Those of us who believe in the importance and necessity of a much improved public education system are fortunate to have the support of pastors who understand the importance of separation of church and state. They also understand that the state will in time put its heavy hand on the affairs of the church if the church becomes dependent on the state. And they know too that a church that needs public subsidy lacks the support of its own congregants.

The leader in this grassroots fight against privatization of public schools is Pastors for Texas Children. It has helped Oklahomans organize Pastors for Oklahoma Kids. It is now working with faith-based groups in Arizona and Arkansas to ward off the attack against public schools. The leader of Pastors for Texas Children, Charles Foster Johnson, will speak at the convention of the Network for Public Education in Oakland from October 14-15. Please come to hear about the important work that is happening at the community level.

In this post, Reverend George Mason explained at a meeting in Simmons, Kentucky, why pastors must join together to protect the rights of African-American children. Rev. Mason is senior pastor of the Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.

Racism is not the root of all problems of public education in America, but the problem of racism is rooted in public education in America. It should be the mission of the church of Jesus Christ to call it out and root it out.

Public education is under assault in this country. And whom do you think suffers most when it does?

Racism has always prevented black Americans and other people of color from fully grasping the promise of prosperity our country says is dangling just within reach of every child who studies and works hard. Black American children have never had equal access to quality education, and yet they have been blamed for not achieving anyway.

The heroic efforts of people who founded schools like Simmons are to be lauded. The example of successful black Americans who had to work twice as hard as people like me to get where they are today is remarkable. But neither is any excuse for our complacency. Cherry-picking African Americans to praise so we have moral license to condemn many others who haven’t, because of unjust and unequal educational systems we continue to defend, is a sin against God.

You know the history. From slavery to Jim Crow segregation, white Americans have been afraid to be exposed as frauds in our assertion that we have God-given intellectual superiority. We have clung to a lie about ourselves; and it is idolatry, not theology. We have to repent of the contrived notion of whiteness as rightness that has become operational policy in our approach to public school education. It’s not enough for us to feel sorry for our history; it’s necessary for us to atone for it.

Pastors for Texas Children was formed in 2011 as a mission and advocacy organization to ensure that every child of God in Texas have access to a quality public education. We match churches with local schools, creating mentoring and tutoring relationships with students, and providing needed material support to compensate for our state’s failure to fulfill its constitutional duty to fully fund these schools. We advocate for just laws and adequate budgets.

Currently in Texas, and nationwide, we have a privatizing movement underway that wants to peel off taxpayer dollars to private schools through voucher programs. As always, these educational entrepreneurs see themselves as messianic figures, saving disadvantaged students from educrats and bureaucrats who only want to keep their jobs at the expense of the kids. But that argument is bogus.
Voucher programs take our tax dollars and give them to private schools without public accountability. Charter schools do a similar runaround. Vouchers are a ruse designed once again to privilege the privileged and underprivilege the underprivileged.
The people who cry for accountability all the time only want accountability when other people are in charge. And they employ all sorts of negative narratives to support their claims public schools can’t succeed. It’s either corruption of administrators or mismanagement of funds or the breakdown of the black family that makes education impossible. All these arguments are marshalled to undermine public education in favor of moving money and people toward charter schools and private schools.
The performance data, however, don’t back up the claims of failing public schools and thriving charter schools; nor do state experiments in voucher programs justify the upending of a public education system, which was created to strengthen democracy and reinforce our country’s high ideals of patriotism and citizenship. Something else is going on, and we all know what it is. It’s what it’s always been.
After Brown vs. Board of Education, whites fled the public schools for the homogeneity of private schools. When public schools were forcibly integrated, every form of creativity was called upon to maintain white advantage. Black kids and white kids now went to school together, but black teachers—who were invaluable role models in segregated schools—were let go all over the country. Schools were never ordered by the courts to integrate black teachers. Think of it.

Then consider the code language we use in educational reform. Local control, school-based decision making, and here’s the big one—choice. Sounds good in principle, but so did the lofty notion of states’ rights that was used to justify slavery and segregation. The outcome has hardly been different, because when the people in charge locally only answer to people like them, they choose in their own favor time and again, and nothing changes to equalize opportunity.

In Dallas, 95% of our school district is non-white. 90% of students are on partial or full food subsidy. White flight is rooted in white fright. Yet the one thing proven to improve performance in public schools is real racial and economic integration. Know why? Because children haven’t yet learned how not to love their neighbor. They work together and play together and want each other to succeed. It’s their parents and paid-for politicians who don’t know how to do this.

Cornel West was right when he said that “justice is what love looks like in public.” And public education is a fertile field for justice work. It’s one way white Christians can move from private sorrow over our racist history to public repentance. It’s a beautiful way for us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Faith and learning, churches and schools, preachers and teachers: all these are organically related. All of us are called to love God and love our neighbor. This is the perfect intersection to keep the Great Commandment.

Charlie Johnson leads Pastors for Texas Children. It was Suzii Paynter’s brainchild to start with, when she worked for another organization back in our state. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Fellowship Southwest are working hard to support this work.

Pastors and churches are busy cheering on kids, encouraging teachers and principals and superintendents. We also try to convince politicians of the error of their ways, and when they persist in their perdition, we work to elect new ones who will make good on the promise to all our kids.

You ought to have a chapter in your state too. We can help you. Talk to Suzii or me afterward, or email Charlie.

Here’s the thing: 400 years is long enough, dear Lord! The children of Angela must ever be before our eyes and in our hearts, because they are God’s children and our sisters and brothers. All children’s lives matter only if black children’s lives matter. And one way we can prove we believe that is to make sure the public in the public education system means all the public.

Pray for us, and join us.