Public Education

Public Education

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8) 

The prophet Micah calls the faithful to “do justice,” challenging the strong on behalf of the weak. According to theologian Walter Brueggemann, economic justice is distributional: “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and return it to them.”[1] The United Church of Christ’s General Synod XVIII declared: “In the call to ‘do justice,’ Christians are required to transform the institutions of our society so that they provide what rightly belongs to all people and no longer deny access for some.”[2]  

Educational and economic justice are tightly bound, for children’s educational opportunities derive from the economic level of their parents, the communities where their parents can afford to live, and the degree to which their families, their schools, and their communities can connect them to paths toward economic self sufficiency.  Educational attainment then becomes a primary factor determining each child’s economic future. Public education justice is about the distribution not of goods but of opportunity itself.

Statistics that Illustrate the Issue

  • Twenty percent of American children live in poverty, with annual family income of less than $22,025 for a family of four.
  • Nearly 6 million American children live in extreme poverty, half of the federal poverty level—less than $8 per person per day  (
  • Poverty among children has risen in the recent recession to include one in every five children nationally, and even higher in some states, for example, in Mississippi, 31 percent in 2009. [3]
  • In 2008, before the recession deepened, 35 percent of African American children lived in poverty; 31 percent of Hispanic children lived in poverty; and 11 percent of white children lived in poverty.  (

Higher academic achievement occurs in communities where families have means and where communities have significant local revenue to invest in public schools, while schools in poor urban and rural communities are the ones that dominate the list of so-called failing schools under the No Child Left Behind testing program.

Educational researchers tell us that poverty and circumstances related to poverty are the primary determinants of school achievement. While teachers are known to be the greatest in-school variable to help children learn, the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education declares, “More than a half century of research, both here and abroad, has documented a powerful association between social and economic disadvantage and low student achievement.  Weakening that association is the fundamental challenge facing America’s education policy makers... Evidence demonstrates… that achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status are present before children even begin formal schooling.  Despite the impressive academic gains registered by some schools serving disadvantaged students, there is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can close these gaps in a substantial, consistent, and sustainable manner.” (The Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education.)

The Civil Rights Project summarizes the cycle created when concentrated family poverty in turn affects the public schools where poor children are concentrated.  Too often these schools are hyper-segregated by race as well: “It has been clear since the 1960s that both a school’s achievement level and student achievement are affected by the proportion of the school’s total enrollment that is poor. There are many risk factors affecting academic achievement that are related to individual poverty and to poverty concentration. 

Schools with very high levels of poverty concentration tend to have weaker staffs, much less high achieving peer groups, many problems of health and nutrition, residential instability, single-parent households, few home resources, high exposure to crime and gangs, and many other negative conditions that are not caused by the school but strongly affect the school’s operations and student outcomes… Among the 27.3 million white students, only a tiny minority, about 0.4 million, attend schools where nine-tenths or more of the students are poor…. but 40 percent of black and Latino students attend schools where 70-100 percent of the children are poor.”[4]

Finally, we know that, as they move through school, the poorest children are most likely to lag behind, drop out, and eventually find themselves underemployed and possibly incarcerated.  Breaking the nexus of poverty and low school achievement remains the great challenge for public schools in the United States. 

While in the past it was sufficient for advocates to address public education policies at the state legislative level, today federal policies intrude into every public school and classroom. We must press Congress to address public school resource inequity and find a way to support poor families to alleviate conditions that damage children’s opportunities; reduce reliance on standardized tests and test prep programs that dominate the schools serving poor children; support and improve, not punish, public schools in America’s poorest communities; and improve our system of free, and universally available public schools to secure the rights and address the needs of all children. 

UCC General Synod Resolutions and Pronouncements

General Synod XV (1985) warned: "While children from many areas have comfortable schools with all the educational trimmings, poor and ethnic minority children often face overcrowded and deteriorated facilities, and a lack of enrichment programs or modern technology."

General Synod XVIII (1991) cautioned: "Because the poor and their children are disproportionately people of color, the educational inequities in our public schools reinforce the racial/ethnic injustices of our society."

General Synod XXIII (2001) proclaimed public school support -- and advocacy for the same -- as one of the "foremost civil rights issues in the twenty-first century."

General Synod XXV (2005) called all settings of the UCC to do justice and promote the common good by strengthening support for public institutions and providing "opportunity for every child in well-funded, high quality public schools." 

 More information and ways to engage

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “Voices of the Night—Against Justice,” in Walter Brueggemann, et al, To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly: An Agenda for Ministers, p. 5

[2] United Church of Christ, General Synod 18, “1991 Pronouncement: Support of Quality, Integrated Education for All  Children in Public Schools, Statement of Christian Conviction,” June 1991

[3] Kai Filion, “Child Poverty Rises Dramatically in Most States,” Economic Policy Institute, Sept. 27, 2010

[4] Gary Orfield, Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge (Los Angeles: The Civil Rights Project, 2009), pp. 14-15.)


Contact Info

Edith Rasell, Ph.D.
Minister for Economic Justice
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115