The head of the Baptist Center for Ethics warned teachers in Arkansas that some religious leaders want to harm public schools.

“If you want to know what Southern Baptist Convention leaders really think about public education, follow them to school,” Robert Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based BCE, said Friday in a lecture to the Arkansas Education Association.

Speaking at an AEA professional development conference in an annual Forrest Rozzell Lecture Series, Parham said prominent Southern Baptist leaders in Arkansas are part of an anti-public-education movement that uses terms like “dark,” “decaying” and “enemies of God” to describe public education and is calling for an “exit strategy” from public schools.

“In Arkansas, one of the most visible Baptist leaders is Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark.,” Parham said. “His church has its own school, Shiloh Christian School. On his blog, Floyd lists the school as one of his three favorite Web sites.”

Little Rock’s First Baptist Church also has a Christian academy, Parham said, “The Arkansas Baptist School System.”

While Baptists aren’t alone in separating from public schools, Parham said, with 500,000 church members out of a state population of 2.8 million, “Baptists represent a thick slice of the population” in Arkansas.

Parham told Little Rock TV station KARK Channel 4 that Christian academies create an isolated environment that doesn’t necessarily prepare students for the real world.

“One of the problems with Christian academies is the segregation from the larger community,” he said.

Channel 4 also interviewed a teacher at a local Christian academy, who said she and several other teachers walked out during Parham’s lecture.

“I felt like those who went to Christian academies or home school their children were under attack,” said Rae Thompson.

Thompson said she felt Parham–who pointed out that a lot of Christian academies came into being in the 1960s and 1970s when integration was a controversial issue–implied that white parents select Christian academies as a way to keep their kids away from minorities.”It’s not necessarily race-based, and it’s not necessarily because they’re bashing the public school system,” she said. “There’s many factors, and I felt personally affronted by the speaker.”

Parham said he was told by an AEA spokesman that Christian academy teachers often attend meetings of the teacher union to try to offer another perspective, but they are not members of the organization.

He said he did not know about the walkout of the Christian academy teachers until the TV reporter mentioned their opposition after the program ended.

“From my vantage point, I thought the presentation was well-received,” he said. “Public school teachers certainly receive too little applause for the great public good that they do with such meager resources against such withering criticism. I welcomed an opportunity to speak up for public education and to disclose the threat to public schools from the Christian Right.”

Parham read from a 2006 pastoral letter circulated by the Baptist Center for Ethics in support of public education.

“The time has come for Baptists to speak positively about public education and to take proactive initiatives that advance a constructive future for America’s public school system,” the letter said.

The letter said Baptist leaders are wrong to call for abandoning public education and urged “a halt to the demonization of public schools.”

“We believe Baptists should recommit themselves to public education, not as a means toward converting school children, but because it is the right thing to do,” the letter said. “We believe public school children are God’s children who deserve the nurture of a good society, the prospect for a good education and the equal opportunity for a good life.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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