A Tale of a Faith-based School & Public Funding

Once upon a time there was small, urban, faith-based school that proudly served children in the surrounding community. When legislation was passed that allowed this school to sign up for the choice program, the school board and school leaders were excited to do so. Their tuition for the school was already low and they often found people in the church and community to donate money to cover the costs of families that could not attend otherwise. Yet, the choice program allowed new students to attend the school by leveraging a portion of the public tax dollars allocated for that child’s education. The money, at least part of it, followed the student.

Every day the teachers and administrators in this school worked hard, and for less of what their public school counterparts got paid, to provide the best possible education for the students and families who opted for this school. They took their job seriously and worked to make sure that students were prepared for life in this 21st-century world. Even with the choice dollars, their budget was small compared to the closest public school, and they were the first to admit that they didn’t have all of the special education services available through some of the public schools. Yet, there was a way for the students in this faith-based school to obtain critical services through the public school system while still attending this faith-based school. Over time, the school became increasingly dependent upon this extra student-associated government funding for the school to remain viable.

Students and parents were pleased with the education. It equipped students with the key skills identified by the state standards. The student test scores were comparable to those in the public schools, even better in some areas, and the school enjoyed the freedom to integrate their faith convictions into the learning experience while welcoming students of all backgrounds.

In the Capitol

Hundreds of miles away in the state capitol, several politicians were conspiring to change things. They had a number of personal beliefs and convictions, targeted social ideas that they valued and wanted to mandate for any schools that received government funding. This applied to the choice schools as well. They saw this as an opportunity to either force faith-based schools to set aside some of their religious convictions in the school, or to stop accepting government funding. Either close or let the government dicate part of the religious messages in the school.

Multiple Sides

Advocates for the school saw things differently. They recognized the church and state distinctions, but also saw this as a deliberate effort for the government to control and dictate how a faith-based school should function, what it should teach, and what religious and ethical values they should infuse into their schools.

In other words, both sides saw this as a church/state infringement. One wanted the freedom to operate as a faith-based school. The other wanted to push forward a social and belief system agenda by demanding that faith-based schools depending upon government funding either compromise, close, or find a new funding stream.

The matter of government funding caught many people’s interest. Some noted that there are countless high-impact faith-based organizations in the country that benefited from government funding while also providing measurable positive services in the community including mental health services, free health clinics, after school education programs, workforce development, havens for victims of abuse, homeless shelters, and so much more. If this new philosophy were applied consistently, it would mean the closing of so many of these programs…or it would mean that the government was now telling these faith-based institutions what they could teach and how their beliefs could or could not be practiced.

Of course, there was also the dilemma of determining what constituted a religious belief. There are many ethical and social issues, for example, that some argued were motivated by religion, but others would contest that. How to delineate in such matters is no easy task, and this new line of thinking risked, at least in the eyes of some, banishing the role of people and organizations to live out their religious convictions in the public square, as had been supported and defended in this country for centuries.

The Meeting

Because of all of this, a group of families, teachers, students and school administrators from this faith-based school requested a meeting with the key proponents of the bill that would restrict the school’s access to funds. Everyone gathered on a Thursday evening for what turned into a rich and dynamic conversation. The media was not present, which seemed to free to proponents of the bill to be more candid than they might have been otherwise.

All parties voiced their values and concerns. At least one proponent of the bill explicitly stated her firm disagreement with the religious position of the school on several major issues, including the few in this bill. Others explained that they had issues with government funding of private and faith-based schools, seeing that as detracting from the public schools that they supported.

Parents and others at the school explained their viewpoint, that they saw the public school as restricting their right to practice their religion while getting a good education, and that they saw the public schools as teaching values and ideals that fit into the larger realm of religion, as they understood it. In addition, these parents explained that they paid many tax dollars that the government then used to fund services and the like that conflicted directly with their religious convictions, ethics, and personal values. They struggled to understand why tax dollars could not support the education of a child attending this faith-based school, but they were used to support other efforts that clashed with core religious beliefs. Graduates of the school were well prepared to be positive and contributing citizens. As such, the school, in addition to being faith-based, was indeed providing a public good.

