School Equality as a Matter of Faith
How Christians can do justice to public education
by Nicole Baker Fulgham and Aria Kirkland-Harris
"I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one." Ezekiel 22:30
Despite the fact that our nation officially ended racial segregation in public education nearly 60 years ago with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, we still have two very separate and unequal school systems in our nation.
The authors of this article are two examples of public school done right. We are both African American women of faith who grew up in stable, two-parent households. Our parents were able to pursue higher education, and those values were instilled in us from an early age. We had teachers who warned our parents about underperforming neighborhood schools, and our parents figured out how to navigate the system and got us into stronger schools in other neighborhoods. We went to magnet middle and high schools with competitive AP courses, STEM, and International Baccalaureate programs. With the help, love, and support of our parents, teachers, and church families, we were able to parlay our public school educations into Ivy League educations and doctoral degrees.
But the cold truth is that the educational opportunities that were afforded us are neither typical nor characteristic of the experiences that most African American and Latino children have in our nation's public schools, especially if they are living in low-income communities.
When we became public school teachers (in Southern California and DC), we were hit hard by the reality that common race does not necessarily mean common experience. We had race in common with our students, but we had had educational opportunities that set us apart, and that realization was a big awakening. Our students were schooled in substandard facilities—broken windows that were never repaired, rotten floorboards that had been chewed up by mice and termites, restroom facilities that prompted parents to call the health department, torn and tattered textbooks, food that was sometimes spoiled and moldy, and the list goes on. Those are the hurdles that we faced as teachers coming out of the gate, before we even started to think about instruction or the challenges that our students faced outside of the school walls. Many hardworking, dedicated teachers and leaders in our school buildings have learned how to make do with less, but 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, they shouldn't have to.
Income and outcomes
Now, before we go any further, we want to make it clear that we stand firm on the position that we cannot allow poverty to lower our expectations for students, but at the same time we cannot ignore the impact that it has on educational outcomes. By the time they reach fourth grade, students from low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their wealthier peers. That means that there are 10-year-olds reading on a first-grade level. And while their wealthier peers are working with complex fractions, these same kids are still learning to count and struggling with basic addition. This disparity only worsens over time. Half of students living in poverty will not graduate from high school, and the ones that do make it are graduating with eighth-grade skills. Out of that 50 percent who do graduate from high school, only one in 10 will go on to graduate from a four-year college or university. We cannot afford to ignore these issues.
The set of statistics and inequalities that we just laid out are collectively referred to as "the achievement gap" or "educational inequity." In its most technical sense, the achievement gap refers to the persistent disparity in educational outcomes (or test scores) between different subgroups of students, particularly those defined by gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. But the inequalities go much deeper than standardized test scores. Some describe it as an "opportunity gap," bringing attention to the difference between a child's potential and her actual achievement. Others describe the gap in terms of having "low expectations" for students in poverty and believe that there is widespread acceptance of mediocrity in how we value our nation's most vulnerable children.
However you choose to define the achievement gap, these gross educational disparities are at the core of our nation's struggle to provide pathways out of poverty, and we must do something to change them. Since a quality education helps open the doors of opportunity for children to engage fully in a civic, academic, and purpose-filled life, what is our role and responsibility as people of faith in eliminating educational inequity? How can we close the achievement gap to ensure that all God's children receive a high quality education?
This is the lifeblood of our work at The Expectations Project, and, more importantly, it is the hope of the gospel. We believe that the same God who specializes in making old things new, the One whose strength is made perfect in our weakness (and our lack of answers), the God who loves justice and commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, can and will heal our broken education system. We believe that if more faith-motivated people will commit to this work of closing the achievement gap, we can shift the paradigm and transform the way the education community thinks about reform.
The challenge of privilege
As is often true with social challenges, the decision makers in the education reform space who influence policy do not overwhelmingly reflect the backgrounds of the individuals most in need of transformational change and equality. At first glance, it may seem as though most of us do not fit the description of education leaders and influencers. After all, only a few privileged individuals possess that level of power. But if we dig a little bit deeper, we will find that these decision-making privileges also exist in the day-to-day interactions between those who exercise an ability to influence systems, to whatever degree possible, and those who do not. Within the context of education, privilege boils down to opportunity and choice. That means that if you had the advantage of attending a high-performing school, based on zip code, rather than an underperforming school, then you are privileged. If your child has the option to enroll in honors, AP, or gifted classes, when plenty of schools do not offer these options, you are privileged. These are wonderful options that all children should have, and parents should not feel guilty about doing whatever they can to make these opportunities a reality for their children. But as Christians, we are commanded to love our neighbors (and their children) as ourselves, so shouldn't we be fighting for all children to have these opportunities?
