US churches call for equal access to education for all

By agency reporter
25 May 2010

The governing board of the National Council of Churches USA has urged President Obama and members of Congress not to lose sight of the fact that public schools are the basic institution for educating the nation’s children, and says the government must support public schools as guarantors of each child’s right to an education.

In a pastoral letter unanimously adopted during its May meeting, the board urged US leaders to help craft a system of education that looks upon children as unique and valuable individuals rather than “products to be tested.”

The letter also cautioned politicians against scapegoating principals and teachers when schools fall short of arbitrary goals.

The National Council of Churches is an ecumenical network and community of 36 Christian communions with a combined membership of 45 million persons in more than 100,000 congregations across the USA.

The letter was drafted by the NCCUSA’s Education and Leadership Ministries Commission, with primary contributions from the Council’s Committee on Public Education and Literacy.

Widespread childhood poverty is a tragic factor that should prompt all politicians to seek the most equitable and accessible system of education, the pastoral letter said.

“At a moment ... when many families are under constant stress, and when schools are often limited by lack of funds or resources, we know that public schools cannot be improved by concentrating on public schools alone,” the writers said. “They alone can neither cause nor cure the problems we face. In this context, we must address with prayerful determination the issues of race and class, which threaten both public education and democracy in America.”

The letter affirmed the conviction of people of faith that “public education - publicly funded, universally available and accountable to the public - while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served.”

“As a people called to love our neighbours as ourselves,” the letter said, “we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. We know that such a system will never be perfect, and we pledge as faithful citizens to continue to improve the schools in our communities and to make our system of schools more responsive.”

The writers expressed concern that No Child Left Behind Act has resorted to annual standardised tests of reading and maths for all children in grades 3-8 to assess school performance, “followed by punishments for the schools that cannot rapidly reach ever increasing test score production targets.” But the instruments of the marketplace are not appropriate tools for educating children, the letter said. “We worry that our society has come to view what is good as what can be measured and compared. The relentless focus on testing basic skills has diminished our attention to the humanities, the social studies, the arts, and child and adolescent development.”

Federal policy today is encouraging states to rapidly expand school choice through charter schools. However, the pastoral letter raised the question whether or not market-based reforms, while they may increase educational opportunity for a few children or even for some groups of children, introduce more equity into the system itself.

“We are concerned today when we hear the civil right to education being re-defined as the right to school choice,” the writers said, “for we know that equitable access to opportunity is more difficult to ensure in a mass of privatised alternatives to traditional public schools or in school districts being carved apart into small schools of choice.”

The writers added, “We value the contributions of parochial schools managed by some of our communions and the contributions of charter schools operated by some of our congregations. We affirm, however, the position of our 1999 General Assembly that 'as a general rule, public funds should be used for public purposes.’ Knowing that traditional public schools continue to educate more than 90 per cent of our nation’s 50 million school children, we again echo the 1999 General Assembly that called ‘on our members to direct their energies toward improving the schools that the majority of children will continue to attend.’

“We believe that democratic operation of public schools is our best hope for ensuring that families can secure the services to which their children have a right,” the drafters said. “On balance, we believe that if government invests public funds in charter schools that report to private boards, government, not the vicissitudes of the market place, should be expected to provide oversight to protect the common good.”

The NCCUSA governing board pledged to “to partner with (the President and members of Congress) in prayer and action, working for reform that values the whole child as uniquely created, values teachers, and encourages and equips the family and community to participate in nurturing the full development of every child.”

This partnership will include:
• encouraging congregations to value public education and teachers through sermons, worship, and prayer;
• supporting parent education and adult literacy;
• encouraging congregations to partner with public schools to provide tutors, school supplies, exposure to computers and many other supports;
• supporting out-of-school supports like better and widely available pre-school and after school programmes; and
• continuing to educate our members about the value of Community Schools that surround public schools with social supports.

The full text of the pastoral letter can be downloaded in *.PDF Adobe Acrobat at: www.ncccusa.org/elmc/pastoralletter.pdf

[Ekk/3]

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