Churches and public schools as co-laborers for the common good

Public education is indispensable. If we weren’t sure of that before the current crisis, we certainly are now.

I, for one, never have had a doubt. My mother was a third-generation public educator, and three of my four grandparents taught and coached. The grandfather who didn’t work in public education served on the school board. I got to be around teachers on the clock and off the clock. I heard stories and saw old photos and even the odd turn-of-the-century gradebook from my family’s work in the classroom.

My father was a pastor, and if I wasn’t at school, I probably was at church. On a given Wednesday or Sunday, there were teachers and coaches there too, because very often teachers and coaches are “church people.” So, perhaps it is natural for me that the institution falling right below my church in order of importance is the public school.

The church and school, while not identical in mission or allegiance, are natural co-laborers for the public good. Pastors know this. It’s why so many of us seek out partnerships with schools. Of course, a free church and a free state require a separation between them that safeguards the dignity of both. A public school cannot and should not become a church. But a wise pastor can recognize the place a child most likely will encounter an adult outside his or her own home who knows them well and loves them deeply is in a public school.

A web of human intelligence

There is a whole web of human intelligence in a public school capable of knowing how a child is really doing: Are they well? Are they flourishing? Are they safe?

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Educators get to watch children with their peers; to see how they treat others and how they are treating themselves. Cafeteria workers know what and how often a child is eating. Coaches and fine arts teachers have unique opportunities to foster passion and confidence or to guide a student as they react to an immediate challenge. Public educators often know with certainty the features of a child’s day-to-day that even careful parents and pastors could only guess.

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Even if a child never darkens the door of the local church, does it not stand to reason that securing this level of attention for every kid in every community is worth our best efforts?

What could be more important, especially during our present COVID-19 national crisis?

My cards already are on the table. My bias toward the public school system is plain, even inherited. However, there are facts we have to reckon with.

There are more school-age children in Texas than there are people in the commonwealth of Kentucky. And yet, Texas schools are funded at a per pupil rate well below the national average.

While Texas has grown over the last decade, the rate of spending per pupil has been little better than static, and the burden of funding schools quietly has been shifted away from the state to local district.

Money isn’t everything, but it does suggest many of our state policymakers may not fully appreciate that, in addition to a solid education, students in our public schools receive the care, concern and love essential to healthy human development.

How churches can benefit education

For pastors and people of faith, what response is required? Should we just be proud of the successful ministries we already have for students? Or bemoan the fact schools have the advantage of compulsory attendance or that students simply are beyond our grasp?

Is there a more excellent way? What if we were to become grassroots community advocates for public schools and schoolteachers? If pastors, youth ministers, deacons and elders saw their role to stand up and speak out on behalf of their community and neighborhood public schools, our children likely would have the funding they need to thrive.

Thankfully, ministers and faith leaders are beginning to do this. Groups like Pastors for Texas Children and others are mobilizing people of faith to come alongside school leaders in support and solidarity.

So many educators, people like my mother, grandparents and great-grandfather already are in our churches. My band director was a Baptist music minister, and my head football coach was a Presbyterian elder. We already know and love the people who know and love our students.

Let’s support them and petition the folks in Austin to do the same.

Marshall Cook is a minister and the son of a minister and a public schoolteacher. He is a graduate of Lorena High School, Baylor University and Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.

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