“First day of school” photos have filled your Facebook and Instagram feeds. School crossing signs are popping up again on your daily commute. It’s back-to-school time. But not all kids are heading into comparable classrooms: There remains a raging debate over the quality—and equality—of public education in America.
In research conducted for the Barna FRAME, Schools in Crisis by Nicole Baker Fulgham, Barna Group asked Americans what they think about the country’s public education: Only 7% of U.S. adults said the public education system in our nation is “very effective.” Nearly half (46%) maintain that public schools have further declined in the last five years. A mere one-third of parents of school-age children (34%) say public schools are their first choice for their children.
How are Americans responding to this crisis in public education? How is the church responding? While many agree something should be done, there are wide-ranging opinions about just what that should be.
What Christians Are Doing
Nearly all Protestant pastors (95%) believe Christians should get involved in helping public schools. To a lesser degree, but still overwhelmingly, more than eight out of 10 churchgoing Christians, across denominations and levels of spiritual devotion, agree that Christians should be involved.
Among practicing Christians, two reasons for involvement in public education reform stand out: 1) the belief that improving public education is important to demonstrate Christian concern for the wider community (34%) and 2) the belief that doing so is part of Christians’ responsibility to help the poor and needy (33%). In many ways, local congregations are already contributing a great deal to the “educational ecosystem.”
Educators. According to Barna polling, nearly half of the nation’s public educators are practicing Christians—people who attend church at least monthly and say their faith is very important in their life. Critics who claim faith has been removed from public schools seem to overlook the countless hours these teachers, counselors, administrators and coaches devote to shaping students.
Volunteers. Practicing Christians are more likely to volunteer for their local public school than are non-Christians. In fact, of those who regularly volunteer at public schools, two-thirds (65%) attend church. Considering that practicing Christians constitute less than half of the national adult population, their significant involvement in education is statistically exceptional.
Churches. Many churches in America provide support and volunteers for public schools. For example, almost half of the nation’s churches offer support and networking for educators who attend their church. About one-quarter of churches offer some kind of mentoring or after-school program for kids or youth. And about two-fifths of youth pastors say they frequently discuss college decisions with students.
What Holds People Back
What holds people back from helping more—particularly those who aren’t parents or who aren’t actively working for schools or churches? Americans feel prevented from involvement in public school improvement for a variety of reasons. Some don’t have children (47%). Others don’t know how to help (16%) or think public schools don’t want religious people to help (14%). Somewhat fewer think public schools need more prayer and religious values (12%) or say that public school culture is contrary to their beliefs (6%). A few simply doubt they can make a long-term difference (7%).
Among Christians there are a variety of opinions about education in general and specifically about public schools. Some Christians are advocates of Christian education or homeschooling. Others believe in the merits of public schooling. There are radical differences of opinion between evangelicals, mainline Christians, Catholics and so on.
The factors in the education crisis are complex and there are no instant or simple solutions. Moreover, it may be difficult to unite various constituencies—all with differing opinions, motivations and limiting factors—to overcome the significant challenge education reform presents. Regardless, the data suggest that practicing Christians are poised to be principle assets in efforts to improve public education.
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What Christians Can Do
Nicole Baker Fulgham, president of The Expectations Project, has a compelling personal story and a unique point of view of public education. Her experiences as a public school student in Detroit, a teacher in Compton and an advocate for education in Washington, DC, give breadth and depth to her perspective on reform. In addition to Schools in Crisis: They Need Your Help (Whether You Have Kids or Not)>, Dr. Fulgham is the author of Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids.
She says “Fewer than two out of 10 black students are enrolled in well-resourced, high-performing schools. More than double that amount attend poorly resourced, low-performing schools. In stark contrast, the average white student is twice as likely to go to a well-resourced, high-performing school. This portrait of imbalanced odds is similar across the board, not only for black students, but for Native American, Latino and low-income kids, too. “Strategically placed, deeply aware of the problem and grounded in a faith that calls us to uphold justice, it would seem Christians are poised to influence our schools for the better. So why aren’t we?”
Part of the answer to that is perhaps revealed in the research: Christians—more than other Americans—would rather not send their kids to public school. While 84% of churchgoing parents send their children to public schools, only 24% say that is their first choice. In comparison, 40% of people who don’t attend church regularly say public schools are their first choice. Though only 6% of churchgoers send their children to religious schools, a full 47% say they would prefer to send them if they could, followed by a combined 28% who would choose homeschooling, private schools or charter schools.
“If, as the above data suggest, we Christians don’t believe public schools are the best place for our children, why would we feel a responsibility to improve them?” asks Baker-Fulgham.
“Complicating this further, many of our churches see helping our schools as a parental responsibility rather than a spiritual responsibility,” she continues. When surveyed, 85% of Christians cite increased parental involvement as the number-one factor in improving student achievement in low-performing schools—compared to 76% of the general population. Christians rank high-quality teaching next, at 74%, compared to a 70% national average. “The bottom line? Christians understand public educational improvement as a responsibility of parents rather than of all Christians as local school community members.”
It’s an understandable perspective, Baker-Fulgham says, but it doesn’t take into account all of the factors that affect a child’s education. “Having been raised in urban Detroit myself, I completely believe in the potential of self-empowerment and a local community’s demand for change,” she continues. “That said, breaking out of the cyclical nature of generational poverty is much more challenging for families and individuals without institutional help. But, oh, the strength that can be harnessed when other communities join alongside them to collectively meet their needs! My parents, who both came of age as African Americans during the Civil Rights movement, marveled at the visceral power of white men and women joining African American leaders to integrate bus lines, diners and swimming pools.
“I submit, when people of faith are at our best, we answer God’s call to help those afflicted by injustice even when we have no apparent skin in the game.”
About the Research
This research is part of Barna Group’s FRAMES project. The project included four separate nationwide studies conducted between May and August 2013. These public opinion studies were conducted using a mix of telephone (including cell phones) and online interviewing among 4,495 adults. The maximum sampling error for any of the four studies is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Additional details about the research effort are available here: www.barna.org/frames/methodology
People are identified as having a “practicing” faith if they have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.
Millennials (or Mosaics) are the generation born between 1984 and 2002; Gen-Xers (or Busters), between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
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© Barna Group, 2014
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