Schools: Remarks on Vouchers, Mandatory Prayer, and “Godlessness”

June 13, 1999


Schools: Remarks on Vouchers,
Mandatory Prayer, and “Godlessness”

I have often wished we knew more about some of the women who became disciples and helped support the ministry of Jesus because I’d like to discover that they weren’t quite as thickheaded as those blue-collar guys who left their fishing jobs to join his religious revolution but never quite understood what it was all about. Among other failures, they thought the spiritual kingdom Jesus hoped for would be like any other kingdom, with rulers at the top and servants at the bottom. On one occasion, when they asked about the prestige factor in his kingdom, Jesus tried to simplify it for them.
Noticing a child nearby, he put the child in front of his disciples, and told them they had it all backwards: that the greatest in his kingdom would be those who were as unconcerned about power and importance as the child — and that unless they changed to be more like that child, they would never become part of the kingdom at all. He went on to say — with surprising irritation — that those causing such a child to stumble would be better off drowned in the deep blue sea with a large millstone tied around their necks ! Sometimes, when I look at how we shortchange children, I’m not sure there are enough millstones to go around.
I’m not thinking right now about the sensational crimes committed against children: the ones killed by drunken drivers, or sexually abused, or violently beaten, or robbed of self-respect by lack of love and caring. I have in mind something that could be more easily remedied than any of those things — our failure to be as intelligent and generous about their education as we are about all sorts of other things. This morning I’m fulfilling a promise to some teachers in this room that I would make some comments about what has become an unrelenting assault on public grade schools and high schools. I think, for instance, of how unwilling we are to create better learning environments in public schools. My friend Carl reads the Wall Street Journal in a plush, air-conditioned office, but votes against a small tax increase that would cool those squirming sweaty little bodies on hot Kansas days. My friend Linda assures me that classroom air conditioning is a bad idea, but will not drive ten blocks in late August without cooling her car. Loyal churchmembers praise Jesus for telling us to treat children well, but only if it hey don’t have to pay for it. For example, a recent four-year study in Tennessee indicates remarkable gains by kids who enjoy smaller class sizes in the lower grades — a conclusion not likely to come as a surprise to any of you who have ever tried to teach — but it would cost money we’d rather put somewhere else.
We pay constant lipservice, of course, to the notion of improving public school education, but while our mouths say“Yes,” our hands clamp down on our pocketbooks. And yes, I’m a minister of the gospel talking about schools this morning because I think that unless we wish to commit national suicide we’d better sacrifice to make schools better — in the same way we sacrifice to keep ourselves safe from terrorism. I have never understood how to separate religion from life, so for me the sermon this morning is as appropriate for the pulpit as one about Jonah and the whale, or the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Religion is not confined to a hermetically sealed box. It penetrates all of life….and especially the lives of our chldren, whom Jesus took his all-too-brief and precious time to bless when mothers brought them into his presence. And since few things more profoundly affect our children than our policies about schools, I’m asking you to think about some of those policies for a few minutes.
I have serious doubts about voucher systems which would have government taxing all of us for the sake of some who want their children in private secular or religious schools. I believe that a good public school system is essential for a successful democracy, so my plea would be for serious and sustained efforts at improving that system. This is not because I am opposed to private schools or to parents who want them enough to pay for them. I have a grandson whose parents are sacrificing to enroll him in an expensive secular private school. I defend their right to do so — at their own expense. You should not have to pay for their choice. My wife and I once thought a son would be better off in a private Catholic high school, so we paid for that for one year when local high schools were in turmoil. We had been assured there would be no official pressure for our son to convert, but we discovered that a prevailing atmosphere and peer pressure can make one feel an outsider who does not belong to the majority faith. So as it turned out with this particular school, we made a mistake, but the cost was ours and not yours — which seems only right to me. No one should have to support with tax dollars a school teaching religious views with which he disagrees. I will be frank. I am convinced that many in the Christian Far Right would be happy to destroy the public school system in this country if they could see it replaced by tax-supported private schools where their dogmatic approach to religion could saturate student life — an activity I have no interest in funding.
I have been reading about voucher proposals, and filing away the arguments and counter-arguments for years, and they give rise to all sorts of questions. Private schools are not likely to welcome government regulation, but it’s hard to believe that wouldn’t come. Will private schools really want to open their admissions policies after years of being highly selective? Will they welcome disclosing their financial records to state or federal scrutiny? Will they be comfortable with state-required testing to see how well they are doing? According to recent polls, the public overwhelmingly agrees that private or church-related schools that accept government tuition payments should be accountable to the state in the way public schools are accountable, that they should be required to meet basic standards in curriculum and teacher qualification areas, and that they should not discriminate in admissions on the basis of race. Given such mandates, will private schools really be happy with vouchers?
