irresponsible, teacher driven and in some cases absurdly ineffective. But first hand I have witnessed the good work that schools are doing. Caring, committed teachers work tirelessly to help students and values including Judeo-Christian are present in many if not most schools. We have wrongly demonized all of public education and that is unfair to the countless many who are doing it right against extremely difficult odds.

Should privatization of schools exclude portions of society it will create a caste system in our country unlike any we have ever, ever seen before.

3. How are churches and public schools working together in your community?

One of the most exciting recent developments in our school has been discussion over lunch with the Youth Ministerial Association in our community. This group represents both protestant and catholic churches. The youth ministers are a proven, invaluable resource and our school recognizes the need for our student’s spiritual guidance. One glaring need in our community is for youth ministry targeting our African American students. Out of our discussions the youth ministers have begun discussing ways they can meet that need. We also decided to develop policies and procedures for ministers being in our building to meet with students, eat lunch with students, and be a more active resource for our school. It was obvious that they were shocked that our school, a diverse, inner city school, would initiate such a discussion.

Our school systems have a healthy relationship with the religious community in our area. Often the school is cooperative in having church sponsored information available such as Upward Basketball registration and more. Christian affiliated organizations such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Christian Student Union are welcomed to meet before and after school. Many teachers in our school have met before school for prayer and bible study.

4. How do you, as a Christian, view the issues of “values” in education, especially since you have sent your children to the public schools? How would you answer someone who says the public schools cannot and should not teach values, while values must be prominent in Christian schools?

Certainly public schools cannot and (to the best of my knowledge have not) taught blatantly bible based values in the classroom. However, it is impossible to interact as human beings in any venue without sharing values. Male teachers who wear neckties to class or a wedding band teach values by merely walking into a classroom. And certainly there are other values taught unintentionally that could be considered non-traditional. There seems to be this great mistrust among the Christian community of anyone not wearing a WWJD bracelet or other identifiers that they are Christian. As a parent I have had more struggles over Christian teachings my children have been exposed to that differ from my personal views of scripture than any values taught in our public schools. Our school does not promote homosexuality, ban the bible, hand out condoms, teach safe sex, or refuse to teach religious history. There may be public schools in America doing those things, I would guess they are an exception to the rule. And why is that? People of faith have not abandoned the public schools and across the land we see people fighting through their elected officials for what they believe.

5. If you could ask the churches in your community to help the public schools, and they would listen, what would be your shopping list?

As mentioned before, in our area there is a glaring need for an African American youth ministry. But that is only one of many possibilities for the churches to reach across the great church/state divide. I feel confident that most public schools would welcome reasonable, service oriented assistance from local churches. Our school tries to assist families with utilities, rent, clothing, and food. At times local churches have been of assistance. However, I believe we have only scratched the surface of what can happen. Churches with gyms, and recreation centers have a golden opportunity to share facility resources. And the mentoring possibilities within area churches may be the greatest untapped resource of all.

6. Do you have home school kids involved in public school activities in your system? What is the policy in regard to home school participation in co-curricular activities?

In the past home school students have been involved in band and orchestra activities in our school. The policy in our district is that home schooled children may be involved in co-curricular activities if they live in our district.

7. Privately, you told me that you have seen a decline in sports participation over the past two decades. What is happening to sports in public schools, and what is your feeling about the role they play in the public school experience?

The number of kids trying out for basketball, football and other major sports has declined significantly over the past several years while there has been steady growth of soccer participation. Several reasons for the decline should be considered:

1. More options at home (video games, computer)
2. Less loyalty to a particular school. (students seem to have lost a sense of pride in their school and tradition, a subject for another day perhaps)
3. Laziness. Many just simply don’t want to put in the work necessary.
4. Students appear “burned out” by the time they get to high school since they have played youth sports since they could walk upright.

Our school system has done all it can to promote co-curricular involvement and perhaps to the detriment of sports. Music and drama programs have expanded in the past several years while sports participation and fan support has seemingly declined. I have not studied this enough to be sure it is not simply a “phase” with no clear cause.

8. When someone tells you a public school horror story about homosexual agendas being taught or Christian students being harassed, what is you response?

I have not seen that in my thirteen years in this school. I will say that the number of students who have “come out” as gay has increased since I began. However, our school has not promoted that particular agenda in the least. Likewise I have not seen harassment of Christian students or Christian activities. When activities like “Meet Me At The Pole” prayer service is attended by the vast majority of our students, I find it laughable to hear people say Christians are being harassed. Students read their bibles during breakfast and lunch are never singled out here. Most public schools should be applauded for the delicate way they have handled all these group issues. I realize there are exceptions to that rule. In our case the attitude is: if this can help our students, we will accommodate them.

