When I lived in Texas a few years ago, I worked with a local middle school in which 99% of students relied on the free and reduced lunch program. As a lunchtime mentor from a church down the street, I watched as a teacher called the students to come through the lunch line by their families’ ability to pay: first free lunch, then reduced-price lunch, then the one child left sitting alone at his table, waiting to pay with cash.
I worked in one-on-one counseling sessions and group anger management classes with kids who dealt with the impact of poverty both in their homes and when they got to a school that was too over-burdened and under-funded to meet their educational needs. The school dealt with low parental involvement as parents struggled to work enough hours to keep their heads above water, lack of appropriate after-school and extra-curricular programs, and teacher burnout when classroom sizes got too big to allow them to work with students who needed extra attention. Given the circumstances, it’s no wonder that kids become angry enough to require anger management classes. They knew they were being short-changed, and that makes me angry too.
Students in many North Carolina public schools deal with these same issues, struggling alongside teachers and administrators to make too little support go far enough to meet their vast educational and developmental needs. The majority of American school children attend public schools, but in North Carolina, from pre-kindergarten through higher education, public schools are suffering from a serious lack of investment. Not only do lawmakers fail to raise enough tax revenue and carve out a realistic chunk of the budget to provide the basic resources children need to learn, but as of 2013, our lawmakers have also done away the formula for distributing NC Education Lottery funds. That means important efforts like lowering class sizes for elementary students, improving access to NC Pre-K, and maintaining school facilities are no longer guaranteed a specific percentage of the state’s lottery earnings.
Legislators are also diverting much needed funding from public school education to private school vouchers, which promote re-segregation by race and income by subsidizing the move of middle-income students to the private school system at taxpayers’ expense. This not only hurts our kids, it hurts their teachers, too. An ongoing lag behind other states in teacher pay and new policies such as changes to teachers’ contracts that reduce teachers’ job security require more from educators who are getting less and less in return. Teachers, administrators, students, and parents deserve better.
People of faith have a role in this struggle. From colonial times, faith communities have recognized the value of education and helped create some of the first educational institutions in their communities. Our commitment to education extends ever further back than this, though. While the American public school system obviously did not exist at the time Scripture was written, the values undergirding it certainly did. Throughout the Bible we find compelling praise of wisdom of learning for both personal enrichment and community benefit as well as the importance of mentorship and teaching for both building relationships and passing knowledge along from one generation to another. Not only does everyone from the prophets to the disciples affirm the significance of wisdom and learning, but they also constantly remind readers that God’s people are to act with justice and equity because the God we serve is just. In addition to promoting wisdom, which is inherently valuable, education serves as a powerful engine for overcoming poverty and promoting a healthy democracy that serves its citizens well.
An educational system that leaves out the most vulnerable members of our community is simply unacceptable. Scripture is clear on this. God shows no partiality among God’s children based on income, race, geography, or any other characteristic, and people of faith must advocate for a just public education system that shows no partiality as well.
Today, people of faith still have an important role to play: fighting for an educational system that provides opportunities for education to all children in every school district in North Carolina.
We need a system that serves all of our kids as well as their families, teachers, and administrators. Many churches and religious groups are already supporting their local schools through partnerships and programs, but we can do more. We can let our lawmakers know that we support well-funded, quality public schools for all North Carolina children, not just those in our neighborhoods.
For more information about the role of faith communities in supporting public education, including a list of suggestions for action, check out Public Education: A Call to Action for People of Faith on the North Carolina Council of Churches Public Education Resources Page.
Elizabeth Queen is an alumna of the University of North Carolina School of Social Work Masters’ degree program with an interest in community-level engagement in public policy issues, like public education. She is also a recent graduate of Duke Divinity School and a candidate for ordination as a deacon in the United Methodist Church, a role that includes drawing churches and their surrounding communities together to promote social justice. Elizabeth recently presented at the NC Council of Churches 2014 Critical Issues Seminar on Public Education on “Why People of Faith Care about Public Education.”