With the appointment of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, the topic of schools and school choice has been in the news.
Growing up, I was homeschooled. My mother was considered a pioneer by many, for good and for bad. I am a direct result of my education, where I was allowed to pursue studies that interested me, where my brain could unfurl and bloom in a safe, caring, and Christian environment. I feel incredibly blessed by the privilege of being homeschooled.
Yet when it came time to make a choice about my daughter’s education, I made a different decision: I sent my daughter to a public elementary school, one that’s considered “failing” by many standards.
For decades I have tried to take seriously the words of Jesus and the topic he talked about nonstop: the kingdom of God. My entire life I had heard the phrase, and yet it had been over-spiritualized (or politicized) to the point where it meant nothing to me. Finally, it started to click: The Sermon on the Mount, the way Jesus introduced his ministry—it all pointed to a kingdom whose priorities were upside-down from those of the world. A place where the poor and the sick and the sad were blessed, a place where Jesus would free the oppressed. This was not metaphorical but literal—which meant I would need to re-organize my life in order to be connected to those where Jesus said his work and kingdom would be found.
It does not feel like a sacrifice to send my child to public school; it feels more like a gift that we don’t deserve.
This led to years of living and working in refugee communities, and eventually to sending my daughter to our local school. When I first started researching it, I was surprised at my quickening anxiety. When looking it up on a school rankings site, I was confronted with a large red score of 1 out of 10. It was at the bottom of the rankings, had extremely low test scores, and had flown through a succession of principals. Even though I was committed to loving my neighbors, I balked at the idea of sending my sweet child off to first grade.
Perhaps this is because I grew up hearing phrases like “government schools” meant to demean public schools as secular organizations bent on keeping faith out of the classroom. When I was making my own decision about school, well-meaning friends told me they “loved their children too much to send them to the local school.” People made comments how they could never “sacrifice” their children for their idealism.
The fear was real. Yet I knew that because of Jesus, I was not interested only in the welfare of me and mine. I believed that all of God’s children deserve an equal education (which is also a part of the mission of the US Department of Education). Today, the children of this country do not have access to an equal quality of education. A disproportionate amount of the children affected are kids of color and kids living in poverty. So when another middle-class family opts out of the public school system, my heart is grieved. Inequality in our public education system is directly related to our proximity to the schools who are the most in need. The truth is that school inequality is not a hot-button issue for most Christians because we do not send our kids to schools where these issues matter. We have segregated ourselves away, and the impact has been monumental. While the ability to choose how to educate our children is important, I also believe that the responsibility to our neighbor is a cornerstone of our faith, and should have a much bigger role in our discussion regarding public schools.
Currently, my daughter attends a school where she is one of the few white students in her class. In her small school, more than 26 languages are spoken. Ninety-eight percent of the students are low-income and qualify for free school lunches. Many of the students and families struggle due to the trauma of poverty.
My daughter is thriving. She loves her class and her teacher, and I love getting to be a part of our diverse community in an authentic, profound way. It does not feel like a sacrifice to send my child to public school; it feels more like a gift that we don’t deserve
Betsy DeVos has publicly said she aims to “advance God’s kingdom in public education.” I am here to say that God’s kingdom is already at work in our public schools. I’ve seen it with my own eyes; I have found the blessings where Jesus always said they would be. There is no place in this world where God’s presence cannot be found, and there is no child who does not belong to God. When we truly start living and believing like this, then I believe our choices on education will be guided by our love for all of our neighbors.
For further reading, the author suggests the book Educating All God's Children: What Christians Can--and Should--Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids, by Nicole Baker Fulgham.