Public education changed my life for the better. My love of public schools is rooted in my experiences — and my faith.
My elementary school was a global melting pot in the best ways possible. In 1988, at the peak of school integration in the U.S., I was in the fourth grade in one of the many school districts in North Carolina that became a countywide consolidated district under desegregation orders.
For middle school, I was bused across town to attend a school that wasn’t primarily white. My public schools introduced me to friends who did not speak English at home and had grown up in different places. The diversity I experienced by having friends and teachers who did not all look like me allowed me to see strangers’ humanity and to celebrate the commonality we shared while holding our difference as normal.
I was also a teacher’s kid. My mom taught at a public elementary school in my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I have fond memories of helping in her classroom on teacher workdays. I watched her put her heart and soul into caring for her students, and my experiences tell me that this is the norm for most teachers, not the exception.
So it’s not a surprise that when it came time for my own children to enter kindergarten, I considered only our local public schools. We live in Raleigh, North Carolina, with a robust public system that offers many magnet school choices. These magnet schools promote diversity, as the application process is based on neighborhood socioeconomics, attracting students from higher wealth areas into more marginalized areas for the benefit of all children in the schools.
We received a seat at our first choice in a historically Black neighborhood, where my children are certainly in the racial minority, since our school is about 90% Black, Hispanic/Latino and Asian. We love our school and all the wonderful conversations it brings up with my children’s friends about the holidays they celebrate or languages they speak at home. My children see the diversity around them, acknowledge it and celebrate our shared humanity. It is their norm, and they know nothing different.
As a pastor, I support public education because of my faith, not in spite of it. My faith has led me to found and run Pastors for N.C. Children, an organization that urges people of faith to support their local public schools. Supporting public schools is a spiritual discipline for me, because it is an opportunity to live out the values I am trying to instill in my children.
Public education is a public good that benefits all in our community, especially our most vulnerable children. My children and I talk about how it’s not fair that our nation has often educated some children at the expense of other children simply because of their race or ZIP code. We also talk about how we are called to love our neighbors and how that includes having good public schools to help all children flourish. Our public school allows us to put this agape love of our neighbors into practice. There are least three parts of my faith that push me to support public schools.
First, we are called to see God in the faces of strangers and treat them with love as neighbors made in God’s image. Given how polarized and segmented our communities are, public schools are often one of the few places where we can come into contact with strangers, but public schools are also under pressure from partisan politics. In order to love our neighbors, we have to be connected to them. Public schools provide that learning opportunity.
The parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10 expands the idea of who our neighbors are and how we are supposed to love them. How am I supposed to love my neighbor as myself if I don’t know who my neighbor is? How am I able to meet my neighbors, beyond just the people who live next door, unless I’m intentionally placing myself in situations where I get to meet them?
We must be in proximity to and relationship with our neighbors to see their struggles and be willing to take action to help find solutions. I find myself paying attention to what is happening in the neighborhood because I drive through it on the way to our school and my children’s classmates live there. I am learning about their rich history. Their concerns are now my concerns, because my neighborhood has expanded.
Second, in Jeremiah 29:7, the exiles are told to “seek the welfare of the city.” Public schools are the heart of our cities and towns. They teach our children and youth to be informed about our world and how communities work, empowering them for service.
In order for everyone to flourish, we need educated people who can help solve the problems that we face, whether that means solving environmental issues or engineering transportation solutions or caring for our health and needs as we live together. Our businesses need educated workers to hire, educated co-workers to join our teams. Public schools educate around 90% of schoolchildren in the U.S., so they are serving the vast majority of children in our communities.
Third, in Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4, he proclaims that he is here to “bring good news to the poor.” Public education is good news to the poor, because public schools must serve every child who walks through their doors.
Schools cannot and should not discriminate, and when they are supported and at their best, they can provide equitable educational opportunities regardless of a child’s ZIP code, ability to pay, immigration status, language barrier, sexual orientation or gender identity, housing status, transportation needs, or gifts and abilities.
Because of the crumbling social safety net in the U.S., public schools have become the main service provider for so many of our most vulnerable children. School might be one of the only safe and comforting places they have.
Matthew 25 reminds us to feed those who are hungry. Schools may be the only place where impoverished children are guaranteed to receive two meals each school day. As long as the U.S. allows generational poverty and food apartheid to exist, there will always be a need for public schools that serve the children on the margins.
Public schools tell impoverished children that they are valuable and worthy of love and care. They are part of a community that loves them and wants what’s best for them. Public education enables these children to change the trajectory of their lives. It gives them the opportunity to achieve what would otherwise only be a dream.
Education is a human right that every single person deserves, and our public education system is the No. 1 way we can ensure that our children receive that education. Without this community service, more would fall through the cracks. Improving our educational systems is a faithful way to care for our communities so all can flourish.