Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Public School Education

A Lutheran listserv to which I subscribe has been going around (again: it seems to be a cyclical concern) on the issue of public education. A member’s congregation just opened a (still small) parochial elementary school, and he was (probably) justifiably boasting (in humble, Lutheran terms) and seeking prayerful support of the members. As a part of his post, he noted that the quality of the public schools had declined in his area and that this was his congregation’s way of trying to offer something better to at least some kyds. (On “kyds”: My mother used to insist on that spelling to distinguish humans from baby goats, and I have learned to love it, even if she has abandoned it.)

A fellow progressive responded to the post with questions and concerns about churches’ contributing to the abandonment of public schools, in essence leaving the public schools for those who can’t afford anything better or who have problems too complex for parochial schools to deal with. To that, someone else replied that his experience (having raised two kyds in the public system and now home schooling his third) is that the public school system is built on a faulty, irremediable model of schooling and that home schooling has been much richer for his youngest child than was the large public school for his eldest two.

The conversation struck a nerve with me (again). But I know better than to air my petulance on the listserv – having dredged up some pretty hostile responses the last time I tried. So I’ll use my soapbox to set out my questions.

I’m vitally interested in education (without any training to do the job): For years, while on the payroll of the Great Books Foundation in Chicago, I traveled around the country working with school systems on programs to discuss literature as a way of enhancing children’s abilities to read, to discuss meaningful, and to think critically. I know the Brooklyn offices of the New York City schools, and I am acquainted with Tupelo, Mississippi. I know Southern private and parochial “resistance” schools (amazing how many churches found the resources to establish lily-white schools to avoid segregation) and Bronx public high schools (where the teachers are some of the most bombastic people, let alone educators, that I can even imagine). Furthermore, for the past four years, my wife has worked in the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) system. (She was a school nurse, but has now returned to administration with a healthcare company.) Through her eyes (and the eyes of our daughter who is enrolled in the neighborhood middle school within the MPS system) we have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly in public education.

No one, I think, should deny that the public education system in our country is in need of reformation. (One of my Great Books horror stories: I worked with a group of teachers in Texas once who could neither pronounce “ogre” nor define it. And we were dealing with a second-grade story in the Great Books program!) But the need for reformation must include a sincere look at the reasons for the problems in education. They are not all due to incompetent, careless teachers and administrators (though, God knows, such do exist – as do careless and incompetent pastors and executives and … ). Where incompetency and even careless exist, we need to root it out.

But there are causes of problems that don’t lie at the feet of those in the educational system. We grossly underfund education. (Can we finally abandon that shibboleth, “You can’t fix education by throwing money at it?” The last time I checked, all American corporations think they can fix their problems by paying gazillions of dollars for a chief executive. Why should education be any different in a capitalist system – itself an issue for discussion? If we don’t pay much, we don’t have a right to expect much, right?) We under-respect those who devote long hours and a lot of their own personal money to the education of kyds. (I am still rendered speechless by the remarks of a previous Bush Administration Secretary of Education in which he characterized the public school teachers’ unions as “terrorist organizations”? If that doesn’t ring of disrespect for the entire system, adjust your hearing aid.) Most school systems are administration-heavy and support professionals-light, but much of that is because Federal and state governments mandate ever more service, standard, and reporting requirements that must be handled at the administration leve.

And one of the major issues in the “decline” of public education (which characterization I think I buy) is the requirement that schools be all things to all children in the midst of a society that is falling apart. Schools in my areas – and certainly it is worse in other urban areas – function in loco parentis -- i.e., as parents, guardians, social workers, legal advisers, nutritionists, parole officers, health care providers, psychologists, et. al. – before they can even begin to try to teach anything. And that is most clearly not the fault of the schools. Even in progressive Minneapolis, Minnesota, we have nearly countless kyds who come to school without having slept the night before: They may not have had a place to sleep; they may have been kept up by gunfire around their homes; they may have been kept up by battle between their parents (those few who happen to have two parents in the home). And if they haven’t slept, they most certainly haven’t eaten breakfast. My wife regularly had little kyds coming to school in the mid-winter without coats, without the medication they needed to function (because their parents “forgot” – or, more likely, didn’t care). She brought several ChiPS petitions (i.e., juvenile protection cases) during her first weeks on the job. And at her school (not untypically for “inner city” schools), a typical year saw a 75% turnover in student population because of parents’/families/’constantly changing residences.

