Public Schools and the Kingdom of God
Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education nominee, is a strong advocate of religious, private, and charter schools, who herself has no professional experience in education. She is clearly an unconventional choice for the post. Beyond her credentials, much has been made of DeVos's religious commitments and her own education in the Dutch Reformed Private School system. It is unsurprising that her religious commitments are a cause for concern for secular groups—but apprehension over DeVos's appointment is not and should not be limited to them. Public education is a good that Christians must work for not in spite of their faith, but because of it.
Before I go on, I have a confession to make: I am a product of the same Dutch Reformed Christian private school system that produced Betsy DeVos and to which she’s donated millions of dollars. I taught in one of their institutions of higher education. Because I’m praying she doesn’t get confirmed by the Senate, you might be expecting me to disparage the educational system I grew up in. Too often, evangelical schools like the one I attended from preschool to high school are portrayed as academically unsatisfying, scientifically illiterate, or in some other way stereotypically detrimental—especially to a brown skinned immigrant kid with a big mouth and a progressive bent like myself.
While I know that my experience may not have been universal, I was personally cared for, nurtured, and provided with excellent academic preparation. My school community was so tight-knit that when my father was unlawfully deported because of an INS mistake, the school superintendent found a community donor to pay the already subsidized tuition for my sister and I. The people I met there are some of my greatest friends and advocates. I even married the daughter of the school board president, who turned out to be, without equivocation, the very model of a brilliantly successful career woman, community servant, wife, and mother. Despite all this, when it came time to put our own son in school this last year, we sent him to the Chicago public school six blocks from our home on the South Side.
It wasn’t an easy choice. We flourished in Christian school. Family pressure abounded. Because of the large age gaps in both of our families, our parents will, by the time all the kids are through, have paid hefty private school tuition for over 60 combined years. For my family especially, sending us to private school was an incredibly brave sacrifice. So why did my wife and I, both successful products of private Christian school, send our son to public school?
Like our parents before us, my wife and I will always sacrifice in order to give our son what we feel is best for his development. But while we credit our private school education with shaping us, we see an incredible value in public education. We see this not only with an eye to our son’s individual development, but also in terms of the strength of the society in which he grows up; the society that will shape him and that he will have the opportunity to shape in turn. I’m not saying that public schools are an inherently better choice than a private school or privately funded charter school for all families, but the reality is that for many in our great nation, public school may be the only choice.
For-profit charter schools especially, like those that comprise 80% of the charters in DeVos's home state of Michigan, by their very raison d'être, seem to have incentive to take and retain only students who meet educational targets. Students for whom circumstances make school success more challenging or for those students whose talents lie outside academics, outcome driven school access may close the door to the charter school alternative. An increased emphasis on private schools and charter schools means that educational access will be limited disproportionally for those who are the most vulnerable in our society. Thus our schools, our society, and even the Christian faith itself are worse off if public education isn’t given priority.
To be fair, my private school made a good faith effort to instill compassion for the marginalized. Giving voice to the voiceless was something emphasized both in the classroom and in the special activities and chapels that the school sponsored. But the problem is that this perpetuates the lie that the vulnerable do not have a voice. Nor is exposure to groups and individuals different than one’s self a substitute for living in common life with them and tying your well-being to theirs. It makes it so that even if the spirit is willing, the flesh is just too weak to see what must be done.
Scripture itself tells us that true religion is to do justice to those who are most vulnerable, a characteristic that seems to so often correlate with those who are the most different from mainstream culture. God requires us furthermore to walk humbly enough to recognize that not only are they dependent on us, but that our lives and the fullness of our faith is dependent on them. The Pauline analogy of the body which he applies to the Church is equally applicable to the nation-state. We are one body and the hand cannot say to the foot, “I do not need you.” The Bible makes no exceptions for whether we perceive the foot to be lame, the hand to be weak, or the eye to gaze on a perspective with which we do not agree. We are one body politic and education is the lifeblood that animates us. The public school then is the beating heart at the center of our society.
Betsy DeVos once lamented that the public school has usurped the place of the church as the center of the community. In her eyes school choice initiatives play a role in swinging the pendulum of community back to the church and, in her own words, “advancing the Kingdom of God.” But it’s important to note that the Church as an institution has never been the great democratic equalizer in practice. There has always been some holy hierarchy, whether that be the division between the inner and outer courtyards or the cushioned seats with kneelers and the stone floor. Too often the church and the church school have failed to live up to the vision of the kingdom of God. My Dutch Reformed school did not admit African American students until 1967, a full 13 years after Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregation illegal. In John’s vision of the Kingdom of God, the lion lies down with the lamb. Every nation, tribe, tongue, the rich, and the poor gather not in some whitewashed prelapsarian suburban garden, but rather in a bustling, diverse, and vibrant city. I have seen with my own eyes how powerful the public school can be in ushering in that Kingdom on earth.
When my son turned four, he asked his mom and I if we could invite his entire class to his birthday party. We did. On that Saturday afternoon an Asian student, a Latin American undocumented citizen, a white administrator at one of the world’s elite universities, a white single mom, a black railroad conductor trainee who was just starting his first job after a period of unemployment, and a bunch of regular old suburban folks broke bread together. We watched our children play games led by a black man who is 6’2” and 215 pounds of solid muscle. We needed no angels, or trumpets, or breaking seals to usher in the Kingdom of God that day. All we needed was the public school.