The Common Good
May-June 1997

Getting Beyond "Miseducation"

by Kimberly Burge | May-June 1997

The struggle for quality schools.

When the morning alarm rings, children across the country share the sometimes inevitable dread of going to school. But for kids in weary urban public school systems, that dread is compounded by days spent in buildings that are deteriorating, with teachers who are struggling to maintain an atmosphere conducive to learning, even as the threat of violence among students hangs in the air.

With this decidedly bleak picture as a backdrop, some Christian leaders are renewing their commitment to inner-city education. For example, in January Cardinal James Hickey announced a strategy to infuse new resources into Catholic schools in one of the nation’s most troubled districts: Washington, D.C.

In 1996, 65 percent of all the children tested in D.C. public schools scored below their grade levels for reading. From 1989 to 1995, 40 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 either dropped out or left for other school systems.

D.C. Catholic schools face their own obstacles, including aging facilities, diminished enrollment, and dwindling resources. Yet church leaders affirm the important role these schools can play in troubled communities. In announcing the initiative, Hickey said, "[Catholic schools] provide an atmosphere of safety, order, and caring for the children they serve. In this environment, effective learning can occur, faith can be shared, positive values imparted, and parents supported in the raising of their children."

Parochial schools do, indeed, provide a quality, faith-based education. But for many inner-city families, any tuition-based school puts a strain on an already stretched budget. Scholarships and various tuition assistance programs are in place to help support children in need of financial aid. These funds must continue to be developed and made available to both Catholic and non-Catholic families. Partnerships between affluent suburban churches and urban parishes with a school could supply another source of support. Church members might volunteer as tutors for students in their sister parish, giving a hands-on involvement in educational reform.

THE QUALITY OF EDUCATION provided affects not just the children in their desks. Community, nation, and the church itself reap the benefits of children who have been prepared with a sound education and passed on a faith, values, and hope for a positive future.

Perhaps the most important outcome of this invigoration of Christian schools is the ongoing sign of God’s presence in the inner city. Schools can provide the stability that many of these communities, and often the families of the children who attend them, don’t have.

Yet the reality remains that the majority of inner-city kids are educated in public schools, with all their inherent problems and drawbacks. Children in all schools need affirmation that someone cares about them. Commitment to education means ensuring that all children—attending both public and parochial schools—are provided with quality instruction that instills in them both skills and aspirations for their future.

How this commitment is played out is one of the key issues facing education today. Some insist that revitalizing public education is the only hope for inner-city poor children. Others are convinced that public school systems are too far gone to save, and resources would be better used in support of vouchers or other programs that give poor parents a real choice.

For those with a moral commitment to social justice, the bottom line must be a commitment to quality education for all children, regardless of socioeconomic status—and not to any particular system. The quality of education cannot be based solely upon property values and taxable business revenue in a community or on a family’s income. Children must receive the quality of education they need, not simply the quality of education their families can afford.

Many churches and denominations are struggling with how best to support quality education. In its publication "The Church and the Public School," the United Church of Christ offers a strong argument for the maintenance of public schools as a priority. The statement reads, in part, "Faced with a variety of forms of abandonment and with extensive criticism, the establishment and maintenance of effective...public schools becomes a first order of business for both the church and the society....Churches and church members must join with others in their community to create and maintain quality schools and to insure that this right and opportunity to prepare for a fulfilling life are clearly provided for every child."

Other Christians, primarily evangelicals and Catholics, have actively sought public support for private schools, in part to provide opportunities for low-income students. Regardless of the approach taken, the first yardstick to measure the morality of education policy must be—to borrow a phrase—"leaving no child behind."

The church does have a role to play in the inner city, and taking responsibility for the education of at-risk children is an important place to begin. We must be willing to invest time, resources, and faith into children for the long haul. It’s really the only way to impact their future—and ours.

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