The moral foundation of public education is supported in Scripture in a number of important passages.
In Genesis, God brings all the animals to the human to see what the human would call them. This labeling and naming enterprise is education, and in a very real sense, God is the first educator.
In order to heed God’s first charge to the human in Scripture – “to be fruitful, multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28) – one must be properly educated. That is, must “name” God’s world.
In the New Testament, the only episode we have out of the childhood of our Lord Jesus, other than his birth narratives, is the incident of Jesus in the Temple, “sitting at the feet of his teachers, listening to them, asking them questions” (Luke 2:46).
The only event in the boyhood of Jesus that the Holy Spirit saw fit to record in the biblical record is an educational moment.
Drawing on this biblical foundation, Pastors for Texas Children was formed in 2013 to mobilize the faith community for public education support and advocacy.
We now have more than 2,000 faith leaders in our network and have spawned our first state affiliate in Pastors for Oklahoma Kids.
We support and promote healthy public education policy because we believe education is a gift from God for all children – not just children whose status and situation affords them this gift.
So, our pastors give witness to God’s gift of education for all children extended and protected by public education.
Our neighborhood and community public schools receive all children, no questions asked.
The majority of those children are poor. Many are from families who are not engaged in their education. But, they are loved and cared for by public school educators all the same.
That is why it is our moral and spiritual responsibility to help those teachers in this God-given enterprise, leading us to adopt schools and forge one-on-one school partnerships all over the state.
Our schoolteachers are our spouses, family members, church members, fellow believers. Indeed, along with police and firefighters, they are our “first responders.” We must show solidarity with them.
But, we also make our witness known with state legislators who are charged before God with formulating just public policies.
We encourage them to support funding bills that properly resource our community public schools and to oppose voucher bills that divert that money to private schools.
In this way, local school ministry goes hand in hand with state school policy advocacy.
One of the basic responsibilities of faith is to “do justice” (Micah 6:8). Someone has said that justice is figuring out what belongs to whom and giving it to them. It has also been said that justice is love in the public square.
Our Lord requires us “to love our neighbor as ourselves” (Mark 12:30-31). We should have public policy that reflects biblical principles of love, justice and righteousness. There is no better place to work out that justice than in public education policy.
There is an urgency to our mission. Public education in the U.S. is under attack.
First, state governments all over the country are slashing public education budgets.
Here in Texas, we have never recovered from the draconian cuts of 2011 when $5.4 billion was hacked out of public education and only $3.4 billion restored in 2013.
Estimates indicate that we are $6 billion to $8 billion behind what our children need to learn.
Texas is not alone; this story is recounted state by state. It has made national headlines in recent months through teacher-led protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.
We clearly have the means to educate our children. Do we have the will? Or do we wish to sacrifice our children’s future for the sake of our own short-term tax relief?
Second, privatization policies are being promoted by the extraordinarily wealthy private interests of people like the Koch brothers who wish to profiteer off of our public school system through so-called “school choice” – the policy of underwriting private education with public tax dollars through private school vouchers.
Again, Texas has been ground zero for this fight. This past legislative session, the Texas Senate approved bills on multiple occasions calling for a voucher policy.
Thankfully, the Texas House of Representatives defeated those bills each time – influenced largely by our pastors and church leaders.
Our governor even called a special legislative session to get a voucher policy implemented. Still, the House held firm.
Basically, the Texas Senate held additional funding hostage for the ransom payment of a voucher policy.
The Senate said to the House, “If you’re not going to give us vouchers, we’re not going to give you critical funding for schools. We’re going to starve our schools until you cave in and let us privatize them. Let us make money off your children. Let our donors – out-of-state donors – make money off our kids.”
The Texas House said “No,” and that’s the stalemate that ended the special session.
The deceptive term “school choice” is a lie perpetrated on us by the privatizers who are the only ones with the real choice.
And that choice, should vouchers pass, is to make commodities out of our kids and markets out of our classrooms. It is immoral. And must be repudiated.
We already have school choice. Parents choose their neighborhood schools, help those schools, wrap their arms of love and care and involvement around those schools.
Pastors for Texas Children practice school choice every day. We choose our neighborhood and community schools and initiate school assistance programs in them all over the state.
But, we will never agree to any plan that diverts that public money away from those schools to subsidize the private schools operated by folks who can pay for them.
The local church and the local school can and should be in partnership with each other while always honoring God’s gift of religious liberty and church/state separation.
They are the two institutions protecting and preserving God’s common good for every community.
Charles Foster Johnson is the founder and executive director of Pastors for Texas Children (PTC) and the founder and co-pastor of Bread, a faith community in Fort Worth, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlesFJohnson and PTC @pastors4txkids.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series on public education.