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 generations.”

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 participation.”  The laws and institutions of our society are the mechanisms for distributing opportunity, or by contrast providing opportunity for some while denying it to others.

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.

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