As a father of two students enrolled in a public school, I have become increasingly alarmed by anti-public school rhetoric. Most of that talk is coming from Christian groups. I would like to share my concerns, but a bit of biography is necessary to explain my passions and possible prejudices.
I am the product of the public school system, for better or worse. My wife is a product of the public school system and currently teaches ESL at a nearby public school. My children attend a public high school in our neighborhood. I had the privilege of serving on the past two bond-election committees for our school district.
In my church, we have the current and past superintendents as members. We have principals, associate principles, teachers and people at every level of instruction in our church. There are at least seven schools/administration buildings named after church members in our school district.
Would it surprise you to know that my wife taught at a private Christian school that my children attended? I have spoken at Christian school chapels and functions. We have many children in our church who attend private schools. A member of my staff has a wife who does a marvelous job of home schooling her children. All of that is to say: I support education, all kinds of education.
What bothers me about recent political rhetoric is the emphasis and thought that public education is corrupt and only private education or home schooling is acceptable. It is that lack of respect for public educators and what they do that is most disconcerting.
My issue is not with students who attend private schools or parents who home school. God bless them all in their efforts to receive and give education. My frustration lies with those who are politicizing the issue.
Why has this become such a “hot button” issue? I think there are several reasons.
Reason # 1: Money. It is, after all, the root of all evil. There are huge dollars at stake. The ultimate goal is to have private schools funded in the same ways that public education is funded.
As a Baptist that understands our historic roots, this is a direct affront to the separation of church and state. I do believe in both clauses of the First Amendment. The state has no right to have any control over private education. I also believe that the state has no right to fund religious education.
Proponents of school vouchers want state funding without state controls. I believe that the state will control what it funds. If it does not do so, it is bad government.
Reason # 2: Race. I believe that much of the impetus for The Exodus Movement, the attempt by some Christians to get people to leave public schools, is nothing more that “white flight.” In the 1950s and 1960s there was a huge exodus by whites to the suburbs. It was an attempt by Anglos to move away from blacks who had moved to the inner city. The modern day Exodus Movement is a retreat from the multi-racial environment of the public school system.
A candidate from my area just won a huge victory in a State Senate race. He ran on two issues: reduced property taxes and increased border patrol. At first the issues seem unrelated. One of his rationales for increased border patrol is the cost of bi-lingual education on public schools.
The rationale is simple; with decreased immigration there will be reduced tax burden, because of reduced education expense. The blame for the rising cost of education, and subsequently taxes, has been placed squarely on the shoulders of Hispanics. In a sense, it is “their” fault your taxes have increased.
Race is a vital component of the critique of public schools. The candidate is a constant critic of public schools and runs under the banner of a Christian conservative.
Reason # 3 Politics. Steve Blow wrote a great article in the Dallas Morning News recently. He is a Christian op-ed writer who often brings a fresh perspective to issues.
In the article he quotes a home school text. In the text, a conservative is described as a person who holds on to and practices God’s words and teachings. Liberals are defined as those who deny God’s precepts and teachings.
That is a struggle for me for several reasons. Does that mean that my friends who vote for Democrats have “abandoned God?” Does is mean that my African-American church friends, who are biblically and ethically conservative, have denied their faith by overwhelmingly voting for “liberal” candidates?
Once a student sees something in a “text book” it carries new weight. It is no longer opinion; it is fact. It teaches our children to be intolerant of others who disagree with us politically.
What then is the solution for Christians who are not yet ready to become a part of “The Exodus?” Is there a solution to the problems which plague public schools? How can we fulfill the challenge by Jesus to be “salt and light?”
First of all, we cannot abandon the public school system. Private schools will never educate every child. We cannot fund private schools with tax dollars. In a generation it will erode our public schools and ruin private schools. We cannot pretend a problem does not exist.
As a pastor, I have tried to become a friend of public schools. I know the principal of the elementary, middle school and high school closest to my church. I have built a relationship with teachers and administrators. I have helped as a reader or classroom assistant. I have sponsored trips with extra curricular groups. I have been to lunches at the middle school and high school often. I have helped with crisis counseling.
My sense is this is commonplace in rural settings, but maybe a bit unusual in urban areas like mine.
My student minister is a fixture on campus. We have been called in times of crisis. We have been able to minister to teachers, ministers, and students. When an article is of interest to my superintendent, I e-mail him. I know he is busy, so I carefully choose what and when I send a story. I have chosen to befriend public schools, not confront them.
My friendship gives me opportunity to have input. I watched a minister berate an administrator in a lunch especially for churches. The school had gone out of their way to be cordial and he had ruined that with rude comments. He had his “say,” but it is doubtful he will be heard again. As an advocate I have input often. My critique is well received, because they trust me.
Jesus said: “Let them be in the world, but not of the world.” Being salt and light means we must have contact.
The Exodus plans and others remove any chance we have of having a witness or voice. In my mind, that is simply unacceptable.
Relationships are the key. No one wants to be demonized. People in public schools expect us to be civil and decent and respectful. That is not too much to expect.
Ed Hogan is pastor of Jersey Village Baptist Church in Houston.