In those recent polls, 83% oppose discrimination on the basis of religion. Can you imagine the lawsuits that would come as some of the “outsider” voucher students convinced their parents they were being mistreated because they didn’t belong to the right denominaiton? I know something of denominational loyalties in the church of my childhood, and I can tell you that in their private schools the religious bias came through in all sorts of ways: student peer pressure, faculty who were hired because they belonged to the sponsoring church, approaches taken in the teaching of philosophy, religion and science classes. After all, in a school with strong denominational loyalties, failure to indoctrinate students strikes at the whole reason for their existence. I gladly grant them the freedom to have such schools, and run them as they please, but I do not believe in supporting them with public tax money.
Opponents of a voucher system wonder if it would not lead to even more elementary and secondary private schools run by Congregationalists, Lutherans, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Unitarians, Buddhists, the Nation of Islam, and more? They ask, Do o we really want that kind of separated education for kids from age 6 to age 18? Talk about a fragmented culture! One lesson kids learn in public school is how to live with people of many different races, religions, and economic status. A widespread voucher system could well lead to even more elitism than we already have. I think we might better serve the democratic ideals of this country if we mounted a massive campaign to improve our public schools — make them stronger, safer, more challenging, and more accountable.
The sad thing is that public schools get an unfair amount of criticism for lowered moral and ethical behavior on the part of our children. I will not win a popularity prize for this, but I put far more of the blame on parents who have abdicated their responsibility. Parents, if they tend to their business, have more influence than anyone on their children, but too many of them turn over parenting to the school or the church because it’s a demanding job and they prefer to be busy with other things. And if anyone forgets for a moment the influence of the entertainment industry on children, all it takes to remedy that memory loss is a few days in an 8th grade classroom where dress and talk and moral attitudes reflect what the kids watch on TV and in the movies.
Against those odds, the public school fights an incredible uphill battle and deserves far more credit — and help — than we give them. It is foolish for the 700 Club’s Pat Robertson to say massacres like the one in Littleton, Colorado could be prevented if only the Lord’s Prayer were recited on demand every morning. The fact is that any student can say that prayer on her own a dozen times a day, and can choose from a list of permissible religious activities like the ones that were available at Columbine High School. What the Rev. Robertson really wants, of course, is a tax-supported and mandatory Christian ritual in schools whose students may be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or well-behaved atheist.
And do you not find insistence on public prayer odd, when Jesus counseled finding a very private place and praying in secret — presumably as a way of avoiding hypocrisy and distractions? And mandatory? Do you really and truly believe that a bunch of kids going through the motions of an obligatory prayer, dulled by repetition and treated with contempt by some of their friends, will be made deeply religous? I think not, unless their parents and their churches have already influenced them so deeply that even a mechanical prayer can remind them of what they are.
People who accuse public schools of being godless and irreligious, are either showing their ignorance or propagating deliberate falsehoods. A public school teacher in Oklahoma responds passionately to a newspaper editorial about the “godless” public schools. He says that even if we think that it’s only Christians who are truly religious, there are thousands of them who teach and administer in public schools and prove their faith not by preaching but by what they do. Many begin their day of work with moments of private prayer, and if it is true, as Jesus said, that we know people by what they do more than by what they say, there is plenty of witness in public schools to the God of love and compassion.
I know for a fact that teachers regularly identify students who have special needs, whether it be food or clothing or toys, and that they often supply those needs with their own money and time. Loving attention and kindness are given every day to young lives who may not get either one at home. After the tornado in Oklahoma City, teachers helped purchase backpacks filled with school supplies for hundreds of students who lost their school in the storm. My wife was not unique in caring about lonely and unloved kids in her classroom. She found ways of being sure that the most disliked or ignored kid in class got valentines and gifts from secret admirers, even if she had to buy them and send them herself. I used to tease her that she spent more on the kids than she was paid to teach them, and there are thousands and thousands of public school teachers as committed as she was.
Are public schools perfect? No. Are all teachers saints? No. But we are wrong and mean-spirited to run them down constantly without recognizing the dedication of the vast majority and the good they have done.