Christians should support public education not as mission field for conversion, but out of a commitment to the common good, Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics told a Thursday gathering of educators and clergy exploring ways to build more meaningful relationships between churches and schools.
Opening a two-day conference in Memphis titled “Educators and Clergy: Working Together for Great Public Schools,” Parham, executive director of the Nashville-based BCE, said teachers labor in a time when public educators receive little affirmation for their service and families committed to public education are on the defensive.
An “anti-everything” party, he said, holds special disdain for public schools.
“Within my own faith tradition has arisen a phalanx of pharaohs who despise public schools,” Parham said. “These pharaohs want public educators, like Hebrew slaves, to make bricks without straw, to train children without supplies. These pharaohs want public educators, like the Hebrew midwives, to cease bringing children into the real world for a productive future.”
One seminary president, Parham said, supports a movement within the Southern Baptist Convention that labels public schools as “the enemies of God” and “dark and decaying places.” The president, Parham said, has stated, “I believe that now is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools.”
“Calling public schools dark and decaying places bears false witness against public schools,” Parham said. “Bearing false witness violates the Ninth Commandment in the Ten Commandments–the very Commandments some of these pharaohs want to post in public schools–‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.'”
As people who believe God values every child, Parham said, Baptists and other Christians should join educators in the belief “that great public schools ought to be a basic right for every child.”
“I think it’s important for public educators and ministers to form networks to speak up for public education,” he said. “Our communities would be much impoverished without public education, and some of us in the evangelical community are grateful for what teachers do.”
Carolyn Crowder, an executive committee member of the National Education Association and 25-year teacher in Mustang, Okla., said every child deserves a great public school, but educators can’t make it happen alone.
She told of establishing a relationship and making progress with one troubled fifth grader and years later seeing him on television in shackles and a jail jumpsuit charged with killing a store clerk. Imprisoned for life at age 16, Crowder said, the state spent $5,000 a year on Nathan in school and now spends $30,000 a year to keep him in prison.
The tragedy, Crowder said, is that Nathan was reachable. “Great public schools don’t just benefit the student,” she said. “They benefit everyone, and without them we all lose.”
Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, said some of education’s strongest proponents and fiercest adversaries come from the community of faith.
“A lot of voices we have been hearing lately about public education and supporting vouchers and supporting tuition tax credits,” he said, “they do not speak for me.”
The program continues today with scheduled discussion about the proper role of religion in public schools and strategies to help churches and schools work together.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.