the most common good: some thoughts on school choice
"In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. This option…demands before all else an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers." Pope Francis, 2015
My daughter told me the other day she loved her teacher, possibly more than she loved me (but what about your baba? I asked her—do you love your teacher more than him? Nope, she said. Just a little more than you). Sometimes she tells me she wishes her school was like Hogwarts, that she could sleep in the school (except she would want her entire family there). When she started first grade in September she was a bright, nervous, stubborn little girl who liked to read picture books and refused to even try writing because she hated the way her shaky left-handedness made it look (perfectionist?). Now, in the second week of May, she is writing neat and tidy paragraphs and reading at a sixth grade level and doing 3rd grade math problems. She adores school, with her whole heart. The weirdest part? I have been so surprised by this.
Her school is what we would call “struggling” (the government, not-so-kindly, would call it failing). A title 1 school. The test scores are low. They don’t have a lot of money. There has not been a parent group for several years. There have been a succession of principals, leaving little room for stable growth. The majority of kids do not speak English as a first language. 98% of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunches, and so everyone at the school receives meals for free.
It is not the place you would expect to be thriving, and yet, here we are.
I was so nervous, last year, trying to make the decision about where to send my daughter. I knew I was in love with my neighborhood, but did that love extend to putting my kid in the public school system? I didn’t send her to kindergarten because I wasn’t ready for her to be gone all day every day, I wasn’t ready to send her off into the wilds of the scary world of public education. I grew up homeschooled, and didn’t know anything about it other than what I had absorbed by osmosis—public schools are places where God isn’t wanted, where God is absent. I thought about my profoundly unique and exquisite child, and knew I couldn’t put her in a situation that would be harmful to her. But that was just it—what were my definitions of harm, and where were they coming from? I had worked very hard to try and live my life with intentionality with my neighbors in the margins of America, and yet here it was, a worm still eating through my heart: please God, don’t ask me to make decisions with my neighbors in mind. Please let me be able to focus on my own little family, just for once.
Where do these thoughts come from, and how do they infect our minds? The Bible, after all, is not a book of middle-class white family values. It is a book about the love of God and it is about the excruciating, complex, and joyous work of neighbor-love. But we have commodified it, politicized it, watered it down to a set of rules that elevates life styles of self-contained individualism. Focus on your family. Worry about your children, give them the absolute best you can. Let them run wild in the grass and be unschooled (and be sure and take Instagram pictures of it!) feed them the very best food from the natural health food store, pore over the children’s Bible with them and make sure they have all the right theology in their prayers. I see it everywhere, and all of this is within me too. But at what point exactly does good news for me become bad news for others? This is the question we should all be asking ourselves, specifically when it comes to our children and education.
To be clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong about wanting to protect your own children, to want them to be “safe”. But again, what exactly does that word mean to the people who are using it? Christians worry obsessively over education and yet elect sexual predators to the highest office imaginable (as I am typing this out, 45 is giving the commencement address at Liberty University, the largest non-profit Christian college in America). Christian schools, churches, homeschool communities—all of these have not escaped the plagues of abuse and scandal (in fact, some would say it has thrived there). The nicest schools in America still have issues with substance abuse (the kids just don’t get prosecuted at the same rates). Nothing is a given, when it comes to protecting our children, except this: a culture of fear only produces disastrous results when it comes to neighbor-love. It is what has led to a carefully planned and upheld systems of segregation in our cities, schools, churches, Bible studies, playgroups. And Christians have been integral to this. Did you know that many Christian schools were started as a direct result of integration laws? That people have been using “the secularization” of the public schools for decades as a thinly veiled disguise to take their children out of schools where they would be forced to interact with kids of color?
Today, for the first time in our nation’s history, over half of the children who attend public school come from low-income families. The inequality is growing worse, and this is directly a result of an obsession with individual choices versus an emphasis on the common good. But again, as a Bible-believing Christian, when I read the Scriptures I see almost nothing telling me to procure the best for my child, and over 500 verses telling me to look out for the poor in my community—to learn from them, to fight for them, to be good neighbors with them.
The public schools are the ground zero for neighbor-love, folks. Our schools need you, they need your children, they need your prayers, your advocacy, your reform, your willingness to build community. They need you to rethink your decision to live in a neighborhood with little to no economic or ethnic diversity. They need your precious little kids, and you most certainly need them.