This question seems like a no-brainer, but navigating these challenges of limited opportunity and choice has proven to be a momentous challenge for everyone involved—privileged or not. However, if the group of education decision makers in the room is made up exclusively of those who have educational, racial, or economic privilege, can we really expect to come up with solutions that will be acceptable and fair for all? If we are going to do this work right, we must reflect on our own experiences with privilege and be honest about how those experiences affect the ways in which we engage others. We must acknowledge our privileged educational circumstances, be truthful about our desire to have what's best for own children, and then humbly and fearlessly use our power, privilege, and influence to extend the same opportunities to others.
Every faith tradition argues for working on behalf of the disenfranchised, and as Christians we are called to "speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute" (Prov. 31:8). Scriptures like this one, along with the opening passage, from Ezekiel 22:30, remind us that our God is looking for intercessors. The education sector calls it advocacy, but when you look closely, advocacy and intercession are really the same thing. We hope to settle disagreements between opposing sides. We defend those who cannot, for whatever reason, defend themselves. We have all been called to stand in this gap.
The same God whose strength is made perfect in our weakness, the God who loves justice and commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, can and will heal our broken education system. If more faith-motivated people will commit to closing the achievement gap, we can shift the paradigm and transform the way the education community thinks about reform.
Educational advocacy organizations are constantly trying to figure out how to authentically and respectfully engage members of communities that have been failed by the public education system. If we want to fix this broken education system, the voices and perspectives of those who are impacted by poverty must be included in the policy- and decision-making processes. It's one thing to reach out to a group of low-income families and tell them about our idea for change, but it will largely remain at the surface level. A more effective and sincere approach would be to truly seek out ideas from those same families and be willing to change our own perspectives based on what we hear and learn from them. That mindset and action will help us dismantle our own privilege and will more likely yield true community support for sustainable solutions. Consensus building may be messy and take longer, but we believe it's a more authentic, faith-filled approach that genuinely values everyone. This is no easy task, so it must be done with a spirit of humility, civility, and desire for reconciliation.
Christian civility in the debate
The question about civility's role in the education space is complex, but it doesn't have to be. It has proven to be one of the biggest challenges in education reform. At its best, civility helps newcomers feel welcomed in unknown spaces, something that is desperately needed by our disenfranchised families. Feeling at ease in a new place is a blessing and helps us to open up and share our thoughts and ideas with others, and that is what authentic community engagement requires. But at its worst, civility can lack respect and the sincerity of heart that true collaboration and open dialogue require. Far too often, "being civil" is used to describe how we behave with people we don't care for and prefer not to spend time with; we use empty courtesies that mask disdain or disapproval. Unfortunately, the latter is often seen in public education debates. This work is hard, even painstaking at times, and progress requires strong commitment, conviction, and a willingness to compromise. Christians have a tremendous opportunity to make an impact in this space of need.
Once individual participants in the education reform space have achieved genuine civility, we must open a new dialogue and invest the time and care that it takes to develop authentic relationships. If we can forgive past hurts, put disagreements aside, and focus on our shared belief that all children deserve the best education that our world has to offer them, then we will have a real shot at fixing this broken system.
Putting faith into action
The Expectations Project has as its sole mission to mobilize and equip people of faith to help eliminate inequity in public education. We wrestle every day with the notions of privilege and authentic community engagement, and we are deeply committed to operating in a way that will help children in our most disenfranchised communities—and to holding ourselves accountable to doing the work in a way that reflects our faith.
We have been given amazing opportunities to support faith leaders and congregations who want to help our nation's public schools. We are partnering with national denominations and faith-based organizations to educate their members about the massive inequities in public schools, and we are encouraging them to get involved at the local level. In Indianapolis, our faith leaders are working with area superintendents and parents to ensure that all of their city's children have access to exceptional early childhood education. In Washington, DC, we have a growing network of clergy who are partnering with neighborhood schools and are supporting efforts to educate and empower parents to advocate for educational equity. Growing networks of local pastors want to ensure that teachers in their local schools are trained and supported so they can do the herculean work of closing achievement gaps.
It's an exciting time to be involved in this work! It can be hard, messy, and complex, but we learn as we go, and it is glorious. There is much work to be done, and we need your help. Consider getting involved in educational change. Get started today by checking out "Five Things Every Christian Can Do—Right Now—to Help Close the Achievement Gap" on this page.
As people of faith, we serve a God who will help us reflect on our own privilege, reconcile caustic debates, and operate in a way that truly engages communities and changes the game for kids. Together, we can help change educational outcomes for this generation and for many more to come.
The Expectations Project partners with faith-motivated individuals, leaders, congregations, and organizations to develop local and national campaigns that help enact transformational change for low-income public schools. They strategize with, equip, and support their faith community partners by developing media campaigns, influencing local and national decision makers, and mobilizing people of faith to take action on key education issues. Learn more at TheExpectationsProject.org.
Nicole Baker Fulgham is the founder and president of The Expectations Project and is the author of Educating All God's Children: What Christians Can–and Should–Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids.
Aria Kirkland-Harris is a child advocate, educator, and intercessor. As a former elementary school teacher in Washington, DC, she came face-to-face with the achievement gap and eventually decided to explore and implement community-based approaches to school turnaround.