Our Public Schools: Inclusive Mission Brings Us All Together

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    Our Public Schools: Inclusive Mission Brings Us AllTogetherJan RessegerPublished online: 11 Nov 2010.

    To cite this article: Jan Resseger (2002) Our Public Schools: Inclusive Mission Brings Us All Together, Religion & Education,29:2, 27-35, DOI: 10.1080/15507394.2002.10012307

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  • Our Public Schools:Inclusive Mission Brings Us All TogetherJan Resseger

    On a May Iowa morning, I sat in the sunlight pouring through the col-ored windows into Herrick Chapel at Grinnell College as I listened to one ofmy daughters classmates present her Baccalaureate address. Thirty-threeyears after my own graduation from this college, I had returned to celebratewith my daughter as she graduated. As I began to listen to Ms. JuliaHaltiwanger, I did not realize that her speech and the other graduation eventswould become an important lens through which I would spend the summerreflecting on my work as a public schools advocate for the United Churchof Christ.

    Ms. Haltiwanger exhorted her classmates to change the world, not somuch because of the horrible injustices that surround us all, but because, Aworld so full of important and wonderful things leaves absolutely no roomfor apathy and no excuse for being jaded. When we care, when we dothe best we can to make things better, were doing it because of the thingsand people that are important to us. We should all be activists because of allthe things we love about our world, the beautiful things that make us glad tobe alive.

    Ms. Haltiwangers speech has challenged me. Working as I do in theJustice and Witness Ministries of the UCC, I know that I cannot follow heradvice entirely. Working as I do to eliminate economic and racial injusticesin public schools in the United States, I am called to put the spotlight oninjustice itself, to tear the blinders off the eyes of smug people who denyinequity and prefer to pretend we can manage away social injustice with aquick, simple remedy. As our nations largest social institution, public schoolsembody attitudes that desperately need challenging-attitudes about race andpoverty, power and privilege, and cultural dominance and marginalization.Our unwillingness as citizens to fund public schools in particular locations isespecially troubling because it reflects our attitudes, our biases, and fre-quently a level of bigotry we all prefer to deny.

    But what about following Ms. Haltiwangers advice? Should we setabout working for public education justice on the premise that the schoolsmany have come to disdain as failing schools are somehow worthy and

    Religion & Education, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Fall 2002)Copyright 2002 by the University of Northern Iowa

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  • 28 Religion & Education

    beautiful? Could we imagine that we need to preserve our nations systemof public schools because it is one of our greatest blessingsthat this vastsystem will be the key to enabling the vast majority of children to participatein meaningful work, to maintaining and enriching the vitality of our cities, todeveloping the arts and literature, to building our capacity to manage theenvironment, to helping us listen and appreciate the growing cultural diver-sity in our nation, and to developing some consensus across our vast diver-sity about the dreams we share for our children?

    UCC Rejects Vouchers

    After a stressful and busy spring, I had not taken time until we beganour long drive out to Iowa to reflect deeply on the implications of the longawaited U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Zelman Voucher Case, a deci-sion not yet announced in May, but anticipated within only a month. TheCleveland voucher program is something I know well. The UCCs denomi-national offices are here in Cleveland, and I have been watching this pro-gram since Rep. Mike Fox proposed the bill to the Ohio Legislature back in1992. I watched a previous challenge to this program all the way throughthe state court system in the late nineties, and Ive been watching the Zelmancase itself move through the federal courts beginning with Judge SolomonOlivers 1999 finding in federal district court that the program was uncon-stitutional.

    On June 27, 2002 the United States Supreme Court finally released its5-4 opinion overturning district and appellate decisions, and making it con-stitutional for public tax dollars to be used for vouchers in private and paro-chial schools. The Zelman decision signals a major shift in judicial interpre-tation of the Constitutions First Amendment, which has until now prohib-ited the use of government funding to establish or favor particular religionsat public expense. In Cleveland, more than 99% of the vouchers have beenused at religious schools,1 many of which have been requiring children toparticipate in religious instruction, regardless of their familys faith tradition.

    Zelman will also have long term public policy implications for allocationof public dollars for education. While the UCC has always defended theright of parents to choose private or parochial education, the denominationhas historically supported public investment in the schools that serve allchildren on behalf of the community.2 The voucher program in Clevelandredirects money away from Clevelands public schools. In the 2001-2002school year alone, the voucher program cost the citys public schools morethan $8 million in state Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid, the funding cre-ated by the Ohio legislature to assist school districts with a large percentageof children in poverty.3 The program serves the few (4,000 voucher stu-

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  • Inclusive Mission 29

    dents) at the expense of the many (77,000 students in the public schoolsystem). And the Cleveland district, like many urban districts, has beendramatically underfunded, while facing the challenge of providing extra edu-cational and social services for children to counterbalance the effects ofpoverty and racial discrimination. Child advocate and professor of publicpolicy and education, Bruce Fuller, warns that market-based reform willabandon our societys most vulnerable children: If we are to elect theproud pursuit of private interests in a revamped education marketplace....then why would a no-longer-civil society tax itself to support public schools?And once we all win our own private places, like private clubs surroundedby high walls, who will be left to rely on the public spaces?4

