Every now and then I’m reminded that following Jesus is hard. It’s hard. Much harder than I like to believe–mostly because I don’t let myself live the hard stuff. Not often, anyway. Most of the time, Jesus helps me to have a better life. Jesus is the reason I have a good marriage and a wholesome family. He protects my kids, and gives us joy. As much as I hate to say it, He really does give me my best life now.
To be sure, there are a lot of gifts that come from following Christ. But that’s not all there is to it. Following Jesus also means we take up his cross, make sacrifices, and take risks. It requires a lot of us, and it’s scary. I prefer my comfortable life, which is why I’ve been dragging my feet on writing this post. This is a hard topic, but we need to talk about it.
Last week I listened to an episode of This American Life about the state of education in our country. There is a significant gap in the quality of our schools, particularly those in poor areas where the students are predominantly black and Latino. The worst schools, the ones with the fewest resources, largest class sizes, least qualified teachers, and lowest test scores, are attended by the lowest income students, many of which are minorities.
A lot has been done to try and improve these failing schools, but nothing worked, with one exception. Historically, the only thing that has consistently helped black children fare better, is integration.
Ira Glass, host of This American Life, explained what integration has done for black children in America:
“On standardized reading tests in 1971, black 13-year-olds tested 39 points worse than white kids. That dropped to just 18 points by 1988 at the height of desegregation. The improvement in math scores was close to that, though not quite as good.
And these scores are not just the scores of the specific kids who got bussed into white schools. That is the overall score for the entire country. That’s all black children in America– halved in just 17 years.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who has covered education for years, summarized why integration works:
“It is not that something magical happens when black kids sit in a classroom next to white kids. It’s not that suddenly a switch turns on and they get intelligence, or wanting the desire to learn when they’re with white kids. What integration does is it gets black kids in the same facilities as white kids. And therefore, it gets them access to the same things that those kids get– quality teachers and quality instruction.”
In other words, predominantly white schools are better because they have advocates. When you’re not a single mom working 3 jobs to provide for your kids, you have more time to advocate for your child’s school. You go to the meetings. You contact your representatives. You might even belong to some boards.
Fewer parents are doing this for the predominantly black and Latino schools. Even the parents who do advocate for their kids are still paid less attention than their white counterparts. So their schools are generally much worse. That’s why integration helps.
The problem is, around the same time integration was mandated by the government, white families began finding loopholes. They took their kids out of public schools and created separate private schools. In 2000, judges also began releasing districts from court enforced integration, which led to a natural re-segregation. Schools in poor areas became increasingly less white, and increasingly less resourced. In Southern towns like Tuscaloosa, 1 in 3 black students attend a school that looks like integration never happened. In Florida, a cluster of schools in black neighborhoods became the worst schools in the state soon after their county abandoned integration.
But it gets worse. Some regions have acknowledged the value of integration, but it’s been met with resistance by white parents. In one portion of the TAL episode that literally made me weep, white parents voiced their disdain for the black students coming to their school. Here are some quotes from a meeting in which parents discuss the forced integration. As you read these words, imagine the black students who attended the meeting, eager to join this new school with new opportunities, new resources, and new friends. This is what they heard:
“I want to know where the metal detectors are going to be. And I want to know where your drug-sniffing dogs are going to be.”
“I shopped for a school district. I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed because that’s the issue.”
“I’m hoping that [the new students’] discipline records come with them, like their health records come with them.”
“I don’t care about everything else that falls by the wayside, because it will two to three years when we all move out of the district.”
Each one of these comments was met with loud applause. This was in 2013.
The racism of these parents is devastating. I hope Christians would respond with less fear and more love for those in need. I would hope.
But at the end of the TAL story I was left with a lot of questions. What DOES this mean for Christians? How do we respond to these inequalities in our midst?
I spoke with a good friend of mine who is a principal in a large urban city. She also has her Masters from Harvard–so she’s studied this extensively–and she’s a Christian. First, I asked if TAL had overstated the importance of integration. She said no. The data is indisputable. Minority children do better in integrated schools.
