As first lady of Mercer University, Lesli Underwood is most closely identified with Christian higher education. But she also is a strong advocate for public schools.

“Public education advances democracy because it provides the free access to success to all children,” Underwood told “All parts of our community learn to co-exist, exchange ideas and understand others’ perspectives.”

A former teacher, Underwood said she disagrees with elements in the Southern Baptist Convention that decry public education as “godless.”

“People who make such a statement haven’t spent much time in public schools,” she said. “I believe that God is everywhere where his people are, and I have seen many godly people in public schools.”

Underwood’s parents were educators in Oklahoma, but she didn’t immediately follow in their footsteps. She received an interdisciplinary degree in business, speech and journalism from Oklahoma Baptist University.

Four years ago, when her husband, Bill, was a law professor at Baylor University, she began substitute teaching in the Waco Independent School District. At the urging of teachers and principals, she went back to school, became certified and began teaching third grade in August of 2004.

“You will find no stronger advocate of public schools than Lesli,” Bill Underwood, elected last December as president of Mercer, a Baptist university with its main campus in Macon, Ga., said in an e-mail to

Before becoming a teacher, Lesli Underwood had been an active parent in her children’s education, beginning when her now 17-year-old daughter started kindergarten.

But she was more than an active parent. She was an advocacy parent through Parents for Public Schools.

The founding chapter of PPS was started in Jackson, Miss., in 1989, “to combat white, middle-class flight from the public schools and to publicize the economic, social and business development benefits that come to cities with strong public schools,” according to the organization’s Web site.

Today, PPS lists five values, including the importance of public education for American democracy, the effectiveness of parental involvement in creating strong schools, parents as owners rather than passive consumers of public schools and need for improved education for every child, not just certain children.

Some Southern Baptists advocate an “exodus” from public education, saying secular teaching undermines values taught in the church and home.

But Underwood said it would be “short-sighted” to withdraw support from public education. Such a move, she said, would “disenfranchise a huge segment of our country and make education exclusive rather than inclusive.”

“Public schools educate the vast majority of children in the country,” she said.

“If we give up on public education, we are limiting education to a small, elite group,” she warned.

Underwood said public education is threatened by misinformation, the lack of funding and “allowing legislators, rather than educators [to] run the school systems.”

Speaking indirectly about the concerns some parents have about the quality of public schools, Underwood said that “a quality education should not be based on wealth.”

“If more people stayed in the public schools and were more involved and informed, schools would be better,” she said. “Our society should pay attention to the schools regardless of where our children go because of the impact these systems have on every aspect of public life.”

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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