The argument for quality public education is rock-solid.
As we celebrate Public Schools Week, and the teachers who serve our public schoolchildren with such extraordinary dedication, it behooves us to review the case again.
- Public education is a moral mandate.
Universal education, provided by the public for all children, is a key hallmark of civil and moral society. It is a basic human right. All advanced nations and peoples embrace this principle of general welfare.
The United Nations and all multilateral organizations of nations unanimously endorse public education as the primary means through which children are provided the education that enables them to lead free and productive lives.
- Public education is a scriptural supposition.
In the immortal story of creation, recorded in the Book of Genesis of the Hebrew Scriptures, God brings all the animals to the human to see what the human would “name” them.
When we name creation – that is, engage in the labeling, categorizing and classifying of reality – we gain the knowledge and exercise the control necessary to function successfully in the world.
We become what Walker Percy calls “symbol mongers” attaching words to all phenomena.
Humans do this instinctively at a very early age when they first discover language and commence the project of naming their world.
Likewise, the Christian Scriptures also affirm education as the will of God.
In the only episode we have from the childhood of Jesus, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, we find Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem “sitting at the feet of his teachers, listening to them, asking them questions.” An educational event, a pursuit of knowledge, a moment of learning, a classroom context.
The title Jesus seems to choose and value, over all others his followers wish to bestow upon him, is the simple title of “teacher.”
- Public education is a constitutional covenant.
Most state constitutions have wording that promotes public education as the means by which those states would secure a knowledgeable citizenry required to preserve liberty.
For example, Article Seven, Section One of the Texas Constitution reads, “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, the legislature of this state shall make suitable provision for the operation and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”
Notably, in our current misguided national debate about public education, there is not one single syllable about public or state responsibility for private schools.
Our forebears correctly determined that the state had no proper authority over those voluntary assemblies, particularly religious private schools. True constitutional conservatives will conclude that fidelity to constitutional law concerning public schools.
- Public education is a public provision.
There are certain provisions of the common good that are so essential to a just and stable society that the public ensures they are extended to all people.
Fire and police protection, safe roads and clean water are such provisions. Everyone receives these services regardless of condition, and the public authorities work hard to provide them equally to all citizens.
Education is such a public provision. It is vital to the mutual interest and well-being of all people that everyone receives a quality education.
Therefore, the public pays for that education through tax dollars. In most states, it is the largest single item in the state budget. Approximately 90 percent of all American children are educated in public schools.
It is simply wrong to divert those tax dollars, properly invested in the publicly owned institutions called public schools, to underwrite and subsidize the private institutions of private schools through voucher programs and policies.
There is no authorized state oversight and accountability of those private schools – and there should not be.
In fact, the absence of such oversight is the reason the private school was started in the first place. Such accountability by the state is only valid for institutions receiving state-collected tax dollars.
Accordingly, when those voucher tax dollars advance a private church school’s religious perspective, they violate the principle of church/state separation because they, in fact, “make an establishment of religion.” In short, keep the private school private and the public school public.
- Public education is a fiscal foundation.
The public school is the chief employer in many communities. It generates an economy for all the members of the community. It is an investment that secures a well-trained workforce for future economic productivity.
The ROI – “return on investment” – of public education is almost incalculable. Every dollar invested in public education is returned to the economy many times over.
When that ROI is calculated over the course of a person’s lifetime, the investment in education is the best we can make in our financial security in the future – and everyone else’s too.
- Public education is a patriotic principle.
Where do American children learn the lessons of American democracy and republican form of government? Where do they say the Pledge of Allegiance every day?
Where is American history, government and civics taught? Where do we first experience democratic process? Where are the responsibilities of American citizenship modeled?
Where are American ideals of civil rights, constitutional liberties and basic human freedoms of speech, religion, assembly and press inculcated in our children? Where do we recruit young adults for military service to protect our nation?
The neighborhood and community public school is the place where all of these vital activities of Americanism take place.
This is why the local public school is the basic building block of American society. The very idea of America germinates in our public schools.
These self-evident arguments make the case for public education, but they bear explicating during these confused times when we seem to be foolishly debating the efficacy of it.
As John Adams succinctly summarized in a letter to a friend in 1785: “The Whole People must take upon themselves the Education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one Mile Square without a school in it, not founded by a Charitable individual but maintained at the expense of the People themselves.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for Public Schools Week (March 25-29). Additional resources are available here. The previous articles in the series are:
Public School Proud | 5 Ways They Protect Religious Liberty for All by Jennifer Hawks
Public School Proud | Half-Full Ministry to Your Schools by Suzii Paynter
Public School Proud | Dear Public Schools, Here’s Why I Love You by Trevor Barton
Charles Foster Johnson is pastor of Bread in Fort Worth, Texas, and founder and executive director of Pastors for Children, a nationwide network of faith leaders mobilized for public education ministry and advocacy.