Countless Americans will walk into church Sunday with little concern that millions of American children have inadequate education. We will be concerned about our own spiritual health and the education of our children, and we will forget that Christ-centered spiritual health is rooted in love of God and others.

The United States simply does not provide consistent, quality education to people living in poverty or low-income areas. Statistics “point to one sure thing,” says Rassoul Dastmozd, president of Saint Paul College in Minnesota, “there is still great disparity in education,” with “most of the disparity derived from poverty.”

Children growing up in poverty or in low-income situations face a number of educational challenges which have nothing to do with the quality of their schools.

“Families who live in poverty face disadvantages that can hinder their children’s development in many ways,” according to The Future of Children’s summary of a work by Greg Duncan, Katherine Magnuson, and Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal. “As they struggle to get by economically, and as they cope with substandard housing, unsafe neighborhoods, and inadequate schools, poor families experience more stress in their daily lives than more affluent families do, with a host of psychological and developmental consequences.”

A quality public education system would seek to mitigate those disadvantages, but that is not happening. “While some young Americans — most of them white and affluent — are getting a truly world-class education, those who attend schools in high poverty neighborhoods are getting an education that more closely approximates school in developing nations,” according to a 2013 report of the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission.

Income levels explain part of the educational discrepancy, but race and ethnicity also play a role. U.S. News & World Report noted last year that education in the United States is “still separate and unequal.”

On average, schools serving more minority populations have less-experienced, lower-paid teachers who are less likely to be certified. A report from the Center for American Progress found that a 10 percentage point increase in students of color at a school is associated with a decrease in per-pupil spending of $75.

Disparities in course offerings mean students of color have fewer opportunities to challenge themselves with more difficult courses — the type of courses needed to prepare for a four-year college degree or for a high-paying career….

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This inequity is not just cause for alarm at the personal level; it has broader societal and national implications. “With the highest poverty rate in the developed world, amplified by the inadequate education received by many children in low-income schools, the United States is threatening its own future,” the Equity and Excellence Commission stated.

There is a disparity of prosperity and expectations for future economic well-being in the United States that seems of little concern to many Christians whose children have access to greater educational resources. Some Christian parents with consistent, dependable, adequate income work hard to provide every advantage to their own children while seemingly caring little for the children of the less advantaged.

It simply is hard to imagine Jesus having a similarly callous attitude. It is hard to imagine because all evidence of Scripture describes him as deeply burdened by the plights of the poor and suffering.

Most informed Christians know what Jesus said about ministering to the “least of these”—to those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46). What we seem less willing to grasp is that ministry to those in needs costs those of us who are not in need, just like it cost the so-called Good Samaritan.

Today’s children of poverty and discrimination often fit the first five categories of Matthew 25. If we do not do something to help in their current need, chances are many of them will end up in the sixth category—imprisoned—as well.

This is urgent. Lives depend on it.

My children are grown now, but during their early years I always sprang into action when something threatened their future. Because I loved them, I worked hard on their behalf. Our own children are our first responsibility, but they are not our only responsibility.

Today’s children of poverty and discrimination need help from individuals, churches, schools, and governments. Individuals and churches are best equipped to address some of the issues noted above—the stresses of daily living and the psychological challenges people face. Schools and governments are better equipped for others—substandard housing, unsafe neighborhoods, and inadequate schools.

This situation requires a broad and concerted effort. It is a big challenge, but the United States has not let the bigness of a challenge discourage it—landing a person on the moon and defeating the Axis powers of World War II come to mind.

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The familiar starfish story comes to mind. As the man tossed a few of many starfish back into the life-giving ocean he did not let his inability to save every starfish stop him from saving the ones he could.

One of my retired neighbors continues to work on a contract with the local public school district. Chris chose specifically to work with “at-risk” kids in learning math. He’s a contemporary Good Samaritan; he is “saving” as many children as possible.

We need more people like Chris and more churches, school districts, and governmental bodies tackling this challenge. Futures depend on it. And those of us who seek to follow Christ may have the chance to affect the eternal futures of some of the children we help.

Ferrell Foster is director of ethics and justice for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. Translation by Elsa Romero of the Baptist University of the Americas in San Antonio.

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