A new administration’s nominee for Secretary of Education doesn’t usually steal the show. Betsy DeVos made headlines during her prolonged and contentious nomination process which ended in approval today. While some evangelical supporters of homeschooling, private school, and charter school options are celebrating a school choice advocate’s appointment to this all-important role (and a graduate of the evangelical liberal arts school, Calvin College, at that), other conservative Christian public school parents and advocates are disheartened by DeVos’s limited personal history with our nation’s public schools (she has mentored in public schools but not attended, taught, or sent children to public schools).
In light of varying perspectives about this appointment, Christian leaders will need to think afresh about their relationship to local public schools, where more than 90 percent of America’s children are educated. What comes next for these students will dramatically influence the future of our nation and our nation’s global impact.
Christians are already involved in our public schools. Indeed, nearly half of the nation’s public school educators are practicing Christians and 95 percent of Protestant pastors believe Christians should get involved in helping public schools (Barna). Although Christian interest and representation seem to be present, tremendous gaps exist with 50 million public school students not guaranteed access to a high-quality education. Even as high-school graduation rates rise for ethnic minority groups, students of color are still most likely to be funneled into remediation courses. Only one in four Hispanic students were college ready in 2015. The numbers are even worse for African American students—around one in ten.
In order to address this problem, high academic standards will need to be achieved in every school, and communities will have to provide the necessary resources for those students facing additional challenges. For example, English-language learners may need additional support in terms of tutors or bilingual resources that churches can help provide.
We want to avoid producing a second-class citizenship by having one set of standards for some students and a different set for others. Instead, our role as Christian leaders within the community can be to actively engage in conversations around education equity issues like accountability, state vision, and transparency and accessibility in reporting so parents and community leaders alike have the needed information to know how to best support strengthening local schools. Additional work lies ahead for Christians committed to the work of public education.
As DeVos takes on leadership of our nation’s education department this year, states will be rolling out their individual plans to support the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The act was passed at the end of 2015 with bipartisan support for limiting federal involvement with state K–12 education and returning decision-making power over standards and assessments to states and local leaders.
In light of DeVos’s leadership and ESSA, I urge Christians to shoulder the responsibility of leading their public schools at the local level with even more intentionality, particularly with these three questions in mind:
1. As school choice gains traction, what intentional steps can we can take to strengthen current public schools?
As DeVos explains, school choice touches many arenas. “We think of the educational choice movement as involving many parts: vouchers and tax credits, certainly, but also virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools,” she said in a 2013 interview.
Even as the availability and popularity of charter schools, vouchers, and homeschooling increases, there are enormous pockets of students who, for a variety of reasons, have only one choice for schooling. Those who have financial resources, including the option for one parent to homeschool, should not forget those families tethered to low-achieving schools without an equivalent choice.
Regardless of the educational options available or schooling choices made for their own children, Christians can serve and strengthen public schools through volunteering as tutors or reading partners. By staying abreast of issues impacting access to high-quality education like accessible and timely school reports for parents, we can discover specific ways our churches can help to support their local schools. We can also advocate for students whose parents may not speak the language at local public forums in their communities.
2. As we advance local control, what is the best approach to support the hard work of biblical justice?
Local control of education—like giving states the ability to decide on their own standards and assessments—requires local responsibility. We believe all children are made in God’s image and that each child deserves the opportunity to reach their God-given potential.
Less federal oversight is welcome following three decades to the contrary. ESSA was passed largely in response to the national outcry for local and state leaders to decide for themselves what standards and assessments needed to be in place without pressure from the federal government. However, we will need to respond to additional responsibility with increased local accountability. Public entities are responsible to the public. Community leaders, parents, and students need clear and actionable data so that supportive action can be taken on behalf of struggling students and low-performing schools.
3. As we embrace state control of education standards, how can we ensure we set the bar high enough?
Although the Every Student Succeeds Act mandates that states have the control of education standards, states have through 2017 to create their state plans to comply with this new law. Therefore, this is a unique season for DeVos to become the Secretary of Education and for Christians to engage in new conversations taking place within states as state plans are being developed under ESSA.
As Christians become involved in local schools and critical conversations impacting state plans under ESSA, we have an opportunity to ensure education standards are rigorous. When we expect the best of our students, they believe the best of themselves and consistently rise to the challenge. States that have recently adopted higher standards are seeing growth in key content areas such as reading and math. Pastors and parents need a seat at the table for district and state decision making so we can advocate for high academic standards in every school.
My Facebook feed is as politically charged as ever, many posts reading as partisan advertisements rather than arguments made in good faith. But Christians are called to so much more than a list of issues or political party affiliation. We can review the positives in policy and champion where progress is made while still seeking solutions for the ever-present gaps within our own communities. We can tackle hard questions as we consider innovative ways to work collaboratively, viewing individuals, government departments, and problems from a redeemed mindset. As dual citizens, we first seek the kingdom of God and then accept the mantle of responsibility to our communities and the precious children within them.
Andrea Reyes Ramirez, PhD, is executive director of the Faith and Education Coalition – NHCLC. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two young daughters.