She also confirmed that “white flight” is the reason our schools have slowly re-segregated. Then she said something I couldn’t believe. Read this. Then read it again:
“The irony is that the sudden proliferation of small Christian schools across the South in the 70s and 80s was a direct response to desegregation orders.”
In other words, many of our private Christian schools were created to protect Christian children from the influx of poor, black students into the public schools.
This is a very hard truth.
Until the last hundred years, education was about moral formation. Students didn’t receive education simply to get a job, but to be shaped into good citizens. Education was about forming people of character.
Today, that moral component is all but absent from our schools. Our culture is too politically correct for that. A teacher could literally get fired for claiming that one life choice is better or healthier than another.
It’s because of this moral absence in public education that Christian schools or homeschooling seem appealing. In Christian schools and even some secular private schools, students do receive moral guidance. They are taught about wisdom, truth, and honor.
However, the story of segregation in our country presents us with a difficult question. I don’t have an answer for it, so I’m simply going to let it hang:
As Christians, what kind of lesson are we teaching our kids, when we leave the worst schools to the poorest children?
To put it another way, if education is about moral formation, isn’t the decision to evacuate the worst schools and leave them to the poor kids–isn’t that a kind of formation too?
I’ll say it again–this is hard. When it comes to your kids, your instinct is to provide and protect. You want to give them the best. You want them to be safe. You want them to have all the opportunities in the world.
But I wonder–at what point do these godly concerns stray from gospel parenting, and wander into something more like the American dream?
For most parents, it’s the fear that gets us. Will they be safe? Will they get a good education? And if we’re being totally honest, Why should I sacrifice my kids’ education to help someone else?
So I asked my friend: As a Christian, how do you think Christian parents should think about choosing a school for their child? This is what she said:
“I think it goes back to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and our neighbors include those in our community who are a different race then us. If I as a white Christian am concerned about sending my child to public schools because of the schools’ reputation, then why is it ok for my black/brown neighbors to have to send their child to that school or district?”
She then added,
“For Christians making decisions about schools for their kids, if they have heard rumors or have concerns about the city’s schools, or the particular school they are assigned to, I would encourage them to investigate for themselves and not just rely on word of mouth, particularly from realtors and/or non-Christians. Go to the schools. Even in a district that has some really tough schools, there are always bright spots.
I think this is not necessarily about asking parents to pick out the worst school in their city and send their children there (to your question about “why sacrifice my own child”), it’s about active engagement with the public school district to improve outcomes for all students. Fair or not, as it is now when white parents raise a stink about something in a district, there is more likely to be change. I would challenge Christian parents to think–what am I really afraid of? Why am I afraid of this school, or the public schools in general?”
Those are great questions for searching our hearts and motives in this decision-making process. Here are a few more:
– Rather than ask, “Is this best for my child?” what if we asked, “What is best for the children in my community?”
– If I am pro-life, how do my pro-life beliefs extend to the education of the poor and underprivileged?
– Jesus spent the majority of his time with the poor, the sick, and the broken–how might we rethink Christian education so that it reflects Jesus’ own priorities?
– Can I trust God to protect my child as I seek to follow His heart?
As a final thought, one of the biggest mantras of parents today is “Is this right for my child?” Everyone tells you to “do what’s right for your child,” regardless of what anyone thinks, and I agree to some extent. No one knows your kids better than you do. Your instincts are usually right.
Unfortunately, a lot of parents know what is right for their child but can’t do anything about it. They can’t give their kids the advantages and opportunities they want, because they don’t have the access. That is why, as Christians, we have to make sure “Is this right for my child?” does not come at the expense of other children. Too often, it does.
I hope you will think and pray over these hard questions, and what they might mean for your family. The problem of education in our country sometimes seems insurmountable, but I dream, I DREAM, that the church can lead a change. What if this became the next frontier of the pro-life movement? What if this became the next cause of the church? What if we linked arms and stood up for our schools–ALL schools–rather than run in fear? If we did this together, things could change for these children, who are crying out for the church to take a stand.
By God, things could change.