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Joe with a group of local Atlanta Students.

A Sermon on Public Education:

Why Christians Should Care About Our Public Schools

By Joe Martin

At first blush, public education may seem like a strange topic for a sermon. In fact, this subject seems very secular in view of the debate about prayer in the schools. Nevertheless, it may be as close to God's kingdom as anything I know. It is certainly the most crucial drama of our day in uniting our society and determining whether our nation will prosper in the years to come.

But since I alluded to prayer in schools, I ought to say a few more words on this controversial issue. We all know there is prayer in schools whenever a test is given, but I'm talking about the official kind. I respect the views on both sides - pro and con - but a fundamental point is often overlooked.

I'll never forget the comment by the lawyer who represented the Douglas County Board of Education in the lawsuit to contest prayers before high school football games. In his closing argument, he asked the judge to reject the complaint because, as he put it, "Prayer is just a harmless tradition." What greater indictment could there be to our commitment as followers of Christ if our prayers are only a ritual and have no meaning? My own reason for opposing prayer in public schools is that I consider prayer to be so important and so powerful that it should not be diluted into some sort of cultural practice or "harmless tradition."

If church and state are supposed to be separate, why should Christians be interested in public education? There is a host of reasons, but here are some of the most important.

In the first place, Jesus himself was a teacher. He may have started off as a carpenter, but his real profession was that of a teacher. He taught people about God's love and helped us understand great truths through parables, which any expert would have to say is a very effective instructional technique.

To this day, I cannot think of any calling that is more important or more difficult than being a teacher. How can we expect someone to cope all day long with 20 to 30 squirming youngsters, or worse yet, with a group of teenagers - the kind who talk back! With all of the problems children bring to school, the challenge is even tougher today than ever before.

In the clamor about school reform, we have paid very little attention to what might be the most powerful reform of all, and that is simply to enhance the teaching profession. I believe the primary reason for the vigor of Japan's education system is not any of the structural elements we hear so much about, but the basic fact that teachers are held in such high esteem in Japanese society. The value of their contributions is recognized and appreciated by everyone.

Education, especially public education, is also the foundation of our democracy. It is a vital part of our heritage and the sinew that holds our society together.

Public schools have helped make America great. They have provided a shared experience for many of our citizens and have been the means by which our nation developed its awesome productive capacity and assimilated millions of people from diverse backgrounds into a common culture.

I am gravely concerned, however, that we may be losing one of the key sources of our vitality as a nation. The public schools have been the common meeting ground and the primary unifying force in our society. They also have been the route by which people of limited means and lowly status could enter the mainstream of society. If we ever reach the point where we only have private schools for the rich and public schools for the poor, we will all be in peril.

Public education may be the only hope for many of our children, especially for the large number of children who are poor. Tragically, these children often come from broken homes, usually with a single mother who is struggling to make ends meet. In fact, more than half of all children who live with a single mother also live in poverty. Moreover, they are growing up in neighborhoods ridden with crime, overwhelmed by drugs and devoid of the amenities many of us take for granted. Worst of all, many of these children have lost hope and see very few opportunities for themselves.

People usually react in disbelief when I say that most teenagers are rational. I wonder myself sometimes. But how can we expect a student to work hard in school if there is no apparent reason to do so? Unless there is a clearly understood payoff from education, it is entirely rational behavior to drop out of school or to slide by with as little effort as possible.

All of this leads me to ask the same question we hear so often: Is there a crisis in public education? The answer is mixed. As Will Rogers once said, "Our schools are not as good as they used to be, and they never were."

Let's not forget what public education has achieved. Not only have the public schools helped to hold our society together, they also have been a primary vehicle in making needed changes. Despite the disturbing trend toward resegregation, our public schools have led the way in the cause of racial integration. They also have been the battleground for religious freedom, free speech and other issues.

Moreover, the greatest success of public schools since World War II has been to reach out and serve those students who previously had been left out or forced out. The drop-out rate is still much too high - nearly 40 percent in Georgia - but the percentage of children now attending school is much higher than ever before. Nearly three out of every four African-Americans are completing high school today, compared with fewer than one in four only a few decades ago. That is a remarkable advance, which must be preserved and expanded.

Public schools are resilient, but they can't do everything. The heavy pressures placed on our public schools as the cutting edge for social change took their toll in recent years. Standards dropped. Public support waned. Teachers burned out. The affluent turned increasingly to private schools.

