The Church and Our Public Schools
The public schools in our largest cities are under attack and the mainline church is largely silent. Why? How is it that the growing privatization of one of this country’s most venerable public institutions, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of school children due to public school closures, inadequate public financing, alleged “turn around” strategies, or the growth of charter networks, and the now pervasive influence of private wealth through foundations controlled by money from places like Microsoft and Walmart has not awakened mainline churches to the plight and peril faced by public education?
It’s not that voices haven’t been raised. Jan Resseger, formerly minister for public education of the United Church of Christ, continues her valiant efforts to inform and educate church members about what is happening to public education. (see Jan Resseger's blog) But she was not replaced when she retired, and since then no new updates or resources on public education have been issued by the denomination. The UCC was the most active denomination on public education; no other church has moved to fill this void. Meanwhile, the ecumenical forum on public education at the National Council of the Churches of Christ, USA, lost its primary leadership when she retired. The last major ecumenical policy statement, “The Churches and the Public Schools at the Close of the Twentieth Century,” was adopted by the NCC in 1999, long before the full impact of No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top could be even anticipated or assessed..
The secular media is not ignoring the issue. Significant articles and op ed pieces on public education appear every week in major newspapers like Chicago’s Tribune and Sun Times or The New York Times. Readers of The New Yorker had an in depth study of the privatization agenda of Booker, Christie, and Zuckerman in Newark last week. Helpful blogs from individuals like Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss, as well as numerous public school advocacy groups abound. So why the relative silence and inactivity? Here are my theories:
- The primary impact of the school privatization and “reform” movement – so far – is in urban school districts populated largely by black and Hispanic families living at or below the poverty level. This is definitely not the demographic of most Protestant mainline churches. In other words, most of our members don’t struggle with these concerns every day. As a result, there is greater interest in matters of more immediate personal impact – the environment, middle class income stagnation, LGBT rights, etc.
- Most of the children and grandchildren of mainline church members are still relatively well-served by our public schools. Either they live in suburbs where public schools are well financed and privatization is not yet an issue, or their parents are affluent and experienced enough to navigate large urban systems by accessing either private schools or the few high performing selective enrollment or magnet schools increasingly segmenting urban school children into success and failure tracks. Most mainline church children aren’t immediately threatened.
- Mainline churches have not typically been supporters of unions. The business and professional classes that predominate in our churches have not belonged to unions, tend to be suspicious of union leadership, and uncritically accept the “reform” narrative of teachers’ unions as defenders of overpaid, underworked, and inept teachers. Furthermore, teachers’ union leaders like Karen Lewis in Chicago and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers tend to be brash, aggressive, and loud, and that seems to trouble middle class, mainline sensibilities more than the question of whether these public school advocates are right or wrong.
- Mainline church members are, like many middle and upper middle class Americans, mesmerized by private wealth and business success. If you can build a software empire, create Facebook, oversee the world’s largest retail operation, run a hedge fund, get yourself hired by McKinsey, or graduate near the top of an elite private college, you must be much smarter than professional teachers and principals or struggling inner city parents. Couple this with the fact that the school privatization movement and its so-called reform agenda is now pushed from the political right and left, and it appears to be the go to consensus. Which leads directly to this:
- Black mainline church members, and white members committed to progressive agendas and grass roots democracy are reluctant to acknowledge that the Obama administration has embraced and encouraged the school privatization movement with its support of charters, its hostility to unions, its embrace of high stakes testing, and its deference to valued philanthropic friends with money to lavish on its agenda and its campaigns. The political left is afraid to challenge the President; the religious left clings to the elusive change it still wants to believe in.
- Progressive mainline church members who do want to be engaged in the struggle to defend public schools have a hard time finding other religious allies: they are frequently at odds with like-minded Jews over the Israeli occupation of Palestine; Catholics are preoccupied with preserving their parochial schools in the face of harsh economic realities and will not, for the most part, take on the questions of privatization when “reforms” include school voucher programs or tax credits for contributions to private and parochial schools.
- It’s all so complicated, and the public school mess just seems hopeless. It is complex. It’s not hopeless. We can imagine as individuals volunteering to tutor children in reading, or as a congregation adopting a school to raise money for enrichment programs. Beyond that, well, it’s just beyond us.
For all these reasons, a foundational debate in this country over the role of the public in the education of our young people, the responsibility to defend democratic institutions like the public schools, and the influence of wealth in our common life, is taking place largely without the voice of the progressive mainline church. This relative silence may reflect the growing marginalization of the mainline church in the American religious landscape. It may also be part of the reason for that very marginalization.
John H. Thomas
May 29, 2014