It is no secret that the pandemic has been particularly hard on our children. Data shows a catastrophic learning loss among K-12 students across the country—a crisis that threatens the future of a great number of America’s school children who are struggling mightily. Many Christians across denominations and confessional frameworks are asking how they can help as the movement for to provide more options for parents to educate their children grows. However, one group that Christians who want to get involved in education should avoid is “Pastors for Children.”
Pastors for Children, operates in eight states and proclaims its mission is to build a nationwide network of faith leaders and community partners dedicated to school service and fair and equitable public school funding.
In fact, their goal is to block school choice programs even when children are trapped in failing schools. While they are registered as a non-profit organization, their funding sources include almost all of the major and highly partisan teacher unions. In the last election in Texas, they boasted on Twitter that they would be recruiting candidates to run against legislators who supported the expansion of charters and school choice.
Public Schools and “God’s Plan”
In Tennessee, Pastors for Children’s website says they “believe that public education is a human right, a constitutional guarantee, and a central part of God’s plan for human flourishing.” That is a bold, sweeping claim. It’s also false. Neither the Old or New Testaments, nor the historic Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox traditions are directive in such a specific manner. Deuteronomy chapter 6 and many Proverbs along with the words of Jesus himself in the Gospels give us insight into what the God of the Bible thinks of children and how we ought to raise them. Most of this involves teaching them to love God and his Word. There is precious little specificity beyond that. Any single system or method that lays claim to God’s design for how to teach millions of different children anytime or anywhere should be met with deep skepticism.
Public Schools and the Constitution
As for the constitutional guarantee, it should be noted that nowhere in the U.S. Constitution is education of children addressed. There are state-level constitutional guarantees and these carry weight, but Tennessee’s constitution, as well as many other states, does not mandate how the state is to administer this “system of free public schools.” A state naturally has interest in seeing its citizens educated, but why should this public system dominate the way that it does?
And if a substantial portion of this system is failing to educate children, which is sadly the case, then why can those state dollars not follow children to where they can be best educated? Nothing in Tennessee’s state constitution precludes state dollars from being used to educate children in other ways alongside the public schools. This is precisely the basis of the Education Savings Account program currently caught up in litigation in Tennessee that seeks to give families choices for their children.
Public Schools Should Be a Choice
Most students will continue to attend public schools, but private choice programs, charter schools, and generous open enrollment policies help families whose children may be trapped in failing schools. Lower-income families, far more than any other group, are most positioned to benefit from educational options because they currently have the least options. They cannot simply buy a house in a zip code with “good schools” and so are excluded from school choice by the size of the mortgage they can or cannot afford.
As for the “fair and equitable funding” Pastors for Children talks about, while there are some schools that are underfunded, the widespread failure of public education cannot be explained by lack of money. We spend roughly three times more per pupil than we did 50 years ago, inflation adjusted, and the results have been scant. Add to this the many billions of COVID-19 relief dollars for K-12 education currently pouring into states. We can say unequivocally that for the foreseeable future, money is not the problem. The problem is putting most or all of our weight behind schools and systems that do not work for such a large number of families and children.
What children need are more advocates including pastors, church, and religious leaders who are uniquely positioned to advocate for the dignity of all children.
The American Federation for Children is not a faith-based organization but as a person of faith I am proud that its mission encourages schools where parents can ensure their values are at the least not undermined during the school day. I admonish groups like Pastors for Education to reevaluate their position if they actually want to help families. If we take seriously Jesus’s command to “Let the children come to me” then we won’t stand in their way by blocking the schoolhouse door.