Consequently, there is a two-fold challenge facing our public schools. The curriculum must be strengthened, and we must demand high levels of achievement by all students. The skills necessary for meaningful employment, good citizenship and lifelong learning clearly require more preparation than ever before. But in the process of raising standards, we must not forsake the goal of universal education. We must include those who might otherwise fall by the wayside - not just for humanitarian reasons, but for the collective self-interest of our community as well. We must not sacrifice equity in the quest for excellence.

Even so, we may be running out of time. Our public schools are doing well in many respects, but the challenges of a growing underclass threaten to drag us all down. The best students in America perform on a par with the world's best, but the students in the lowest third, the same students who have the deck stacked against them in other ways, are clearly doing worse than the bottom third for any of the industrialized democracies.

People often wonder why our schools are important to them at all, either directly or indirectly. Only about one quarter of all American households have school-aged children. In fact, some people even ask why they should pay taxes for operating the public schools, especially if they are retired or don't have children. That argument is like saying I shouldn't have to pay taxes for fire protection if my house didn't catch fire last year.

Everyone has a stake in good schools. It should be enough to want the best for our children, particularly those who are dependent on our schools for whatever chance they may have in life. But even if a person isn't persuaded in this regard, there is still a compelling case for enlightened self-interest. The health of out economy depends more than ever before on an educated work force. While minorities, women and immigrants comprise about half of the U.S. workforce today, they will account for 80 percent of all new workers by the year 2000. We all suffer when any part of our community is alienated. Those citizens who feel left out cannot be expected to join with others in preserving and maintaining the community.

The price paid by society for failures in education is enormous. More than 80 percent of the inmates in the jails and prisons across our country are high school dropouts, and it costs at least four times more to house a prisoner for a year than it does to keep a student in school for another year. A year of preschool education costs only one seventh as much.

Nevertheless, America's prison population doubled during the 1980s, and the incarceration rate in the United States is the highest of any nation in the world. The same goes for the cost of welfare and social services for those who could have made it on their own if they had gotten a good start in school. To make the case even more personal, the kid who might steal your car or break into your house is the same child of God who could have gone straight with the benefit of an education and a decent job.

What then should we do? This may sound like campaign rhetoric, but our schools really do belong to the community. All of us share a responsibility for how well they perform their mission.

One way to fulfill this responsibility is to offer moral and political support to our schools and accept nothing less than the very best. Greater spending on education won't work alone, but it will be necessary. The United States ranks near the bottom of the industrialized nations in percentage of Gross National Product going to education, and the situation is worse in Georgia. If nothing else, you should hold the members of your local board of education accountable. They are only lay people who try to guide school systems, but like everyone else, they respond to pressure. Sometimes the pressure is for the best interests of children; often it is not.

Another way is to stay informed. Speak out on critical issues - not just in public meetings but, more importantly, at your place of work or at social gatherings. Try to understand the ethical dimensions of the issues affecting our schools. In terms of school choice, to cite one example, I can see great value in allowing parents to choose what school their child will attend, but there is also a danger if all students are not able to choose on the same basis. What happens to those students who are mentally or physically handicapped, who are not high achievers, or who are simply unwanted for a variety of reasons? They may have the right to choose, but this right is illusory if they aren't accepted at the school they choose to attend.

If you have time, you can perform a very valuable service by volunteering in the schools, perhaps as a tutor or mentor. It is extremely important for children and young people to have someone to talk with, a person who cares and will listen attentively without either condoning or passing judgment, and often this person must be someone other than the student's own parents. Just showing interest in a young person can have a powerful impact.

The assistance doesn't have to relate to academics as such. Same of the best roles for volunteers are as coaches for intramural sports teams or advisors to special-interest clubs. Other possibilities include helping young mothers (and fathers) learn how to care for a child, promoting family literacy, working in a school clinic, and helping in the library or cafeteria. Anything that can be done to strengthen families or to encourage constructive activities after the regular school day works wonders.

Thank you again for your interest in public education. It is a noble cause based on Christian values. The students in our schools are both our children and God's children. They depend on us, and as the great Teacher taught us, "If you do so unto the least of these, have done so unto me."

A trustee in his church: Joe is a long-time trustee of Trinity United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

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