While the public system has no control over those variables, they are required to deal with them by providing services for the children, by giving them the same tests that are taken in schools where all the kids are “above average” and are fed nourishing meals three times a day. Please don’t get me started on “No Child Left Behind” – which is really an effort by the present Administration to kill the public school system in order to channel the funding into elite, private “choosy” and “chosen” schools (where, you can bet, there will be no “bad influences”).

Despite all this, however, there may still be a good argument that public schools are not serving and cannot serve children and, therefore, ought to be abandoned. (This is often expressed as a kind of whiny “My child is being held back because of the need to serve all those dumber kyds.”) I confess that I sometimes wonder how much more my child would “learn” (academically) if she were not exposed to the social ills of a fully modern city social system – and she goes to a very successful public school (actually one of – if not – the top middle schools in the local system). I recognize that it is hard for children to learn in settings where children have not been taught the value of shutting up once in a while; where “f***” is the most frequently used word in any given day; where … . Well, you know. (Amazingly, these same graces seem to characterize their parents – especially the white, secure-middle-class, activist, pro-education parents. They themselves are incapable of sitting still in a choir concern, so how can we expect more of the kyds? But I digress.)

But at the same time, I also believe, as a matter of civic and religious conviction, that universal, (relatively) free, public education is something that we must provide. I think it is essential to democracy and to learning to live together. It is, in a way, a microcosm of where kyds live and need to learn to live.

The public school system is one of the few forces for equality in this country. It provides an essential element to worldly success, education – i.e., training in how to read, write, count, reason critically (sometimes), converse, get along with people of a variety of types. It is also critical to the democracy experiment to have a relatively (well-)educated populace with the ability to listen, understand, and reason – which the school systems are designed to provide.

Public education has proven, I think, to be a great equalizer in society – not by bringing down the elite, but by providing that essential element I mention above for those who otherwise have not won the genetic lottery and been born to positions of privilege. And, besides, where else would my toe-headed daughter find an intimate social entourage that includes two girls adopted from China, three YUPPIE off-spring, three African-American girls from low-income families, two mixed-race girls (one, the daughter of a single mom)? It is the American salad bowl writ small. (In case you don’t get the reference, Glazer and Moynihan, in Beyond the Melting Pot, discarded the image of American as a great “melting pot” in favor of the image of the “salad bowl” – all ingredients mixed together without losing their individual identities. It’s a great image, I think – and more accurate now than when they wrote.) Does that mean that it overcomes the social stratification that continues to plague this country? Of course not. But it helps moderate the sinister influences of that stratification by providing means of moving in and out of different layers.

As a Christian, without formally endorsing democracy (which I think I do, nevertheless) or the capitalist system (about which I hold grave misgivings) or the present stratified state of American society (which I think is very nearly unsupportable), I think Christians are called on to care for all their sisters and brothers – within and without the Church. That means feeding, clothing, housing, healing, forgiving, defending – and educating. There is, of course, strong biblical support for education (although I think it is almost all “religious” or faith education, but for a “people of the book,” that implies reading). But there is also the broader issue of working in the place where one is planted for the well-being of that place. And that means, in our time, providing for kyds (at least) an education that will serve their integration into society as functioning members regardless of the metal of the spoon they were born with in their mouths.

I know that the “welfare state” is under attack; indeed, in some quarters it has been discredited and denounced. Nevertheless, the vision of a society that cares for those who cannot, for various reasons, care for themselves is a noble vision, one which Christians should subscribe (whether capitalists or not). We are heirs to the prophetic tradition – and the prophets railed and railed against nations (make that “holy nations,” since they railed against Israel and Judah) that did not practice a faith in which the poor were offered preferential treatment. In modern times, educating all our people – indeed, even requiring education – is an element of that vision.