    While proponents of market choice extol vouchers for improving publicschools through competition, critics of vouchers raise serious philosophicalquestions on top of concerns about spreading scarce resources even thin-ner. A system designed to serve the private choices of parents is morelikely to encourage parents to insulate their children from those who do notshare their familys or their groups particular beliefs or values in schoolswhere specific constituencies can push their own particular interests. Aneducation marketplace may portend the fracture and polarization of society.Political philosopher Benjamin Barber rejects, ...that proud disdain for thepublic realm that is common to all market fundamentalists, Republican andDemocratic alike... Democracy....demands the consideration not only ofwhat individuals want (private choosing) but also of what society needs(public choosing). These ends are public, the res publica that constitutes usas a common people.5

    UCC Legacy on Public Education

    Universal education was introduced into the New England colonies byour Puritan forebears who believed in literacy as the basis of religion and ofcommunity. Convinced that all persons should have direct access to theBible, for it was one chief project of that old deluder Satan to keep menfrom knowledge of the Scriptures, and also convinced that sound learningcontributes to good citizenship, Puritans in America immediately establishedschools.6 By 1647, Massachusetts required that every town of fifty fami-lies hire a school teacher.7 Congregationalists as well as our German Re-formed forebears continued to expand community schooling throughout thenineteenth century,8 and missionaries of our American Missionary Associa-tion founded schools as the path to full and productive citizenship for formerslaves. While our modern denomination has supported the separation ofchurch and state more emphatically than our eighteenth and nineteenth cen-tury UCC forebears, we have never wavered from our commitment touniversal literacy as a public responsibility.

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  • 30 Religion & Education

    UCC General Synod policy reminds us that universal public educationis one of our great blessings. In 1985 General Synod 15 warned, ...publicschools seem to be losing public support. Yet this development must not beallowed to obscure the great strengths and accomplishments of Americaneducation.9 In 1991 General Synod 18 proclaimed: As Christians we be-lieve that God desires for children the life abundant which comes from thefullest development of their giftsphysical, intellectual, social and spiri-tual.10 It is precisely because of the importance of our system of publicschools that in 2001 General Synod 23, called upon the United Church ofChrist in all its settings to proclaim public school support and advocacy forthe same as one of the foremost civil rights issues in the twenty-first cen-tury.11 Even as they have challenged our congregations to reduce injusticeby advocating for expanded access and opportunity for children who havebeen marginalized, our General Synods have reaffirmed the value of uni-versal public education.

    Biblical Foundations

    Responsibility for community, especially for the least privileged and mostvulnerable, is at the core of the ethical teaching of the Hebrew and Chris-tian scriptures. We are exhorted, to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo thethongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.12

    Oppression and injustice as addressed in Isaiah are social pathologies ofrepressive communities, and the redress of these injustices will depend on acommunity response. In a 1980 UCC resource, Malcolm Warford inter-prets the mutuality implied in the concept of the public: At the heart of thepublic is a set of personal, social and economic relationships that exist be-tween ourselves and others. In this regard citizenship is nothing less thanthe way we care for these relationships.13

    The New Testament body of Christ is a mutually dependent, mutuallyresponsible community, where each one is necessary and where all arecared for: As it is there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannotsay to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, Ihave no need of you....but the members may have the same care for oneanother.14 While the bible never specifically names public education as asocial concern, because agrarian societies in biblical times had no systemfor formal education, our Christian theology of mutual support, care, andnurturing has caused the UCC historically to support a system of universalformal schooling, managed through the public sphere, to enrich all the mem-bers for the mutual benefit of all: The inclusiveness of the public schools istaken as an image of Gods all-encompassing purposes. Affirmations re-garding the ultimate purpose and meaning of human life support the neces-

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  • Inclusive Mission 31

    sity to secure for each child of God that education which will fully develophis or her capacities and which will enable that person to serve as a respon-sible person in the common life.15

    What are the Issues?

    Because ninety percent of children in the United States attend publicschools, a system of excellent, well-funded public schools is our societysbest hope for universal economic participation. Public schools, after all, aremandated and equipped to develop the gifts of even the most challengedstudents. Certainly in a twenty-first century information economy, educa-tion has become a necessity for individual survival and prosperity. In earlieragrarian societies, the skills for participation in remunerative work could bepassed on within families from parents to children. Even in the industrialworld of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many jobs required skillsthat could be learned on the job through apprenticeship or specialized expe-rience and training within factories. Todays well-paying jobs require so-phisticated literacy and numeracy as well as computer skills. Formal educa-tion has become the means to life through economic survival. Those whoare educated can prosper; those without a high school diploma are now leftfew opportunities other than minimum wage jobs in the service sector, whereeven when both parents work full time, a family of four cannot rise abovethe federal poverty level.

    Public education enriches our private li...