Public education in Ohio, where the UCC's national offices are located, is in crisis. Not an imagined crisis, but a real life-or-death crisis.
The Cleveland public school system has announced layoffs of some 900 staff, including 600 teachers and 20 of the district's 26 social workers, to cut a $100 million deficit. Even some of Cleveland's prosperous suburban school districts are reducing staff this year. Similarly, Columbus' school system has announced cuts.
Meanwhile, Ohio's Supreme Court has ruled four times in the past decade that the state's over-dependence on property tax levies is unfair and unconstitutional, but the state legislature has ignored each of the court's rulings.
Ohio's governor has named a blue ribbon task force on student success, but unfortunately this group has chosen only to hear testimony from "experts," not the public. Thus, in early May, several educational advocacy groups joined with religious groups (including the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries) to hold an "alternative hearing" on school funding. Cleveland's Trinity Episcopal Cathedral was packed with people from all over Northeast Ohio. Fifty-four people gave testimony. Clearly, education is on the minds of those in Ohio these days.
But Ohio is not the only state struggling with how to pay for education in the 21st century, the information age. School districts across the nation are finding themselves in a sink-or-swim mode as state governments cut dollars because of lower tax revenues and as federal dollars are diverted to defense costs and tax cuts.
As people of faith, we have a moral obligation to raise the difficult questions about how we as citizens are choosing to allocate our resources. From the earliest days of our nation, it was our forebears in the faith who insisted on universal, compulsory education, who founded colleges and universities, and then started schools across the South to educate freed slaves after the Civil War.
As people of faith today, we must ask why thousands of teachers are losing their jobs in the wealthiest nation in the world. We must ask how we can have a viable, healthy democracy if there is not good, quality public education for all children.
The only way we can impact such important issues is to participate in the political process. That's why JWM is sponsoring a project called "Our Faith, Our Vote" to help every local church become involved in our nation's political process—not to endorse candidates, but to make clear the issues that we believe are central to our lives and our world.
We hope that churches will not only register people to vote and help them get to the polls on election day, but that they will hold forums where they invite candidates to talk specifically about public education, health care, war and peace. It's not only legal, it's the moral thing to do.
Bernice Powell Jackson is executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries and a member of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers.