Observing perceptions that Southern Baptists are of two minds about public education–both critical–a former Southern Baptist Convention church in Virginia sent a message to its local educators that some Baptists still appreciate their public schools.

Churchland Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va., sent cookies to teachers at more than 30 schools Nov. 13-14 as part of a teacher appreciation week that included a special worship emphasis and luncheon for teachers and administrators on Nov. 19.

The point the church wanted to make, Pastor Lawrence Coleman told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in a story published Nov. 19, is that “there are Baptists who appreciate public schools.”

The gesture came amid a growing debate in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination over education. One side advocates abandoning the school system by either homeschooling children or enrolling them in sectarian private schools. The other views secular schools largely as a pagan “mission field” that needs to be evangelized through a Christian presence and political efforts to require schools to teach creationism as science and practice sectarian prayers.

Coleman was among Baptist clergy to sign an open letter in April drafted by the Baptist Center for Ethics countering those views with a call to “speak positively about public education and to take proactive initiatives that advance a constructive future for America’s public school system.”

The idea prompted Churchland Baptist Church to adopt its own statement affirming public education Aug. 27 and schedule Public Educators’ Appreciation Week to express thanks for teachers with a baked gift, recognition in a public worship service and inviting public school educators to the service and a meal.

“Public education is under attack,” the church explained in an article on its Web site. “It is difficult to recall a time in history when public education has received more critical review and mean-spirited attack.”

Some of the pressure on teachers, it said, is aimed at improvement, like standardized testing. But public schools have also been the victim of politics. “Public schools aren’t evaluated by how their best perform, but by how their bottom 40 percent performs on Standards of Learning.”

While legally pressuring public schools to increase performance on one hand, the federal government’s No Child Left Behind mandate was been under-funded by $40 billion over the past five years, denying money needed for smaller classes, more teaching assistants and expanded facilities.

Much media attention, the article continued, spotlights bad news in public schools, like violence, while success stories go under-reported.

“Sadly, people of faith attack public education,” the article continued.

“Often the discussion in religious bodies devolves into a discussion of whether the ‘godless’ public school should be abandoned, or whether believing children and Christian families should view the public school as a ‘mission field.’ This was the nature of the debate at the Southern Baptist Convention this past summer.  Neither of these views describes how our church feels about public education.”

Apart from conservative Christians who attack public schools and advocacy organizations like the PTA that support it, the article observed, other organizations and many churches “are simply silent.”

“Churchland Baptist Church in its August business meeting felt that it was time to offer a third expression. It is the expression of affirmation. It is the expression of thanks. It is the expression of encouragement for all the hope and opportunity that public education offers to every single child in our society. It is the time when our congregation decided to say ‘thank you’ to the public educators of our region.”

The August resolution affirmed the public school as “the single place in our society where every child, regardless of race, creed, family issues or financial background can gain an education.”

It said public schools are “correct in not teaching sectarian religious views that should only be taught in homes and in communities of faith” and that classrooms are “for the most part guided by teachers and administrators who care deeply for the children they serve.”

Public schools provide “hope, opportunity and immense resources through personnel, materials, and creative efforts to all families they serve,” it said.

It also noted “immense stress” upon public educators from problems in society in families that find their way into the classroom, increased emphasis on standardized testing that restricts teacher creativity and a high burnout rate.

In all, Coleman told EthicsDaily.com, his church gave out about 7,000 cookies during American Education Week.

A reader comment in the paper’s online version called it a “refreshing gesture.”

“I am a public educator and, like many others in my school system, I love the Lord with all of my heart,” the comment read. “Separation of church and state does not mean that the millions of Christians that work in and attend public schools have to drop their beliefs at the door. We work hard to make certain that our children have a safe, caring environment in which to learn and many of us pray daily for our students, their families, and the community.

“It would make a tremendous difference if those Christians that advocate an exodus from public education actually got behind the school and purposed to make a difference. When their children grow up, they are going to have to live in the ‘real world,’ where they will have to deal with all kinds of people and a myriad of attitudes.

“Teaching is a calling from God and I, for one, am proud to use my gift in the public school system.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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