Charles Foster Johnson is the executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, an independent ministry and outreach group that comprises nearly 2,000 pastors and church leaders from across Texas and works to support public education. Johnson recently testified in Austin about school vouchers — which use public funds to pay for private school tuition — and corporate school reform before the Texas House Education Committee, chaired by state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R), and his words are worth reading.
A voucher bill passed in the Texas Senate, as it does every year, but members of the Texas House have voted against it in past years, and Johnson’s organization is fighting against it again. Here is the powerful testimony as written and submitted to Aycock’s committee. When talking to the panel, Johnson diverged somewhat from the text, and you can watch him on this video, starting at the 3:50 mark.
Corporate school reform refers to policies that broadly seek to treat the U.S. public education system, a civic institution, as if it were a business. Those policies include: replacing public governance of schools by either appointed leaders or organizations that are not accountable to the public; vouchers and tax credit subsidies for private school tuition; the weakening or elimination of due-process rights of educators; and standardized test-based accountability for educators, students and schools.
In his testimony, Johnson explains why the business model shouldn’t be imposed on public schools:
Chairman Aycock, thank you for the opportunity to testify before you and your committee today about what we have witnessed in our fine neighborhood and community public schools throughout our great state. My name is Charles Johnson, pastor of Bread Fellowship, Fort Worth. I am also executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, a statewide organization mobilizing the faith community for public education support and advocacy. We do two things: We minister to children in our local schools, and we advocate for just policy for our children with our legislators. We were birthed out of the Baptist General Convention of Texas three years ago and now have over 1,900 faith leaders of all denominations in churches all across Texas.
We are in our schools every day and see children from every ethnicity, every socio-economic background, and all walks of life succeeding beautifully on their path to productive citizenship in our society. We see children discovering their God-given talent and giftedness at the hands of dedicated teachers answering the call of God to pursue careers as educators. We witness daily the sheer moral power of public education as a building block of our society. This is why we are compelled to deliver the message to whoever will listen that universal public education is God’s will for all people — not a “choice” accorded to a few through a school choice voucher. I’d like to share several reasons:
Public education is a moral duty. Education is a gift of God for all people. Just like the first human did in the Bible story so long ago, every person gets to name God’s world. Just as God brought all the creatures to the human to see what he would name them, so classroom teachers in schools all across our land teach our children to name God’s world. It’s the only way we can fulfill the first commandment of God to “be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it.” Education is a core component of the public interest. It is God’s common good for all God’s children — not just for those who are smart and stable and economically secure enough to pay for it with a school choice voucher.
Public education is a democratic duty. The founders of this nation determined at the outset of our Republic that in order to have a democratic society, we must educate all our children — not just a few children from families affluent enough to pay for it. Public education is a cornerstone of our American way of life. It is what has made America great. Our neighborhood and community schools are the places where our American history is taught, where our children learn basic civics, where the Pledge of Allegiance is said every day, where citizens are made. In America, citizenship is for all people — not just those few fortunate enough to be chosen by a school choice voucher.
Public education is a societal duty. It is incorrect for some of our friends to say that the money should follow the child because it is “my money.” With all due respect, it is not “my money” in a just society. We have a responsibility to participate in the well-being of all people. Do I get to have my own private security guard subsidized by the public through a “safety choice voucher?” Do I get to have my private swimming pool underwritten by the people of Texas because I don’t use the public pool? In a just and equal society, do I get a “transportation voucher” because I walk or ride a bicycle? The love of neighbor has founded our social order in these United States. We practice that love of neighbor through our taxation to support investments in that societal infrastructure.
Public education is a constitutional duty. The Constitution of the State of Texas says this in Article 7, Section 1: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” The members of this legislative body swore a Bible oath to uphold that provision. There is zero authorization for this body to do anything with private schools.
Public education is a spiritual duty. We believe wholeheartedly in religious liberty as a gift of God from all people. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did not make it up. It is the principle upon which our nation is founded. So, we affirm that no overt religious instruction or activity should be advanced or established with tax dollars in our public schools. All faith is voluntary. It belongs in the home and the church — not in our public institutions. This government has no authority to advance religion in our public schools. Nor, on the other hand, does this government have any authority to meddle in our private and home schools through a school choice voucher. Any money that is diverted from the public trust to a private entity will be publicly accounted for, thus inserting and intruding government into the voluntary associations of religious schools. God does not need Caesar’s money to do the Lord’s work. Never has. Never will.
But faithful teachers take the love of God with them into our classrooms each and every day, ministering long hours at low pay while serving the poorest children in our midst. They instill moral character. They teach respect across the wide diversity of our population. They show unconditional love to all kids. They do this because they are called before God. This is why the dynamics that govern our capitalistic system do not operate in an educational environment. Market forces such as competition and cost benefit analysis simply do not apply in the formation of a human being. A classroom is a holy place of learning — not a marketplace of financial gain. To make commodities of our kids and markets of our classrooms is to misunderstand — and profane — the spirituality of education.