It is becoming an all too familiar story: America's public education system is failing. Among developed nations, American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science. And the trend is going south. In September, we learned that the high school class of 2011 posted the lowest SAT scores of all time.
But those statistics don't tell the whole story. In wealthier school districts, American public school students actually perform better on international tests than their counterparts in Finland, Japan, and Korea.
For our public school kids in truly poor school districts, however, their best and often only chance is in the kind of lifeline depicted in the climactic scene of the powerful documentary Waiting for Superman.
Hundreds of children and their families, gathered in a school gymnasium, are hoping and praying they will win the lottery. If theirs is one of the few numbers picked, they will escape their neighborhood school and attend a highly coveted charter school.
The drama is intense. The joy on the faces of those kids whose number is picked is palpable. The despair of those left behind is devastating.
No American child should have to win the lottery just to get a decent education. It is a scandal of the highest magnitude and a violation of the most basic precepts of justice.
For many reasons (educational quality, moral environments hostile to faith), many Christian families have fled public schools for Christian and other private schools or even homeschooling. While we must ensure our own children receive a proper education, we must also care deeply about those left behind.
After all, education is in our DNA as Christians.
At a recent conference at the Colson Center, professor Glenn Sunshine chronicled the history of Christian influence in education. He argued that the Christian commitment to education and literacy literally saved learning in the West.
The collapse of the Roman Empire and the barbarian conquest of Europe drove Christianity to the monasteries of western Ireland. Irish abbott St. Columbanus (543-615) traveled across France and Italy, founding monasteries and scriptoria where monks copied not only the Scriptures but also the works of Greece and Rome. According to Sunshine, "Education survives in medieval Europe, classical literature survives in medieval Europe … because of Columbanus."
In the late Middle Ages, the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life became the great copyists and educators of Europe. Both Erasmus and Martin Luther attended schools they had established. The Reformation is inconceivable apart from the advent of printing—with the Gutenberg Bible (1455) leading the way—and the revival of learning that fueled the rise of literacy and the founding of new schools.
In America, Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), a founding father best remembered for establishing medical schools, was passionate about educating the American people, especially in matters of religion—not just for religious purposes, but for the moral education of all citizens. He wrote that "the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments." In his view, this in no way abrogated the First Amendment, which he strongly supported.
The two of us attended public schools during our earlier years and are grateful for Christian teachers and educators who work in this arena. Despite the grave challenges we face today, Christians must not abandon our public schools. We must remember, as our forebears in the faith did, that literacy and education are crucial for reading the Scriptures and growing in the faith, and are the source of developing virtue, without which civil society cannot survive.
There is a lot we can do. The ideal solution, of course, is to upgrade all failing schools. We should be supporting every effort to make this happen. But as Waiting for Superman shows all too clearly, there are vested interests that will make reform difficult at best.
The next best bet is to ensure that those children who want a good education can escape the dreadfully failing schools the law has consigned them to. Movements are starting in several states to do just that: to allow parents and children, through the help of vouchers and other creative means, to opt out of failing schools.
Mindful of our heritage and the demands of justice, we Christians should do all in our power to support these parents and their children. No child should depend on a lottery to obtain a decent education.
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Brett McCracken reviewed Waiting for Superman for the magazine.
Christianity Today has many more articles on education.
Previous "Contra Mundum" columns include:
The 'Big Love' Strategy | What are Americans learning from pop culture portrayals of polygamy? (October 18, 2011)
Real Happiness: Colson and George Bemoan our National Virtue Deficit | Where a people abandons virtue, government steps in. (August 16, 2011)
We Must Not Despair | It's not the time to withdraw from politics. (November 1, 2010)
The Lost Art of Commitment | Why we're afraid of it, and why we shouldn't be. (August 4, 2010)
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