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

Why Should Christians Care About Public Education?

Ted Williams III


June 22, 2012

By Ted Williams III

Education reform has become one of America’s greatest priorities. A recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and 25th for mathematics. Even more troubling: Out of 34 OECD countries, only eight have a lower high school graduation rate than the U.S.

Yet only three of these nations spend more than we do educating our students. Currently, the United States spends just over $10,000 per pupil compared to $2,307 in 1980 and $842 in 1970. We pour increasing amounts of money into education, yet our schools have remained collectively deficient.

For many Christians, however, the conversation surrounding education reform stops at the need for Christian schools and the public policy changes necessary to support these schools. This position is one I fully understand. Not only am I a vociferous advocate of school choice, but I am the parent of two children in Christian schools. My wife and I have made significant sacrifices in order to make this happen; we believe in the power of Christian schools. However, as a citizen, my concern for education does not end at this point.

Educational equity is a matter of justice. Public schools are poignant reminders of the economic and social disparities that are so common in the United States. A recent Stanford University study found that the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students grew by about 40 percent since the 1960s. Another study, conducted by the University of Michigan found the gap in college completion among rich and poor children has grown by 50 percent in the past 25 years.

The tragedy in these statistics is that education still represents America’s greatest hope for social mobility. College graduates earn $20,000 a year more than high school graduates and close to $500,000 more over their lifetimes. Of America’s prison population, the largest in the world, 82 percent are high school dropouts.  Those we fail to educate become part of a permanent underclass.

The Calvinist principle of common grace suggests that equitable public schools are within the realm of God’s concern for humanity. If God provides rain and sun for both the righteous and the unrighteous, then love requires that we care what happens in public schools. It is entirely possible for Christians to simultaneously recognize the importance of vibrant faith-based educational institutions and their secular counterparts. A respect for pluralism demands this.

Lutheran leaders like Johannes Bugenhagen, John Comenius and Philipp Melanchthon were critical to establishing compulsory public education in Germany. America’s earliest educational pioneers also came from the church community. From the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans who established the nation’s first public schools, to the founding of most of the country’s first universities, the Christian influence on all areas of education is undeniable.

So what does this legacy mean today?

The opportunity for Christians to serve their communities through its public schools could not be greater. Around the nation churches have provided mentoring, volunteer tutors and even housing for public educational programs. Most significantly, the faith community can assuredly make its greatest contribution by engaging in the conversation surrounding the definition of a quality education. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said “intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” President Theodore Roosevelt said “that to educate a man in the mind and not the morals is to educate a menace to society.”  Churches are uniquely positioned to transform the discussion surrounding educational reform by promoting what it does best: building the moral character necessary for good citizenship.

In cities around the nation, the current conversation around educational reform is full of vitriol as teachers, parents, administrators, activists and political figures fight over a host of issues including accountability, funding and school closings. Interest groups stake their territory and dig in to unmovable ideological positions. We need a new vision for our schools that recognizes that the various community stakeholders have common interests and that embracing a spirit of cooperation and compromise is the only path to true reform. The Christian community, through its history of humbly serving the greater public, extending compassion to the least in our society and empowering the masses through education, should be at the table in order for this reform to be truly effective.

—Ted Williams III is a Professor of Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago.

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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.”