Of course, reform of all institutions is an on-going necessity and that is no less true of education than of any institution of society. In this country, there are (and have been through modern history) constant efforts to reform education, to make it more “effective” for the kyds who must learn, to make it more “accountable” to the society, to make it more appropriate the needs of children. Lamentably, the powers that be (notably the federal government) seem always to couch their efforts to camouflage their efforts to destroy public education with claims of making schools (how?) or teachers (huh?) or students “accountable. The “No Child Left Behind” charade (and here I go again) is no exception: It punishes those very schools facing the most challenges (usually those with substantial populations of non-English-speaking students and students with physical and intellectual disabilities) by withdrawing the most needed commodity for dealing with issues they face – viz., money for staff and programming.

I think Christians are called to advocate for reforms that will improve education for all children – but especially for those most in need of educational efforts: those who are heart-renderingly poor; those in unstable family situations; those with physical, intellectual, and emotional disabilities; those who don’t speak English (and may not learn to speak it with facility within two years of coming to the States); those who are not “left brained; and the like. We must also recognize that “school reform” is not separable from social reform – which may, in my jaundiced view, involve reform of the juvenile protection and justice systems that treats children as of primary concern and not as chattel belonging to the parents. (There’s another soapbox topic.) It’s a complicated task, but in no sense are we freed from it: We have no option but to support the public school system.

But here’s my dilemma: I believe that Christians are called to constitute a “peculiar society” – i.e., a distinctly different society from the general, secular culture within which they live: The name of that society is “Church.” (Here’s the Hauerwasian coming through.) To cite a few examples, Christians are called to act differently from the average non-Christian Joe-on-the-street (no adultery, care for elderly, no stealing, no reciprocating violence done to us); we are called to speak differently (e.g., don’t bear false witness, no swearing, no cursing, speaking the truth); we are called to value life differently and to regard the relationship of wealth to happiness differently (no killing, observing Sabbath, giving all we own to the poor); we are called to supply a different valance to relationships and self-fulfillment (take up a cross rather than rest in a sofa). And I wonder whether the public schooling system undermines the chances of that’s coming to be in lives of our children.

In order for the church to constitute its own society or culture, we need systems of enculturation that are at least as strong as, and also usually in direct conflict with, those systems of enculturation at work in the society. And following closely on TV as a major force for enculturation, at least for young people, is school. School provides a compelling matrix within which our children can learn an entirely different set of values and behaviors from the ones we Christian parents (ought to) wish for them. The system of friendships, icons (flags, military hero portraits, sports-team trophies, and the like, for example), indoctrination (textbooks are really bad) and example is much more effective for most of our kyds than is church – even if church has a viable Sunday school and confirmation program – if for no other reason than that the schools get our kyds for six to eight hours, five days a week, 40 weeks a year, and the church may get them for two hours a week most of the weeks of the year.

So maybe the answer is to establish parochial schools where the Faith can be handed on, taught, explained, celebrated in the particular terms of our traditions. As one example, Lutheran schools in the Missouri Synod’s history generally have done a remarkable job of turning out people who are “well-educated Lutheran Christians” – with a good understanding of the full meaning of that phrase. Maybe it ought to be the mission of every serious Christian congregation to offer its own children an alternative to the secular and increasingly secularizing public school. And I’m not sure that I would oppose that suggestion IF it were clear that the school would be an education program of the church, and not just a “haven” from a racially, economically, gender mixed world and IF it were clear that no discrimination at all would be allowed on the basis of race, gender (I guess maybe I could support gender-segregated schools), disability, sexual identity, behavioral problems, and all the other issues that the public schools are forbidden to say “no” to.

Of course, because of the importance of public education, to have such programs would be an expense incurred by the congregation in addition to that of its duties to pay for the public education system, too. For as citizens, Christians are not relieved of the burdens of supporting the civic state. (Toward that end, I advocate dropping tax exemption for church properties other than church buildings themselves. And in the case of extensive church “plants,” I favor pro rating taxes to exclude only the area used for formal worship. The church does not benefit from the financial propping up of the state.) By my lights, “vouchers” which use public money to subsidize a student’s enrollment in a private or public school is a direct violation of this proposal. In this case, there is a direct cost to the public system of moneys that would otherwise be available for the benefit of the entire student body.

Advocates and administrators of parochial/private schools claim that they do not siphon support away from the public system. I’m not sure that that is correct. In Minnesota, for example, school funding is distributed on a per-student basis. Because some students are more expensive to educate than others, it is important to recognize as many students as possible in order to begin to balance the costs. If students leave the system, chances are good they are the least expensive to the system, so the costs go directly up. Forthermore, in Minnesota, the public system is required to provide transportation to private schools. That is an additional cost that the system would not otherwise have to bear.

