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

Education Reform Under the Radar

Dave Larsen


June 3, 2011
by Dave Larsen

In “The Splendor of Cities,” a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, David Brooks describes accompanying Rahm Emanuel as he campaigned in the streets and neighborhoods of Chicago. A frequent topic raised by many Chicagoans they met along the way was the sorry state of education in the city and their hope that Emanuel could do something better, something dramatically significant. If nothing changes, the people fear their vital city may not prosper.

Paddy Bauler was the bumbling and brawling Chicago alderman—and there have been many of them—famous for saying "Chicago ain't ready for reform." When it comes to education, Chicago is more than ready, and the demands for it are coming from many quarters: parents, educators, business interests, and politicians.

Although most agree that the current situation is a vivid example of structural injustice, few ever talk about what a just solution might look like. Emanuel has strategies in mind, often juiced upgrades of many reform movement themes focused on performance standards for schools, students and educators. What’s missing in most discussions is a look at the broader urban landscape, where children actually flourish in schools that see students as image-bearers of God.

Exemplary education is found in the smaller Catholic, Lutheran, and independent Protestant schools scattered throughout Chicago which, regrettably, operate under the radar, hidden—not by choice—from most reform discussions. While reform experiments with charter schools are showing mixed results to this point, most faith-based schools continue to perform well in standardized testing, focus on character development, encourage creativity and critical thinking, equip students to succeed in outstanding and competitive high schools, and have a demonstrated track record with alumni who attend and graduate from college. The fact is that many elements of school reform discussions—smaller class sizes, longer days and school years, strong ties to a supportive community, high levels of parental involvement, professional accountability and peer review, and the absence of tenure—are already in place in these inconspicuous Christian schools.

Because Christian schools are often marginalized due to their size or lack of influence in political and business circles, they are not seen as legitimate alternatives to failing schools. And, frankly, too many urban churches ignore their presence when they could be ready allies in transforming neighborhoods. Yet, because the majority of these faith-based schools serve communities of poverty, they could be part of the long-term solution for what ails urban school systems like those in Chicago.

Last year the film “Waiting for Superman” made an attempt at starting a national conversation on education reform. In spite of its good intentions, heavy marketing, and critical acclaim, it didn’t do well at the box office.  My guess is that most evangelical churches, for example, never noticed it or promoted it. Too bad.

Educational vouchers are a way to bring about justice for students and parents who lack any choice in the matter. Strangely, “Waiting for Superman” never seriously considered vouchers, in spite of the film’s focus on the lack of parental choice in their child’s education. The Center for Public Justice has long been an advocate for vouchers as a reform vehicle, and this year has witnessed several states enact legislation to make vouchers public policy. Maybe the tide is turning and people are beginning to notice.

Christians everywhere should be concerned for all the children in public education, especially in those neighborhoods where schools are “failure factories.” We need to be better informed. We need to be involved in local discussions, serve on school boards, pray. We need to acknowledge the excellent work being done in many public schools by Christians and non-Christians alike and give thanks. But it’s also time to recognize education reform as a pro-life justice issue and educational vouchers as a way to love our neighbors as ourselves. As Christ reminds us, that’s as important as loving God.

—Dave Larsen is the Director of the Bright Promise Fund for Urban Christian Education.



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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.”