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Book of Resolutions: United States Public Education and the Church

I. Historic Church Support for Public Education

In the past, The United Methodist Church has issued statements supportive of public education. At a time when public education has become a political battleground, the church is called to remember, first and foremost, the well-being of all God’s children. Education is a right of all children and is affirmed by Scripture which calls us to “train children in the way they should go” (Proverbs 22:6). Furthermore, the Social Principles affirm that education “can best be fulfilled through public policies that ensure access for all persons to free public elementary and secondary schools and to post-secondary schools of their choice” (¶ 164E).

The public school is the primary route through which most children enter into full participation in our economic, political, and community life. As a consequence of inequities in our society, we have a moral responsibility to support, strengthen, and reform public schools. They have been, and continue to be, both an avenue of opportunity and a major cohesive force in our society, especially as society becomes more diverse—racially, culturally, and religiously—almost daily.

Historically, education has been held to contribute to the development of religious faith. To that end, the great figures of the Reformation called for the establishment of schools. Our founder, John Wesley, was dedicated to the education of poor and underprivileged children. The Sunday School Movement of the latter 18th century was an outgrowth of this ministry and largely established a model for access to public education, regardless of social or economic status. Our heritage should lead us to defend the public schools and to rejoice that they nearly reflect our country’s racial, ethnic, and religious diversity now more than ever before.

II. The Larger Social Context

We welcome the fact that many public schools now teach about diversity and the role of religion in human life and history; and we applaud the schools’ efforts to promote those virtues necessary for good citizenship in a pluralistic democracy. These reforms help to accommodate the constitutional rights of all students and their parents. Just as we encourage schools to ensure that all religions are treated with fairness and respect, so we urge parents and others to refrain from the temptation to use public schools to advance the cause of any one religion or ethnic tradition, whether through curriculum or through efforts to attach religious personnel to the public schools. We believe that parents have the right to select home schooling or private or parochial schools for their children. But with that personal right comes an obligation to support quality public education for all children. The long-range solution is to improve all schools so that families will not be forced to seek other educational alternatives.

At a moment when childhood poverty is shamefully widespread, when many families are under constant stress, and when schools are limited by the lack of funds and resources, criticism of the public schools often ignores an essential truth: we cannot improve public schools by concentrating on the schools alone. In this context, we must address with prayerful determination the issues of race and class that threaten both public education and democracy in America.

III. Disparities in High School Graduation Rates

The Social Principles support “the development of school systems and innovative methods of education designed to assist every child toward complete fulfillment as an individual person of worth” (¶ 162C). Unfortunately, many schools in the United States are far from achieving this goal. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012, some 3.1 million public high school students—only 81 percent, graduated on time with a regular diploma. Failure to finish high school with a diploma, with the devastating consequences this has for an individual’s future prospects, is a bitter reality that disproportionately impacts minority youth. Nationally, the highest graduation rates are among Asian/Pacific Islanders (93 percent) followed by Caucasians (85 percent). Graduation rates are substantially lower for other students of all backgrounds: among Hispanics, only 76 percent of student entering the ninth grade graduate four years later, while just 68 percent of African Americans do so, with similar figures for indigenous youth. These high attrition rates have been attributed to both “drop out” and “push out”—students dropping out of school because they find no help or encouragement to overcome challenges, and to low-achieving students being pushed out into alternative programs such as GED to improve a school’s test scores.

These sobering figures clearly indicate that, despite some progress in recent years, schools in the United States are largely failing to equip a large number of students, and a high percentage of minority youth, with the knowledge, understanding, and skills needed for entering college or gainful employment, as well as the exercise of citizenship responsibilities necessary for the survival of a democratic society. These failings are indicative of a crisis that is marginalizing millions of American youth (especially minority youth), consigning them to second-class citizenship, contributing to an erosion of American democracy, and leaving many members of faith communities less equipped to bear witness to issues of justice and peace.

IV. Public Funding Issues

By almost any standard of judgment, the schools our children attend can be described in contradictory terms. Some are academically excellent; others are a virtual disgrace. Some are oases of safety for their students; others are dangerous to student and teacher alike. Some teachers are exceptionally well qualified; others are assigned to areas in which they have little or no expertise. Some school facilities are a fantasy land of modern technology; others are so dilapidated that they impede learning.

The wide disparities among public schools exist largely because schools reflect the affluence and/or the political power of the communities in which they are found. Within virtually every state, there are school districts that lavish on their students three or four times the amount of money spent on other children in the same state. A new phenomenon in our society is “re-segregating of communities” which further diminishes the effectiveness of public schools. Most tellingly, the schools that offer the least to their students are those serving poor children, among which children of color figure disproportionately, as they do in all the shortfalls of our common life. Indeed, the coexistence of neglect of schools and neglect of other aspects of the life of people who are poor makes it clear that no effort to improve education in the United States can ignore the realities of racial and class discrimination in our society as a whole.

We acknowledge the debate over whether public funds might appropriately be used to remedy the lingering effects of racial injustice in our nation’s educational system. We do not purport to resolve our differences over this issue, but we do affirm our conviction that public funds should be used for public purposes. We also caution that government aid to primary and secondary religious schools raises constitutional problems and could undermine the private schools’ independence and/or compromise their religious message.

V. A Call to Action

In view of this crisis and the urgent need to hold our educational system accountable in providing equity in access to a high school education for all students from all social backgrounds, we call upon local, state, and federal education agencies to do the following:

1. Publicly report annual graduation and retention rates by sex, race and ethnicity;

2. Make increasing retention and graduation rates a major focus of educational reform along with equitable distribution of financial and educational resources to all school districts so that they may provide a quality education to all students.

Local churches and all communities of faith must become better informed about the needs of the public schools in their communities and in the country as a whole. Only through adequate information can we defend public education and the democratic heritage which it supports. Full knowledge of our religious and democratic traditions helps us ensure that those elected to school boards are strongly committed to both public education and religious liberty.

Therefore, we call upon local churches, annual conferences, and the general agencies of The United Methodist Church to support public education in the following ways:

1. Establish and nurture partnerships with local public schools such as providing after-school and vacation enrichment programs, adopt-a-school programs, teacher appreciation programs, updated library materials, and parenting enrichment classes.

2. Monitor reform efforts in public schools, including the creation of charter and magnet schools, of schools-within-schools, of full inclusion or appropriate placement of children who are differently-abled, and of classes sized to best serve all children;

3. Prompt local and state authorities to offer students curricula and textbooks that are rich, inviting, and include the following ideas:

  • religion as an essential dimension in the development of civilization;
  • basic character and civic virtues such as honesty, truthfulness, and respect for life and property;
  • the role of the many ethnic, racial, and religious groups in the history and culture of the United States; and
  • quality, age-appropriate comprehensive health education.

4. Reject racial- and gender-biased curricula and testing which limit career options of children and youth;

5. Advocate at the state and local level for adequate public school funding and equitable distribution of state funds; and supporting efforts to end unjust educational disparities between rich and poor communities;

6. Champion strengthened teacher training and enhanced professional development for teachers and administrators. Encourage young people in the church to consider careers in education.

7. Push for universal, early, and quality preschool education for all children.

8. Champion public education as a basic human right; and curb school districts’ reliance on school fund-raising and state-alternative revenues, such as gambling, for financial support.

9. Encourage local churches to provide and/or support local nutritional initiatives, especially when schools are not in session.


See Social Principles, ¶ 162C.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2016. Copyright © 2016 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

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