Can we, then, establish parochial/church schools without thereby undermining the public system? I’m skeptical. By withdrawing “Christian kyds” the church would leave the public schools with those kyds that didn’t fit in anywhere else (and, as I said, are most expensive to educate). I know that it may be a stereotype, but I think the public schools would be left with almost all the troublemakers and few of the brightest and best who, for lack of a better word, contribute to the civilizing of the school. That’s how it now works – “facts on the ground”: Private schools are not required to take just any old kyd who comes along. So if you have a behavior problem, a physical disability, Down syndrome, an unstable family situation, a small bank account – well, the public system is better equipped to deal with you, so forget our pricey, effete, high-test-scoring private school. (And lest you think that doesn’t apply to religious schools, note that in Minnesota a church school revoked admission of a student when the school found out that the student was confined to a wheelchair because “we’re just not equipped to meet his needs.”)

So where do I stand? Well, I’m not quite sure, to be frank. I am absolutely (almost) committed to preserving free, public, universally available education for all children from age 3 through college (yeah, it’s my socialism showing through). I think reforms must be made, but they should recognize that much of what makes public education so problematic is that the general society is torn asunder. Without some expensive attention to restoring the social fabric, schooling will continue to be frustrating to most involved. And I, in theory, enthusiastically support congregations and wider groups that work to establish Christian schools for the purposes I set out above. (I’m not a big fan of “intelligent design” or the “god-givenness” of certain relational and social structures. So I consider those to be at least questionable grounds for setting up a school. Regular liturgies, schooling in prayer, serious Bible study, critical studies in history – those are some I could support.)But I think one critical issue becomes that of admissions: Who’s going to get it? Only those who can pay? Or those who pay according to their means? Or all comers? Only physically and intellectually able? (If not, it is from the beginning unjustifiable, I think. To deny admission to disabled students is to shift, unfairly and unconscionably, the cost of their care to the secular society.) And equally problematic (potentially), will all comers be accommodated – including non-Christians?

I realize that the education of the young is a big deal – it certainly is for me. And I realize that parents are charged to care for their children. But I wonder whether this issue of public-school education is not one of those painful points where the theology of the cross hits the road, becomes complicated because of facts on the ground. For the reasons I set out, I think the burden of proof is clearly and heavily on those who would withdraw support from the public system to justify their cause.


LoieJ said...

OK, what you wrote is very good, but a bit long to follow every tidbit.

#1, wouldn't a "real" Christian school have to accept "the least of these" to follow Jesus' commands?

#2 We need more Christian teachers in public schools. Christians who live their values don't have to wear them on their sleeves.

#2.1 Christian teachers and students would "leaven" the public schools.

#2.2 The churches need to do a better job of Bible/moral education after school and on Sundays. Sunday Schools are falling off considerably. Make this more relevant.

#3 If public school texts have distortions, slants, don't the "Christian texts" have these as well? How do you know if a text is slanted or wrong if you've never seen anything else?

#4 Higher education: Husband and I graduated from a Lutheran College, so did daughter, now in Sem. Son attends Catholic University, other daughter attends a Lutheran College. All good places. HOWEVER as "Christain" institutions, why are they aiming their services at the top 20% of high school graduates, and only those who can afford nearly $30,000/year? Don't we also need morally educated mid-third people? Morally educated technitions?

Dwight P. said...

Loiegram, I resonate to all your points. Thank you for raising them.

I, too, am a grad of Lutheran college and seminary, Catholic grad program. So I am a big fan of parochial higher education. But I share your concerns that higher ed is pitched to an economically advantaged clientele. (On the other hand, my personal experience -- Concordia College, Moorhead, MN -- is that at least some of the church schools do a better job of "enabling" financially disadvantaged students than even state schools.

I welcome such programs as the Lutheran Student Volunteer program that get convicted Christians out working in disadvantaged communities. I think we ought to expand that: Instead of spending millions on a new worship book, for example, let's put the money into subsidies for quality, public-school teachers who work in less-than-ideal schools and districts.

Hope to hear more from you.

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