Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Christians Investing in Public Education

Stephanie Summers


March 8, 2013

By Stephanie Summers

In many communities around our nation, the public education system is in crisis, reflecting broader social problems. Justice demands that every member of a community invest in the quality of public education.

But in many Christian circles, educational quality has often been a difficult topic. The Center for Public Justice has long upheld two principles for educational policymaking.  The first maintains that government has a responsibility to fund equitably all the types of education which it certifies, which includes religiously organized schools. The second maintains that parents are primarily responsible for the education of their children. As such, the Center actively promotes the authority of parents to choose to educate their child in a religiously organized school.  At the same time, we recognize that this does not let those parents “off the hook” for doing their part, as a member of institutions other than the family, in ensuring a quality education for the children of their neighbors.

Investment in low-income communities is a tangible way of putting “love in action” by caring for the poor. In many, if not most, of these communities, children fail to receive a quality education, which makes reforming public education a matter of justice. As Christians who are convinced that human beings are created in God’s image, we must affirm that each student should receive what is due them– the classic definition of justice. Every student, whether their parent chooses to have their child educated in a religiously organized school or a public school, should receive a quality education. But justice has even bigger implications, beyond teachers, students and their classrooms.

Ensuring a quality education for every child means taking a broader view of justice, one which recognizes the roles and responsibilities of the other groups of which the student is a part and affording to these groups what is their due, supporting the role that each one plays in the life of a school district.

Every student is the child of parents and possibly a sibling in a family.  This student is a neighbor in a neighborhood and possibly a member of a religious congregation.  This student is a citizen in a political community who is impacted by the laws and policies that are enacted.

Similarly, we “wear other hats” beyond our vocational callings, whether it be as a business or nonprofit leader or a host of many other professions. We are neighbors, members of congregations, family members.  And we are citizens in a political community, who are not only impacted by the laws and policies that are enacted, but can participate in the political process.

In seeking justice for all students in our communities, we must take into account the different relationships and responsibilities we all bear, helping each to make its full contribution.  A political community cannot change the quality of its education by only attending to what is happening inside the classroom.

Several years ago, I taught on a Native American reservation in South Dakota. One season of our nation’s history with Native peoples illustrates the broader idea of justice. At the time, many educators were deeply concerned about improving the quality of education for each Native American student. The resulting educational policy for native peoples involved removing them from their families, placing them in boarding schools, making them learn a different language than the one they spoke at home, and making them wear different clothes and eat different foods than their own—all in the name of providing them a quality education. And by traditional classroom educational standards, they received a quality education. 

However, I would argue that in the process, a great injustice was perpetrated. In this case, we forgot about all the other groups or institutions each student belonged to. The students were children and siblings in families, members of a tribe and worshippers in a traditional religious community.  Each of these institutions is accountable to God for fulfilling their God given role in the life of a student:  families, tribe and religious community share responsibility for the quality of education. Yet, our education policy did not recognize that each of these institutions has a different, yet complimentary role, to play. In the name of doing justice, a far greater injustice was perpetrated, one with lasting consequences on the vitality of the Native American family and the cultural heritage of native peoples.

As my predecessors at the Center for Public Justice have taught, doing justice as we work together to solve the seemingly intractable problems of our day is like being part of a symphony. In a symphony, the conductor affords each of the various instruments of the orchestra room to contribute their distinctive sounds in such a way that these sounds come together in rich, lively rhythm and harmony rather than a cacophony or a dull monotone. 

Love of neighbor, then, finds expression in public justice when governments and citizens recognize their own proper political and nonpolitical responsibilities, as well as the appropriate limits to those responsibilities. 

What this means when we talk about a quality education for every student is that each group: educators and students, families, churches, businesses, nonprofits, citizens and legislators who enact just laws—and the list goes on and on—must be able to make their God given and distinctive contributions to the quality of education in a community. A group of Christians investing in public education in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is working to articulate the right roles and corresponding responsibilities for public education belonging to institutions like businesses, congregations and nonprofits. These ideas, put into practice, will help justice, in its symphonic fullness, be done.

—Stephanie Summers is the CEO of the Center for Public Justice. The Center’s Christians Investing in Public Education initiative is a pilot project in Pittsburgh, PA to help equip Christians to make transformative investments in public schools.  For more information about the project, contact Charity Haubrich.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”