9. What would you say to a young Christian considering a career in public education?

I would certainly encourage it particularly since I view public schools as the greatest mission field in the United States. We can argue all day long the value of Christian influence in the public sector and what better way to have a positive influence upon our society than to encourage Christian teachers to consider public education. For the church to abandon that arena for some safe, high ground would be abominable. Christian influence has been the one factor that has kept public schools grounded from embracing all the other agendas we mentioned earlier.

10. I am frequently told that Christian kids who graduate from public schools abandon their faith at an alarmingly high rate. What would be your response to this?

Though I have no data to support either – I would argue that there is reason to be equally alarmed that students from private schools abandon their faith at a high rate. Perhaps the fault for that is not the schools but the church. I would argue that Christian students growing up unexposed to other views and lifestyles may be in for Christian culture shock – especially as they enter college and find their faith challenged like never before. Admittedly it has not been always a walk in the park raising my children through their public school experiences. Along this journey they have been exposed to things that had me questioning that decision. However, I have observed their faith being strengthened – in a way, tempered by their exposure to situations that made them stand up for what they believe. My daughter has been friends with girls she has been in school with for ten years who are now pregnant and whose lives have begun to unravel. She has remained a positive influence to them and in many ways has been strengthened in her faith because of them. As a Christian I can see the benefit of being part of the public school melting pot.

Faith abandonment should not be explained away by blaming public or private schools. The church has the greater responsibility for the discipleship of young people. The lack of sound doctrinal teaching in the contemporary church duing the wave of the seeker sensitive movement has left young people groping for real answers when the world challenges their faith. In the real world – Christians are being wrestled to the floor for something substantive and the latest “Seven Steps to Christian Happiness” drivel is not getting the job done.

11. If churches are going to start schools or other community ministries, what kind of schools would you like to see them create?

It is a question I have not really considered. My perception of Christian education is that it is one of exclusivity. If a church school can be a “light in the world” while operating under faith based principles, I am completely in support. A church school would have the world at its command if they can prove effective with children who traditionally struggle academically in traditional public school settings. I would hope church related schools would offer help to minorities, students with learning disabilities, low-income families, and others that public schools have struggled to help succeed. Private schools have an opportunity to provide solid basic instruction of which to build, something that public schools have abandoned for the “newest” best practice to learning. Parents who long for basic instruction and individual assistance for their child from teachers willing to listen to them, will come running to the first church related school that delivers.

But church schools that exist solely to isolate themselves from so called “social ills” in order to protect their children, will have practically zero impact on a world they are called to reach out and serve.

Comments

  1. In #10, was he answering the same question you were asking? It doesn’t look like it.

  2. I’ve sent that one back to him. Thanks

  3. Devin Smith says:

    I sympathize with his heart for his neighbors, but I am not at all compelled by his vision for education. He says that public schools shouldn’t teach “blatant” bible values. I agree with him. That’s why they’re failing.
    He seems more optimistic about what’s happening in public schools these days–only a few people coming out of the closet. The problem is that the situation can only get worse, not better. It simply does not have the tools (“blatant” bible values) to reform. And, I think Mr. McFarland would at least agree that the vast majority of those influencing public education are providing very insidious secular tools (evolution, values clarification, self-esteem talk, meds, etc).
    The fact that our society cannot even fathom what it would mean to not have public schools–60% of all kids just not going to school!–is a good reason to get rid of them. It’s like any addiction–there are tremendous withdrawl pains.
    Finally, we ought to remember that there is a major difference between caring for the poor–as in meeting needs–and caring for the poor–as in taking up their responsibilities.

  4. Devon,

    Do non-Christians deserve an education in America?

    I am unclear. Are you saying there should be no schools except private Christian schools?

  5. Devin Smith says:

    “Do non-Christians deserve an education in America?”

    Yes and no.

    Yes, humans made in the image of God should be educated.
    No, I’ve never seen a convincing argument that it’s the obligation of one citizen (or group) to provide and madate the education of others. Parents are the responsible party.

    I wish there were only Christian schools, but wanting the public system abolished is not the same thing. Many other kinds of private schools and homeschools would emerge–as they do now.

  6. So if the citizens of Mayberry decide they want to fund a community school where the Jewish kid and the Muslim kid can go, the Christian family must not support it….right?

  7. Thank you for this interesting question and answer session. I’ve seen both sides, having taught classroom music for 18 years in state schools and private piano for 5 years in private schools.

    I’ve seen both public and private schools where the gospel is effectively promoted, and also both public and private schools which do not have a positive evangelistic influence.

    Teaching in a state school is certainly a challenging calling, but it is also very hard living as a Christian in a school where it is not the gospel, but respectability that is being taught.