This past year has been incredibly joyous for me and my family. My highly sensitive and gifted daughter has thrived in a cheerful, busy, chaotic and loud classroom. Her teacher is an angel, a gift from God, someone who refuses to suspend children and somehow makes every single kid feel like they matter and like they really want to be in school. My daughter told me she doesn’t think that it would be possible for anyone to be truly popular at her school, because everybody speaks so many different languages. The people who work at the school obviously love it and put a lot of time and care into their work. It is a beacon of welcome and community in a neighborhood with no basketball courts, no community centers, and very few social services of any kind. We have gone to school dances, reading nights, parent potlucks, English classes, community dinners. I want to pinch myself. I find myself constantly taking pictures of the school. This happens to me, sometimes, this obsession with buildings and the promise they hold within. I prayer walk around that school and to me it feels like the closest place to the kingdom of heaven in my world—so many children, so many languages, so many who fit into the “blessed” category in Jesus’ most famous sermon.
Of course, there are challenges. The majority of the staff at the school are white, which doesn’t match the student population in the slightest. Trying to organize events and rally together a parent group that is reflective of the makeup of the school has also not gone terribly well. For teacher’s appreciation week hardly anything was done, due to the lack of a parent group. People are stressed as school budgets and food programs are threatened with cuts under our current administration. And to be completely honest, sometimes I still get an icy grip of fear—should my daughter be in music classes? Summer school? Am I doing everything I can to make sure she is prepared for success?
But then I remember that my definition of success, and thriving, has changed. I have met so many people who have no choice, is the thing, people who are determined to flourish right where they are. And now I know that I will never feel satisfied until all of the children I know have access to an education that empowers them to be safe, thoughtful, neighbors. I am glad I have been ruined in this way, I am glad that my proximity has changed me. But I can’t help but wish many more in my faith community were saying the same thing. Focus on all the families, is what I long to hear and what I long to say. Focus on all of God’s precious children, and not just your own.
Somebody I know who is homeschooling their children straight-up told me she loved her child too much to send them to my daughter’s school. She had prayed about her decision, and I do not doubt this. But I also love my daughter, had prayed to God about what to do, and I had heard a completely different answer. Isn’t that strange? My life is now filled with these kinds of complexities, these kinds of mixed messages about what God is up to in our world.
I know this is the time of year when the school decision looms large in the hearts and minds of those who have the luxury of choice. I understand the defensiveness that comes from talking about schools, and I am not here to argue with you, nor condemn. I mainly wanted to write to those who are wavering on the fence, wondering about what they should do. To those people I want to gently ask you to interrogate your concerns when it comes to your child and their education. Do they come from a voice of love? Or from a culture of fear, a mindset of scarcity? Do the choices you make for your kids perpetuate systems of racial and economic injustice and segregation? Please, please take the time to consider all of these questions as you decide what it best for you and yours and all the other beloved children in our country.
If you live in a district where you are nervous about sending your child to the local school, please—for the love of all that is good and holy—go and tour the school, meet the principal, and chat with a few teachers. Get a sense of the school culture and environment before making a knee-jerk reaction.
Then, read up on how Christian schools resegregated the south (and don’t pretend like it doesn’t happen here in the pacific NW!).
Even if you don’t send your kid to an underperforming school, there are ways to be advocates for ALL of God’s children.
Or check out this piece, by my friend Abby, which mentions several of the very things I just wrote out (I didn’t mean to copy her, but there are some relevant themes that those of us with skin in the game keep seeing!)
One of my favorite podcasts has an incredibly sobering look at the trauma of Christian education on POC. Please listen as there are some really good insights for everyone--Christian schoolers, homeschoolers, and public schoolers, about looking at institutions, curriculum, leadership and students to see what it is that people actually believe.
Be involved and vote in elections and research carefully who is on your school board (I just did this for the first time and feel like I deserve all the gold stars, even tho it is just basic citizenship skills).
And lastly, pray for our kids, all of our kids, and work to make sure that our education system serves them all.
I opened this post with a quote from Pope Francis (my fav!) and I will close with a quote from Vatican II (boy, those catholics really have a much more robust theology of neighbor-love than us evangelicals, eh?).
"It is imperative that no one...indulge in a merely individualistic morality. The best way to fulfill one's obligations of justice and love is to contribute to the common good according to one's means and the needs of others, and also to promote and help public and private organizations devoted to bettering the conditions of life."
Amen and Amen. May we all love our public school as much as my daughter does, and as much as God does.