I've just finished reading the Huffington Post piece by Elise Buik, President and CEO, of the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. I could not agree more with her statement:
"Education is a basic right for every child, regardless of race, religion, the street on which they live, or family dynamic. Not only is education a basic right, but it is a key pathway out of poverty, crucial to helping prepare children for further education and the workforce."
As someone who grew up in poverty, there were three essential factors that changed my life: education, community, and exposure to life outside of my neighborhood. The support of community is the key to changing the circumstances of children who live in poverty, providing them with the relationships and resources that we know are important to improving their opportunities for academic success. Yes, we need engage politicians as part of the community dedicated to doing what's right for children but this process takes time; it takes months and oftentimes years. As a resident of Washington, D.C., I am surrounded by people who think that policy is the solution to eliminating poverty and economic disparities. Policy is a significant factor but policy alone will not eliminate poverty nor will policy alone help kids succeed in academic setting. It can, however, help to even the playing field by giving schools and children the resources that they need so that they are not at a disadvantage. Policy can legislate what training is required for teachers to be excellently prepared to provide each child who enters their classrooms with the best possible education. Policy can help to shift our national debate on education.
In his book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, Michael J. Sandel said, "To ask whether a society is just is to ask how it distributes the things we prize -- income and wealth, duties and rights, powers and opportunities, offices and honors. A just society distributes these goods in the right way; iot gives each person his or her due." Our political leaders should do what is right for children simply because it is right, just and what they need and deserve in order to be good future citizens. What is best for children is also what's good for our country and communities; the welfare of children is certainly a better use of political resources than checking poll numbers or the opinion of a deep-pocketed lobbyist who most likely knows nothing about growing up in poverty or attending an underfunded school. Sadly, the needs and concerns of children and schools are less subject to justice than to political election cycles. As a result, education bills often have content that does not meet the best needs of students -- Texas' removal of Thomas Jefferson from their history texts is one such example on the state level.
In Congress, bills tend to be debated for months that can turn into years, All the while, the youngest poor students, energized with the excitement of youth have no idea that they are not learning in a way that will adequately prepare them to meet the needs of modern society. By the time they reach 4th grade, failure may have set in. A 2004 article in the Washington Post reported that "correctional facilities a higher spending priority than public and secondary education, according to the Justice Policy Institute. In California, correctional officials reportedly look to the percentage of children who never make it past the fourth-grade reading level to help them gauge the number of future prison beds to fund. Like the children who endure the discouragement of absentee or abusive fathers, political leaders who believe like the California legislators are also abusive. Politicians whose talking points include any statement about making America strong again must step up and play a an active role in crafting an exceptional and equitable education system that meets the needs of all students.
We must address the harsh reality that while some politicians are content to play political games with the futures of real people - children and their futures are on the line. They don't have the luxury of debate; they are in need now, they question if a better life is possible now, they are on the verge of giving up now. They need change now.
If we are truly going to do something to help children and families rise above the circumstance of poverty, it is critical that we help kids succeed in the classroom. It is also critical that we work to equip parents with the skills necessary to help their children succeed. We cannot assume that parents should "know better." People only know what they are taught. This is where community comes in.
As a person of faith, community is at the core of everything I do and believe. God is about community. In every religious tradition you will find God working to bring people together in ways that allow them to work together for the good of everyone in the community. Elise, makes a key point in this regard, though I don't think her point was to talk about the role of religion. Her point is was that, "education is a basic right for every child regardless of religion or religious affiliation."
Over the past year I have been working with a group of religious leaders and people of faith from across the country to create an organization, Faithforchange.org, that will organize communities of faith to engage more intentionally with communities and schools to implement practical, proven strategies to help children succeed inside and outside the classroom. Why are we doing this? Because like Elise, we believe that improving our schools is a moral imperative. We are not about moving a religious agenda, but as people of faith we believe that God cares about all children whether they are inside or outside the church. Our faith in a compassionate and loving God compels us to stand up and do something rather than to sit on the sidelines and complain about what others are not doing. Faithforchange.org is not about prayer in schools. We respect schools as non-religious institutions and believe in the separation of church and state. We believe that if you pray and ask God to do something then you better get ready for God to give you something to do.
Just as policy alone will not eliminate poverty, by itself prayer will not eliminate poverty. If we going to help children succeed we have to work together - communities of faith, educators, political leaders, business owners - all of us. We have to show up in schools and show up in communities, providing the services and resources that our children need. What Elise said about Los Angeles holds true for cities across the country, it is up to adults and I would add people of faith, who are willing to do the right thing working together on providing the highest quality education for all of our students, making way for fulfilling careers, stable lives, and a strong overall workforce.