Stephen Owens is an evangelical Christian who has thought deeply about the importance of public schools in our society. He has a Ph.D. In education policy from the University of Georgia and is Director of Education at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. His blog is called “Common Grace, Common Schools.”

Let’s begin my argument for public schooling by making the familiar strange. There are aspects of public schooling that you do not see in any other facet of American life that need to be evaluated to better understand the institution’s value. Our familiarity with them takes away their novelty, but they are unique nonetheless. I think of us like a child who has Kelly Clarkson as an aunt. Just because she thinks of the singer as “Aunt Kelly” doesn’t mean we all have aunts who can sing like an angel.

Not only are parts of American public schooling unique, but reflect central tenets of the Christian faith. I want to explore three of them in the next few posts: inclusion, equity and accountability.

To put it concisely: I believe in the American cultural and political environment the public school is best situated to offer the highest quality service for all and, most specifically, the poor. I believe this is known, in my faith tradition, as common grace.

Now when I say the “poor” I’m not just talking about those who have more needs than resources, but a more generalized group of people that, for one reason or another, have structural obstacles to academic success. Students with disabilities and children who speak a language other than English at home are two perfect examples. Further, I don’t mean to imply that the state of a family’s bank account should be conflated with a child’s worth. Being “poor” in this sense cannot mean a person has less intrinsic value. The poor in this blog instead denotes a looser title for those children for which a neutral bystander might say, “good for them!” if the child were to perform a task common to the ruling class such as graduating from college.

I believe public schools are most valuable as a tool to lessen human suffering on the poor–one of the primary, and possibly only, ends of good governance—but that is not to say that its benefits end with this group. In fact, with few exceptions, I’m convinced that public schools are a service that have shown to support allpeople groups in our country. Foundational to this belief is the fact that public schools are required to provide services to every single child that arrives.

Inclusion. Public schools (in their current state) are for everyone. The road to the schools I attended in the 90s is paved with hard-fought legal protections for children that the majority culture would rather not teach. Throughout American history school leaders had to be forced to educate women, immigrants, Black people, students with disabilities and undocumented students via government compulsion. Each of these groups had to wait for laws to be changed to gain the advantages that white, rich, Protestant males shared since before our country was founded. This is not ancient history. My mom was a junior in high school when disabled kids got the right to a public education (1975). Undocumented children were guaranteed the same right two years before I was born (1982).

Inclusion, at least by this definition, has required blood, sweat and tears. It would be foolish to assume that inclusion is natural. In fact, inclusion is so unnatural to the way we consider schooling that its inverse remains a feature of excellence in the public mind. Consider elite schools’ relationship to exclusion: the ability to reject applicants based on test scores or income signals quality in a way that other schools could never replicate with performance alone. Post-secondary education is our best example here. Rejection rates for the Ivy Leagues not only “prove” their superiority but create it. For how could Harvard do poorly as a school if they’re allowed to choose to only educate the top seven percent of all those that apply?

It is only the common, or public, school which is left to teach all who enter her doors and, once inside, compelled to provide basic opportunities to each by threat of legal action. Inclusion, since it has been won, can be demanded.

Here I need to be explicit: inclusion is a good thing. Too often advocates for public schools treat inclusion as a burden to bear—“we can’t turn away students like private schools…”—instead of their greatest strength. Inclusion at some level acknowledges dignity in every person; Christians ought to be familiar with the concept via imago dei (the image of God). Early in Genesis the reader learns that God created humans in His image, bearing His likeness. Theologians have explained this concept differentiates humans from any other created thing by our spiritual/moral/missional similarity to the Creator. There is nothing that can remove this distinction, so every person you and I have ever met “looks” like God in some form. I’m convinced that this concept should be celebrated as the starting place for who is allowed where.

