Beliefnet
This June the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a favorable judgment on the constitutionality of the Cleveland school voucher program (Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris). The response to this ruling within the Christian community was divided. But, no matter what our views on this ruling may be, one thing is overwhelmingly clear: the vast majority, over 90%, of our nation's school-age children attend public school. I recognize the excellent work of schools sponsored by some of our member communions. Yet while we affirm the contribution of private schools to the welfare of children, public schools are the primary route for most children, especially the children of poverty, into full participation in our economic, political, and community life. The well being of children, all children, is a central concern of the National Council of Churches.

I am writing to urge congregations to actively support public schools this fall. It is time to stand up for our children in a visible way. Let me propose two areas of focus:

1. Public schools are our nation's largest social institution. Many of those schools perform at a high level as they prepare students for the future. Some schools struggle and face difficult challenges without adequate resources, many of them serving large numbers of children living in poverty. We read about 'failing schools' as we blame schools for social realities beyond their control. This is neither fair nor helpful language. We need to ask ourselves the hard question: Are our public schools failing, or are we as a society failing our public schools by refusing to provide the resources needed for them to succeed?

I urge the beginning of a conversation within congregations and communities about how issues of diminished tax dollars, health care, safety, racism, homelessness, childcare, unfunded mandates, and unequal distribution of public funding impact local schools. How can congregations and communities participate in efforts to reform public policy and to strengthen schools as they strain to overcome these formidable obstacles? Even with educational alternatives, the primary institution where our society expresses its concern for and meets the needs of children will be public schools.

2. Those who teach our children need affirmation and support from their faith communities. Parker Palmer writes, "America's teachers are the culture heroes of our time. Daily they solve problems that baffle the rest of us. Daily they are asked to work with resources nowhere near commensurate with the task. And daily they are berated by politicians, the public, and the press for their alleged failures and inadequacies...What Jacques Barzun said about teaching fifty years ago remains true...'Teaching is not a lost art but the regard for it is a lost tradition'...Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and the public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds and thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going--and we can be thankful that they do." (Forward in Sam Intrator, ed., Stories of Courage to Teach: Honoring the Teacher's Heart, San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2002, p. xvii ff.).

I entreat you to find ways to support and express appreciation for the work of our school teachers and all who labor in public education including administrators, support staff, custodial staff, bus drivers, and maintenance staff. Many within our communions are public educators by vocation. They are involved in education as an expression of their concern for children and passion for justice grounded in their faith in Jesus Christ, and they need the active support of their faith community.

I propose that each faith community set apart a Sunday to affirm public school workers. The NCC Committee on Public Education and Literacy has developed a "Litany for Education and Schools." The Committee continues to explore additional ways to celebrate public school teaching, to recognize teachers of excellence, and to emphasize teaching as an expression of Christian commitment.

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