Public Education as a Public Trust
We asked members of our staff to share what moves
them to do justice work. This month Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education
and Witness, reflects on inequality and the important role of the church in working
to promote educational opportunity for all.
Public Education as a Public Trust
Recently the education historian
Diane Ravitch described the public role of public schools in communities
across our nation.
“To me, a public school is a public trust. It doesn’t belong to the students who are
currently enrolled in it or their parents or to the teachers who currently
teach in it. All of them are part of the
school community, and that community needs to collaborate to make the school
better for everyone… The school belongs
to the public, to the commonwealth. It
belongs to everyone who ever attended it (and their parents) and to future
I worry that in many ways we seem
to have stopped thinking about what can be accomplished if we can build the
political will to improve our huge education system. We look for quick fixes,
school by school, but really a public system is our only hope for educating
more than 50 million children and adolescents.
I like to think about
the words of Rev. Philip Wogaman, the retired pastor at Washington, DC’s
Foundry United Methodist Church: “...justice is the community’s guarantee of
the conditions necessary for everybody to be a participant in the common life
of society... If we are, finally, brothers and sisters through the providence
of God, then it is just to structure institutions and laws in such a way that
communal life is enhanced and individuals are provided full opportunity for
laws and institutions of our society are the mechanisms for distributing
opportunity, or by contrast providing opportunity for some while denying it to
When we think about opportunity, most
of us imagine a particular story line about Horatio
Alger and the American Dream. Individualism, competition, and personal
responsibility are the themes, and the point of view is that of the individual
who can thrive because in this land of opportunity anyone can get ahead through
hard work. As Americans we identify with the hero and love the optimism of the
plot: all Americans start at a place where we have an opportunity to compete if
we work hard. There is one set of rules we all play by, and if we are strategic
and patient, we can all win. When people succeed it is because they are
virtuous, and when people fail it is because they are not personally
responsible. The choices of all individuals massed together are thought to
benefit society as a whole. This story is so popular that it’s hard to
remember that it has never been our story in the church.
The biblical grounding for our
story is the Great Commandment. After being asked which commandment is the greatest,
Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with
all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first
commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 37-40).
Our 2005 General Synod called our
attention back to this story in a “Resolution
for the Common Good,” that proclaims, “In the past quarter century
our society has... moved too far in the direction of promoting individual self-interest
at the expense of shared community responsibility.” “While some may suggest
that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the
common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self-interest will
protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the
whole population.” The resolution
recognizes that we do not all start at the same place; we do not all have the
same opportunities; and we do not all get to play by the same rules.
What inspires me to keep working
for justice in public education is that I believe the voice of the church is
urgently needed. As a people called to
love our neighbors as ourselves, 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.