RETHINK CHURCH continues as a recurring theme for United Methodists in 2011 as we think in new ways about the future of the church, its outreach and its goal to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I began this series in January. This month I urge us to rethink education and how the church can work in society for quality education for all children and youth.

For weeks I have read daily in newspapers and website media across the state about the ongoing battle over education in the Indiana Statehouse. Emotions have run high over the public funding of education. Teachers have rallied in opposition to what they have felt was an assault on them as the General Assembly debated Senate Bill 1, which included teacher evaluations.

Our Indiana Conference Advocacy Team opposes House Bill 1003, which would provide vouchers for parents to take their children and/or youth out of public schools and place them in charter and private schools.

Currently, Indiana allows families whose children receive scholarships to private schools to receive a tax credit. The increase in these ‘scholarship vouchers’ will give families that earn up to 250 percent of the poverty level (more than $100,000) an additional $10 million in tax credits. The Social Advocacy Team opposes this bill, because the program does not adequately ensure scholarships are used by schools with adequate academic standards and accreditation, and it raises concerns about the separation of church and state. (See Social Principles* ¶164.C & E; 2008 UM Book of Resolutions #5051.)

Such a move would mean that taxpayer dollars for public education would be allowed to be used to finance church-run private schools, as well as publicly chartered schools. Of interest is the fact that Representative Robert Behning, from House District 91 in Indianapolis and author of HB1003, is board president of Lutheran High School in Indianapolis. If this bill passes, his school will be receiving those tax dollars through student vouchers, which seems to be both a vested interest and a violation of the separation of church and state if not in law, then in principle.

The United Methodist Social Principles states: “We endorse public policies that ensure access and choice and that do not create unconstitutional entanglements between church and state” (See Social Principles* ¶164.E).

With private and charter schools receiving those tax dollars, these funds are diverted from public schools, which not only are struggling financially, but also socially because public schools cannot pick and choose who will be enrolled. To some critics, public school districts have not been the best stewards of the public funds they receive, yet at the same time, unlike private and chartered schools, public schools have what seems to be a nearly impossible task of educating anyone and everyone who walks through its doors whether they have parental support, a house in which to live, food in their stomach and/or the will to learn.

As the Statehouse struggles over the issues of public education, I believe it is the role of United Methodist churches to continue their historical support of public education and to support public school teachers and administrators, many of whom have to tolerate the negative effects of society on the students they teach. Many of these teachers populate our pews. United Methodists not only need to thank public school teachers for their gifts and graces as educators, but also support public schools in which their churches co-exist.

The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society encourages quality education for all and outlines that quality in four ways.

  1. Equal Access – Close the Gaps! All children should have equal access to a quality education. We must close the gaps in opportunities to learn, because this will lead to closing the gaps in achievement. Demanding equal outcomes on standardized tests without equalizing the resources at federal and state levels is unfair.
  2. Encourage, don’t punish. Vulnerable schools should be improved, but not through blaming teachers and punishing the schools that serve poor children.
  3. Educate the whole child. Schools should be allowed to focus on developing the unique gifts of each child, created in the image of God, rather than focusing solely on standardized testing. Tests for children should evaluate real performance that requires the use of many skills, measures critical thinking and encourages imagination.
  4. It takes a village. Because education reform is one important part of addressing economic and social issues outside the school day that impair learning, school districts should be given incentives to work with state and local social service providers.

The people of the United Methodist Church are called to not only pray for our public education system, but also to take some action to help make quality, public education a real possibility for all. Two ways this can be done locally by congregations is by:

  • Establishing partnerships with local public schools such as providing after-school and vacation enrichment programs, adopt-a-school programs, and literacy and reading emphases;
  • Honoring teachers for the crucial work they do with young people; and advocating for appropriate salaries commensurate with their vital role in society.

We can make a difference by supporting public schools.

– Daniel R. Gangler

*The United Methodist Social Principles can be found online at Click on “Leadership Development,” then click on “The Social Principles.”

We can make a difference by supporting public schools.