Graduates of the school were well prepared to be positive and contributing citizens. As such, the school, in addition to being faith-based, was indeed providing a public good. Still others wondered why we could not have a system like in Australia where they found a balance, and government funding supported any schools that provided the primary service of a quality education that met a set of generally agreed upon standards while also incorporating their distinct faith-based elements.

Many other such positions from different sides were shared during this evening. Tension and contention arose in the room at times, but they agreed to push through that, genuinely seeking to listen to one another, to share their candid thoughts and convictions, and to learn from diverse and conflicting viewpoints. They didn’t try to demonize each other, but they also didn’t minimize or try to ignore real and significant differences. All sides worked hard to avoid framing their ideas and convictions in provocative and inflammatory terms.

Meeting Again

Almost everyone present saw the evening as a worthwhile conversation. In fact, it was so worthwhile to many, that they decided to set up two more meetings to continue the talk. They invited more voices. They debated. They listened. The learned from one another. Some adjust their viewpoints a bit, but when it came to core beliefs and convictions, most people simply clarified and affirmed what they believed coming into the meetings. What changed, however, was a sense that the group, and others in society, could genuinely find ways to grapple with and work together on finding solutions to many, but not necessarily all, of the key factors. This did not happen quickly. It involved hard work. It involved a commitment to care, candor, and bearing with one another in a new way. For those involved, many described as wonderfully apolitical, at least in the way they experienced politics in the capitol and elsewhere.

Democracy

In the end, the proponents of the original bill decided to delay on moving it forward. Some still believed strongly in it, but they understood, in a more intimate way, the complex and important factors involved. In the end, a new group emerged, one that drew this diverse group of people together, struggling together, in an ongoing way. They set aside the simplistic mindset of winning and wielding power, and opted for something messier, something more time-consuming, and something largely more democratic.

From Power Struggles to Open Discourse About the Future of Education

What is your greatest concern about the future of education? I’ve been asked this by more than a few people over the past year. My answer, it seems, is not provocative enough. My greatest concern is not the funding of higher education, the charter/choice debates, how to achieve access and opportunity, 21st century skills, reimagining the school, testing, the Common Core debates, re-inventing schools, protective core values of the Academy, the role of teachers, the role of technology in education or any specific issue. Some of these are personal passions that drive much of my work and thinking, but there is still something more fundamental. It has to do with how we discuss and consider the future of educationMy greatest concern relates to our capacity (or what sometimes seems like a diminished capacity) to have deep, rigorous, candid, persistent, extended but open-minded public discourse about current and future policies, issues and innovations.

I have as firm of convictions about education as anyone else, but for me, one of the most important places to start when considering the future of education is to get deeply informed about the possibilities. This requires an openness to looking, listening, learning, and candidly sharing our own comments and questions. People will get emotional. After all, we have deep-seated convictions about education. We will slip into ad hominem arguments. The need to make timely decisions will force us to compete for our cause to win out long enough for a policy to pass, a decision to be made, or a bill to pass (or not pass). These are realities. Yet, somehow, amid all such realities, how can we still make progress toward discourse worthy of a our most fundamental democratic values? I don’t know the answers, but I have a few tentative thoughts on the matter. These thoughts may well be as contentious as any specific debate in education, but I offer them for consideration nonetheless. For the sake of this post, I’ll limit my comments to 9 suggested starting points.

1. Recognize that any educational decision will have both affordances and limitations, and invite canid discourse about both.

If I am going to arguing strongly for something, it is important for me to know that it has limitations as well. That is true for virtually every educational practice or policy. There are winners and losers, benefits and limitations, unexpected blessings and curses. Such a perspective is a huge part of Neil Postman’s legacy and contribution to the discussion about education. His examination of affordances and limitations led him to be deeply skeptical about claims of technological progress, but the means of analyzing trends provided equally powerful tools for critiquing some of his own ideas and proposals. This is good. Having the humility to publicly recognize the good, bad, and ugly of our proposals may not be in the recipe of PR perfection or political prowess, but it is a key ingredient for candid public discourse about education.

