Opinion and Viewpoint

FULGHAM: Beyond the public school culture wars

April 5, 2014

viewpoint-nicole-bake-fulgham“Shouldn’t Christians be doing more to push prayer in public schools or fight against curriculum that is antithetical to Christian values?”

It’s a question—or at least a version of a question—that I often get in my work here in Indianapolis and around the country, mobilizing people of faith to help close the academic achievement gap in America’s public schools.

Sadly, it’s also a question that exemplifies what many have come to expect when Christians engage in national debates about public education. Some stereotypes have been driven by the cable news conflict machine, but too many of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ have also helped fuel them, choosing culture warring over a different type of engagement that seeks after the welfare of children in our public schools.

Meanwhile, millions of God’s children are falling behind—especially children of color—languishing in a state of academic neglect that falls short of our best values and threatens America’s future.

As a Christian, an African-American woman, a former educator and parent of school-age children, I believe it’s time to begin engaging public schools in ways that help ensure all children reach their God-given potential.

The Bible teaches that all people are created in the image of God and are therefore of immeasurable and equal worth in the eyes of their Creator. The Gospels call on Christians to love their neighbor as themselves, especially their neighbors who happen to be poor. Throughout the Scriptures, we find moral imperatives to structure society in a way that allows all people to thrive, and confront unjust policies that rob people of their dignity and worth.

Although I understand the concerns of many Christians about what gets taught in our public schools, sometimes I wonder why it often seems like we spend more time focused on fighting the teachings of Charles Darwin than on living out the teachings of the Bible and Jesus Christ: love of God and love of neighbor.

The good news is that this culture war narrative isn’t the whole story, especially among a new generation of Christians. Across America, communities of faith are engaging with public schools in constructive ways. From starting after-school tutoring programs and providing free meals when school isn’t in session, to advocating at the Statehouse policies to help close the achievement gap, Christians are making a difference for the kids who need it most—and shedding the culture war image in the process.

New data from the Barna Group reveal that 95 percent of Christian pastors and 85 percent of Christians think they should get more involved in improving public schools. The same study showed that 66 percent of Americans believe faith-based groups should be given more opportunities—not fewer—to help support local public schools.

In Indianapolis in February, Light of the World Christian Church, a predominantly African-American megachurch, invited five Marion County public school superintendents to meet with parents and community members to discuss education. The event, organized with The Expectations Project and The Mind Trust, is a great example of what’s possible when churches, community organizations, parents and schools come together on behalf of kids.

Imagine what might happen if more churches followed this example—being good neighbors rather than culture warriors—and if the media was more interested in telling these stories than fanning the flames. It could change the face of public education.•

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Fulgham is founder and president of Washington, D.C.-based The Expectations Project and author of “Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids.” Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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