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Exploring Education Options (Part 4): Kingdom thinking, race, and education reform

July 19, 2017

In a short series, we have been exploring different education options for parents to consider. First, we explored charter schools with the founder of a charter network in Arizona. We heard from homeschooling experts and researchers on home education, and then explored classical Christian education (CCE).

In part four, we pull back and take a big picture look at education reform. Over 50 million kids attend public schools in this country, but the experience will range widely depending on zip code, race, and socioeconomic status. Whether your child is a public school student or not, as Christians, what do we want to know and think about when it comes to education reform?

Today, we hear from Jemar Tisby. Jemar is a Ph.D. student in history and a former school teacher and principal. He taught and was a principal at a public charter middle school in the Mississippi Delta, which served a population that was 95% African American and over 80% qualified for free or reduced lunch under federal guidelines.  Currently, Jemar is the President of the Reformed African American Network and co-host of the “Pass The Mic” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @JemarTisby.

In the current debate about education policy, what types of reforms are we talking about when we talk about “school choice”?

School choice is an umbrella term that covers multiple types of education models. Parents choose between private, public, parochial, charter, homeschool and hybrid options. The current debate usually centers on traditional public schools, charter schools (which can be public as well), and voucher programs that give parents their state-allocated funding to use on the educational option they prefer.

What kinds of historic and long-term challenges in education do we need to be aware of when discussing education reform?

Much of the opposition to school choice comes from historic patterns of racial segregation in education. As public school systems were developing, whites in power chose to segregate children based on skin color. Often the reason for this separation of races was the fear of miscegenation—the intermarriage of people of different races, especially black men and white women. Over time, two separate and unequal public education systems developed. Finally, in 1954 the Supreme Court desegregated public schools in the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

In reaction to Brown v. Board many whites adopted the tactic of “massive resistance.” Instead of complying with the Supreme Court decision, legislatures in various states devised ways to circumvent the integration of races in public schools. They started private academies for white children only. They embraced token integration by allowing one or two black children to attend a white school and then declaring they had an integrated institution. Some white policy-makers even threatened to close down public schools altogether rather than allow black students into historically white schools.

So in the present day, school choice advocates have to make the case that their efforts aren’t another attempt at racial segregation. This is a significant challenge because conservatives typically espouse free-market principles as the motivation for school choice. Liberals, however, suspect them of trying to shuffle students into mono-racial environments. Liberals also have a concern for the status of traditional public schools because that is where most poor black and brown children attend. If school choice means pulling resources from traditional public schools then it will adversely affect the most vulnerable children in society.

If you could talk with a Christian parent who is choosing between school options, what kinds of things would you ask them to consider?

Choosing a school is one of the most universal experiences of parents and families, yet it is a highly contextual and contingent decision. Choosing a school looks different depending on racial factors, whether you are a single parent, where you live, how much money you have, and each of your children’s unique skills and proclivities. Despite the many variables, all parents should keep a few principles in mind when deciding on a school for their children.

First, the primary responsibility for a child’s education rests with the parent. This doesn’t mean all parents must homeschool, but it does mean that all parents must have ultimate ownership for the quality and content of their child’s education.

Second, parents should be cautious of anyone who advocates blanket solutions. Education is not one-size-fits all. Parents should carefully consider their own circumstances and not let anyone pressure them into a certain “Christian” model of education.

Finally, if parents value racial integration and equality, then that should factor into their choice of schools. The immense effort exerted to keep education segregated requires even more effort to undo. That means parents may need to send their children to a school where they will be in the minority. Or it could mean staying in a school where the demographics are changing. Schools are one of the most important spaces for developing relationships, so it behooves parents who value diversity to find schools that provide diverse social networks.

For families already part of our public education system, how would you advise Christian parents who are frustrated by their own experience with local public schools?

If you are a parent who is frustrated by your experience with public schools, then exercise respectful persistence. Teachers and administrators do their best, but parents should be the greatest advocates for their children. You know your child better than anyone else and you should use that knowledge to ensure your child receives the best education possible.

Advocating for your child and his or her classmates means first being an active volunteer in the school and classroom. It is far easier for teachers and administrators to listen to parents who have proven they are invested in the success of the school. Second, good teachers look for help about how to best work with specific children. Tell the teachers what incentives and consequences work or don’t work with your child. Third, utilize the school handbook. Schools may have helpful policies written down but don’t follow them or they may need to revise some policies. Fourth, attend school board meetings to hear important discussions on the status of the school and voice your opinion during the public section the meeting. Finally, never talk negatively about the school or its personnel in front of your kids. This will undermine the authority and integrity of school officials in the eyes of the children and make everyone’s job even harder.

How can Christians/the Church be part of positive solutions in improving education for all kids? And why is this something the Church should be concerned with?

The church should be concerned with public education because it serves 50 million children. Following after Christ’s example of tenderness toward children, Christians should defend and advocate for kids. Further, public education touches on issues of poverty as well. Poor families are often shuffled into the least effective schools. Good news for the poor is not only the verbal proclamation of the gospel, but the tangible improvement of their circumstances which must include education.

How can Churches and Christian families specifically serve their public schools and encourage teachers and administrators?

The church can be part of the solution by visiting local schools and asking what they need instead of thrusting a service on them that they might not want. Some churches fill backpacks with school supplies at the beginning of the year. Other schools send volunteers to tutor and read. Another simple but effective gesture is to financially support classrooms, projects, and field trips so money doesn’t inhibit creative initiatives. Churches also need to serve the teachers and administrators at schools. Burnout occurs too frequently among educators, so throwing them a party, providing food and snacks, writing cards, and giving gifts all help to make school personnel feel valued and appreciated.

Some interventions are good at the individual level, but churches should also look at systemic solutions. Starting a school with qualified personnel to serve lower-income children is one step. Every church has educators in the congregation, so church leaders can make space for them to form a small group that could propose ways the church can positively impact local schools. Advocating for fair laws at the state and local level must also be part of the church’s efforts at improving education for all kids. A large step for any congregation would simply acknowledging the urgency of education reform and determining to take a first step.

For Further Information:

The Expectations Project

The Hardest Deal of All

A Reformation in Education (audio)

There Are Children Here: Christians and Public Education (audio)


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