I. Historic Church Support for Public Education
The United Methodist Church has issued statements supportive of public education, and now at a time when public education has become a political battleground, the church is called to remember, first and foremost, the well-being of all God's children. Education is a right of all children and is affirmed by Scripture which calls us to "train them in the right way" (Proverbs 22:6). Furthermore, the Social Principles affirm that education "can best be fulfilled through public policies that ensure access for all persons to free public elementary and secondary schools and to post-secondary schools of their choice" ( ¶164D).
The public school is the primary route for most children into full participation in our economic, political, and community life. As a consequence of inequities in our society, we have a moral responsibility to support, strengthen, and reform public schools. They have been, and continue to be, both an avenue of opportunity and a major cohesive force in our society, a society becoming daily more diverse racially, culturally, and religiously.
Historically, education has been held to contribute to the development of religious faith. To that end, the great figures of the Reformation called for the establishment of schools. Our founder, John Wesley, was dedicated to the education of poor and underprivileged children. The Sunday School Movement of the latter 18th century was an outgrowth of this ministry and largely established a model for access to public education, regardless of social or economic status. Our heritage should lead us to defend the public schools, and to rejoice that they now more nearly reflect the racial, ethnic, and religious diversity of our country than they have ever done before.
II. The Larger Social Context
We welcome the fact that many public schools now teach about diversity and the role of religion in human life and history; and we applaud the schools efforts to promote those virtues necessary for good citizenship in a pluralistic democracy. These reforms help to accommodate the constitutional rights of all students and their parents. Just as we encourage schools to ensure that all religions are treated with fairness and respect, so we urge parents and others to refrain from the temptation to use public schools to advance the cause of any one religion or ethnic tradition, whether through curriculum or through efforts to attach religious personnel to the public schools. We believe that parents have the right to select home schooling or private or parochial schools for their children. But with that personal right comes an obligation to support quality public education for all children. The long-range solution is to improve all schools so that families will not be forced to seek other educational alternatives.
At a moment when childhood poverty is shamefully widespread, when many families are under constant stress, and when schools are limited by lack of funds or resources, criticism of the public schools often ignores an essential truth: we cannot improve public schools by concentrating on the schools alone. In this context, we must address with prayerful determination the issues of race and class that threaten both public education and democracy in America.
III. Public Funding Issues
By almost any standard of judgment, the schools our children attend can be described in contradictory terms. Some are academically excellent; others are a virtual disgrace. Some are oases of safety for their students; others are dangerous to student and teacher alike. Some teachers are exceptionally well qualified; others are assigned to areas in which they have little or no expertise. Some school facilities are a fantasy land of modern technology; others are so dilapidated that they impede learning.
The wide disparities among public schools exist largely because schools reflect the affluence and/or the political power of the communities in which they are found. Within virtually every state, there are school districts that lavish on their students three or four times the amount of money spent on other children in the same state. A new phenomenon in our society is "re-segregating of communities" which further diminishes the effectiveness of public schools. Most tellingly, the schools that offer the least to their students are those serving poor children, among which children of color figure disproportionately, as they do in all the shortfalls of our common life. Indeed, the coexistence of neglect of schools and neglect of other aspects of the life of people who are poor makes it clear that no effort to improve education in the United States can ignore the realities of racial and class discrimination in our society as a whole.
We acknowledge the debate over whether public funds might appropriately be used to remedy the lingering effects of racial injustice in our nations educational system. We do not purport to resolve our differences over this issue, but we do affirm our conviction that public funds should be used for public purposes. We also caution that government aid to primary and secondary religious schools raises constitutional problems and could undermine the private schools independence and/or compromise their religious message.
IV. What the Church Can Do
Local churches and all communities of faith must become better informed about the needs of the public schools in their communities and in the country as a whole. Only through adequate information can we defend public education and the democratic heritage which it supports. Full knowledge of our religious and democratic traditions helps us ensure that those elected to school boards are strongly committed to both public education and religious liberty.
Therefore, we call upon local churches, annual conferences, and the general agencies of The United Methodist Church to support public education by:
- establishing partnerships with local public schools such as providing after-school and vacation enrichment programs, adopt-a-school programs, and literacy and reading emphases;
- monitoring reform efforts in public schools, including the creation of charter and magnet schools, of schools-within-schools, and of classes sized to best serve all children;
- honoring teachers for the crucial work they do with young People; and advocating for appropriate salaries commensurate with their vital role in society;
- encouraging young people of our congregations to enter the teaching profession;
- encouraging school libraries to provide quality materials, including those of religious perspectives, that will broaden students understanding of human life all over the world;
- insisting that all curricula present the best textbooks and teaching at all levels acknowledging that we encourage children to read, to imagine, and to understand the many wonders of God's creation;
- encouraging teaching about religion as an essential dimension in the development of civilization;
- encouraging teaching basic character and civic virtues such as honesty, truthfulness, and respect for life and property;
- providing parenting classes to emphasize the special responsibilities of families to schools and school-aged children;
- encouraging the use of curricula in all schools that reflect the role of the many racial, ethnic, and religious groups in the history and culture of the United States;
- rejecting racial-and gender-biased curricula and testing which limit career options of children and youth;
- advocating for quality, age-appropriate, comprehensive health education in the public schools;
- advocating for the inclusion of differently-abled students in our classrooms, and ensuring that teachers have the special training needed to meet these childrens needs;
- supporting thoughtful reform and innovation in local schools to improve teaching and learning at all levels;
- advocating at the state and local level for adequate public school funding and equitable distribution of state funds; and supporting efforts to end unjust educational disparities between rich and poor communities;
- learning about public school issues, offering candidate forums during school board elections, and educating church members about local funding ballot issues and about the historical role of churches in creating and supporting public schools;
- advocating for strengthened teacher training, for enhanced professional development for teachers and administrators, and for policies that assign teachers only to disciplines in which they are fully prepared, to classes whose size encourages individualized assistance, and to schedules that give teachers time to prepare or consult with other teachers, students, and parents;
- supporting standards-based school reforms and working in districts and states until the country as a whole has reasonable and challenging standards by which to assess students and schools;
- encouraging the development of smaller schools (including "schools within schools") to provide a caring environment;
- calling upon the United States Congress to pass and fully fund legislation to repair and modernize school facilities and to create new facilities as needed;
- advocating for universal, early, and quality preschool education for all children; and
- advocating for public education as a basic human right; and not relying solely on school fund raising and state alternative revenues, such as gambling, for financial support.
AMENDED AND READOPTED 2004
See Social Principles, ¶164D.