Public education is a crucial matter!

/ 12 April 2016

One of the benefits of being on research leave has been the opportunity to read widely in areas I haven’t caught up with in years.

I have always cared about what it means to be in community with each other deeply, and particularly in terms of the wide economic disparities that exist in the US. I’m a product of public education — it took me from Oshkosh, WI all the way to Yale, Harvard, and a PhD from Boston College — but the public education of my youth, more than 35 years ago, looks a lot different from today. Back then, even living in a family receiving food support, I had access to public libraries, music lessons in school, art opportunities and more. That system no longer exists.

Today the majority of public school students live in poverty — and the poverty line in the US is not set anywhere near a “reasonable” level. We have cut back and cut back and cut back to such an extent that families have no time, even if the possibility existed, to go with their kids to libraries, or learn how to fix bikes, or spend time playing outside.

Two books I’ve been reading this year that fire up my energy for doing something about how theologians engage poverty — and the systems which sustain and thrive off of it — are “Undoing the Demos” by Wendy Brown, and “Listen, Liberal” by Thomas Frank. Any Christian theologian who believes in doing more than responding cognitively to a Jesus movement needs to be engaging these ideas.

You don’t have to read these particular books, but I think we ALL have to be seeing the poverty that is systemic, and asking why it is that Christian churches are willing to buy into neoliberal ideologies and meritocratic fantasies rather than seeing, let alone walking with, those people in our neighborhoods and larger communities who are barely struggling to survive.

Rather than believing that it’s somehow “their fault” that these people haven’t been successful, and saying our blessings for whatever small measure of safety we think we’ve attained, Christian theologians need to be asking deep and thorough questions about — to use Pope Francis’s language, “our common home” — and our common home includes the environments in which learning takes place, not to mention the goals of that learning. We need to be asking about how we work towards the common good, and what the wholesale destruction of public education in this country means for the fabric of our communities.

What does it mean that in our fantasies we believe that if only people had a good enough education they could succeed, and yet we consistently ridicule, degrade, and devalue the very people who have taken up the profession of teacher? I have family members who have spent years of their lives engaged in teaching in public schools, and their fatigue and disillusionment has reached epic levels.

There are times I think it’s hard to be in the midst of the crumbling edifice of theological education, but I only have to spend 10 minutes listening to my sister talk about her care for her 1st grade students and the lack of basic resources for them, to know that I have it easy (not to mention the privilege of a research leave).

Public school teachers pour their hearts out, day in and day out, to support children in learning, but these same teachers are consistently forced into humiliating practices that require submission to accountability tests that are rigged to support private companies making profit, rather than generative assessment of student learning.

Much of the public rhetoric around teaching — this month’s discussions in our legislature, for instance — makes it seem as if teachers’ unions are to blame for the mess in public education. But when you look at the systems in place, and you ask who is benefiting from them, it’s not teachers. And it’s certainly not children.

Why is it so hard to believe that teachers’ unions might have something important to tell us? Why are we so unwilling to listen? It’s possible to listen deeply and still disagree, but if you haven’t even taken the time to listen what does that say about your respect for those voices? Maybe you’re not ready to listen to the voices of teachers, but how about the voices of parents seeking to support public schools?

Here’s a great summary offered at the beginning of this year’s legislative session, of the issues facing public schools in MN:

This summary was offered by Parents United for Public Schools, a nonpartisan parent activist group.They have other useful resources on their site, too, and they remind us that “our children cannot go back to school when times are better — childhood has no rewind.”

I’ve got far more to say on this issue, so look for more in the coming weeks…