Voices: Public education as a truly conservative Texas value

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Texas political rhetoric often calls for reclaiming and preserving the American founders’ original intentions for our nation. This rock-ribbed conservatism is at the core of our spirit as Texans.

Charles Foster Johnson 150Charles Foster JohnsonYet, perplexingly, some Texas politicians today continue to attack one of the most successful bedrocks of American culture, democracy and our economy—our public education system.

In 1785, John Adams said: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

Clearly, this founding father of our Republic saw public education as central to our social contract and fundamental to the provision of the common good.

TBV stackedConstitutional mandate

Accordingly, the Texas State Constitution ensures public education for all children in Article 7, Section 1: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

True conservatives rally around our neighborhood and community public schools as the primary vehicles for perpetuating civil society, strengthening our economy and ensuring our continued leadership in the world. This is why our Texas pastors overwhelmingly support them.

Public education advances conservative values through early investments to give every student a fair shot and the tools needed to pursue a more prosperous, self-sufficient future. These investments reap significant long-term economic dividends and savings because they produce fewer societal problems, benefiting all Texans.

Furthermore, public schools are filled with many people of faith. These teachers, principals and school staff bow their heads in our houses of worship with us, serve and fellowship alongside us, and model their faith in schools and classrooms. Indeed, public school educators fill our congregations.

Absolute and total obligation

As a state, we have an absolute and total obligation to our children. Not just the few. Not just the privileged. Not just our own. All Texas children. This is the only way “the Texas miracle” can live on.

Ninety percent of Texas children are educated in public schools. The lion’s share of our focus should return to strengthening the only institution equipped to embrace and educate every child.

Voucher and privatization programs that divert public dollars to private entities without accountability, however much they are cloaked in the deceptive language of “school choice,” are not the answer to our educational challenges. Texans clearly do not want to see their tax dollars underwriting the private education of affluent people.

Care for the most vulnerable

More than 60 percent of Texas schoolchildren are identified as economically disadvantaged. Public schools cannot be expected to overcome the challenges created by rising poverty, especially when they are educating more students with less money. The last thing these neighborhoods need is to be stripped of their remaining vitality.

Texas ranks near the bottom in per-pupil spending nationwide. In 2011, devastating funding cuts forced school districts to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and reduce pre-kindergarten programs. In 2013, Texas legislators restored only a portion of the cuts—about 60 percent—leaving a gaping deficit in education funding. In 2015, schools also had to accommodate for student growth, totaling 300,000 more students than in 2011. 

Now it is 2017, and here we go again with the misguided and cynical attempt to privatize this foundational public trust. 

Time for rededication

Let us rededicate ourselves to our Texas children in our public education system. Rather than again debating controversial, unproven policies that further impair our public schools, let us reclaim our collective will to pursue proposals that give our schools the support they need to prepare our children adequately for the economy they will inherit and create.

People of faith all over Texas are rallying to this call. Our close friends in the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Christian Life Commission are at the lead in this movement.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Our neighborhood and community schools obey this command each and every day.

Charles Foster Johnson is pastor of Bread Fellowship in Fort Worth and executive director of Pastors for Texas Children.

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