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.