Now consider: where else is this the case? Think about your daily life, what physical spaces are compelled to not only accept everyone, but to give them foundational services? The other day a family came into a coffee shop where I was working and just sat. I will admit to being surprised. They didn’t buy anything, just sat on a couch near me while the kids looked at their iPads. I’m so used to private spaces that I did not think those people belonged until they bought something. This belief did not come out of thin air, many of the places that we imagine as public are only available if we have money, genius, status or some other item to trade. Outside of government programs (public parks, public transit, etc.) it’s hard to imagine a comparable institution to public schools besides hospitals. While I believe there are several similarities between schools and hospitals (nurses and teachers have long seen commonalities between how they are treated, for example), two major differences are apparent: 1) hospitals don’t exist in many rural communities and 2) no one has gone into debt because of the services provided by public schools.

I am, as I hope I’ve made clear up to this point, big on inclusion. But what are the public schools forced to include all children to? What occurs in the inner circle that has for generations been open only to the few? The generally-accepted answer to this question, and more broadly the question of “what is the purpose of education” usually falls into two categories–socialization and skill acquisition. When I describe the need for public schools to include all people it is with the latter purpose in mind. Poor children have been historically kept from learning the skills that are needed to earn living wages. A strong school system can help ensure higher wages, better health outcomes and decreased likelihood of entering the criminal justice system. On the path to living wages (and therefore less human suffering) there are few hurdles higher than failing to graduate high school and college.

The need for public education, and the majority-culture’s attempt to restrict it to the few, has a long history in our country. Tunis Campbell, the father of public education in Georgia, recognized a strong education as necessary to support formerly-enslaved people in post-Civil War Georgia. Without the ability to read, Campbell knew that freed men would continue to be subject to, among other racist practices, predatory labor contracts. Rev. Campbell spent the years following Sherman’s march setting up schools for freed people and is as responsible as any person for the state constitution’s inclusion of a right to public education for all children. He believed education sat alongside land ownership, a just court system and community service as necessary keys to a good life for Black Georgians.

Bringing it back to the present, I will put socialization to the side for now and will describe how the very nature of common schools supports poor families more than their richer neighbors. There are many facets of public schooling which we take for granted but that are frankly unbelievable. Every morning a transit system crawls cities, towns and rural counties to pick up any child that arrives to the stop on time and take them to their school. This service is provided at no additional cost to the child’s family whether they live one mile from the building or 30. In a country that tends to require the ownership and maintenance of a personal-transport vessel as the price for admission to society, the school bus itself is a marvel. It’s far from the only one. Health care, multiple meals and career guidance are all things that richer families can pay for but are often out of reach for the poor. In the public school each (via school health clinics, free food and school counseling) are provided part and parcel to poor public school children. If any one of these services were not already a part of schooling in America, it is impossible to imagine them being created and, more importantly, paid for with public funds. It is services like these that do not neatly fit into a definition of schooling but have become a pivotal safety net for struggling families in our nation. To ignore the role of public schools as welfare is convenient but unhelpful.

To ignore the role of public schools as welfare is convenient but unhelpful.

I’d go as far as to say that the true measure of a school is their support for the poor. The brutal truth of schooling in the U.S. is that parental income is strongly predictive of educational outcomes. While we like to imagine a true meritocracy, the real difference is whether your parents have enough money to provide 1) security (food and housing), 2) accountability, 3) targeted support and 4) social capital. So, any time I come across the “conventional wisdom” of the superiority of private schools it sounds like someone bragging that Georgia beat Vanderbilt in football. Duh: Kirby and…whomever is coaching Vandy… are dealing with two qualitatively different pools of players. If we’re really going to provide the measure of a school, look to the services provided to those that the Bible refers to as “the least of these.”

When you compare the test performance of wealthy Americans to other nations it’s clear we are on par with, or outperforming, every other country in the world. What makes our system “mediocre” is our treatment of poor children. Generations of white supremacist policies have ensured that wealth is concentrated in white families. So, the limitations of our public school system cannot be separated from our nation’s original sin. The good news is that income does not have to equal destiny. Research has shown that investment in public schools can and does level the playing field, but the investments have to go to the schools and/or children that need them the most. Another word for this is equity. I will write about equity in the next post.