Janice Resseger calls public schools “the primary civic institution in every community in this country.” But she fears that Americans have “forgotten why justice in public education matters.”
“Why does eliminating poverty in this country matter?” Resseger asks. “Of nearly 15 million children in the U.S. today, 21 percent live in poverty. That’s the highest child poverty rate in the developed world. But we don’t talk about poverty today.”
Resseger, UCC minister for public education and witness, was part of the UCC presence in an estimated crowd of 5,000 at a “Save Our Schools” rally July 30 in Washington, D.C.
“The rally was to protest the scapegoating of public school teachers and the trashing of public education,” said Resseger. “It was also to criticize the worship of data rather than the human understanding of education as a way to form the whole child.”
Resseger’s “data” reference was to the No Child Left Behind act passed in 2002 during the George W. Bush administration. While the intent of the act was to support the war on poverty initiated in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, No Child’s goal of students’ sharply rising scores on standardized tests is “utopian,” said Resseger. Meanwhile, the primary purpose of the war on poverty – leveling the playing field for poor children – has not been fulfilled, she said.
“States are having to project this astronomical rise in test scores in order to reach their goal in 2014 or declare the schools a failure,” said Resseger, adding that the number of schools tagged as failing has been increasing every year. “The thinking behind it was that if teachers were told they had to make everybody perfect by 2014, it would motivate them to work harder.”
Resseger does not see President Obama’s Race to the Top program – which offers $4.35 billion in competitive grants to support education reform and innovation in classrooms – as being any better. “Since when is public education a competition?” said Resseger.
Perhaps the most impassioned speaker at the Save Our Schools rally was John Kuhn, a school superintendent from Perrin, Texas, who drew cheers from the crowd.
“Day after day, I take children broken by the poverty our leaders are afraid to confront, and I glue the pieces back together,” said Kuhn. “At the end of my life, you can say that those children are better off for passing through my sphere of influence.”
Resseger encourages local UCC congregations to honor the public school educators who are in their pews and, if possible, partner with a local school to support students and teachers alike.
“Churches are invited to discuss, in an adult-education class or justice committee, the public value of public education,” said Resseger, recommending UCC Justice & Witness Ministries resources “Public Education and the Public Good” and the new “A Christian Social Contract for Our Times,”.
Resseger said public schools have historically served as one of the few sources of protection for children.
“We have always assumed schools can do it for us,” said Resseger. “This time, the schools can’t do it for us, but we’re blaming it on the teachers because they haven’t solved all the problems we’re not willing to deal with.”