2. Resist the urge the demonize the “other” side as if the person’s policies and decisions represent a grand conspiracy to take over the world.

Again, many of us have strong opinions and convictions about various aspects of modern education. There are people deeply passionate about tenure for professors and strong teacher unions. There are others who believe strongly in giving educational administration and leaders with more power and influence among professors and educators. Yes, I have a few convictions about these topics, but it is really important for me not to over-generalize and turn the person with the other perspective into a member of some vicious army desiring to undermine the entire system. There are likely people with such sinister goals, but our public conversation would be better off if we saved going there as an absolute last option. I’ve done this, mostly in my mind, sometimes out loud; so this is a challenge for me as much as anyone else.

3. Take our public discourse into the details and nuances.

“MOOCs are going to shut down the University as we know it.” “Higher education is oblivious to the real world beyond the ivory tower.” “The Common Core is an attack on children.” “Charter schools are a detriment to public education.” These may or may not have proverbial truth, but to have a rich discussion, we need to get into the details. Which higher education institutions, because not all institutions are alike? How do the offerings and function of MOOCs coincide or deviate from the that of Universities? What aspects of the Common Core are of greatest concern or worthy of the greatest praise? What about charter schools is a perceived detriment? What needs are they meeting that where otherwise unmet? We need to ask the questions that allow us to get back to the details, understanding that there are not always yes or no, black or white answers. There might just be room for a compromise. Charter schools are wildly different from one state to another, even one school to another, for example. By being quick to generalize, we might all miss out on a wonderful win-win option.

4. Recognize that there are multiple paths to a given conclusion and people arrive and certain words and phrases in different ways.

As a largely interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and a-disciplinary scholar, I run into this all the time. I might be discussing an issue with a person who has a PhD in psychology, sociology, history, or American literature. I use a term or phrase and it immediately conjures up thoughts of a lengthy discourse within their field of study, leading them to label me a certain way. Yes, it is important for me to take the time to learn about the different discourses around a given term or phrase, but words and phrases have multiple working definitions, and people get to their conclusions and vocabularies in different ways. As it stands, if you use the “wrong” word, you might find yourself quickly labeled with any number of groups: socialist, radical capitalist, racist, classist, trans-humanist, Luddite, or pretty much any educational term with anti- or pro- in front of it.

How do we address this? We ask people to tell us more about their position, how they arrived at it, and how they think it does or does not align with how a given group might use the term. We get really curious about other people and their perspective. We realize that there is a story behind the terms and phrases that we and others use, and we explore those stories.

5. Acknowledge that there is more than one way to go about education.

There is no such thing as a perfect educational system. As I mentioned before, they all have affordances and limitations. Similarly, there are usually many possibilities that will work. I realize each of us have strong convictions and preferences for certain systems and policies over others. I even respect the “slippery slope” concern that leads people to take a position on a given bill or policy. Yet, there are endless possibilities, many of which might offer benefits that we’ve never experienced before.

6. Valuing the role of data and research, but also recognizing that much of it needs context, and we want to be cautious when arguing for an absolute and widely applied policy or practice.

“We need this policy because all the research shows that it will lead to the best outcomes.” Well, that might be true if we keep the system “as is”, but most educational research is contextual. We suggest policies and practices for helping students with ADHD find success in “school”, but those policies and practices partly (sometimes largely) depend upon “school” having certain attributes. What if we put them in a Montessori school, self-directed learning academy, scripted directed instruction classroom, a classical school, a hands-on learning school, a school built on game-based learning, or sometime else? Do the same policies and practices stand? My point is that we want to value and learn from both data and research, but finding one or a dozen studies to “support” your policy doesn’t mean that the debate is over. There are still other options and possibilities.

7. Respect the right for a minority opinion or smaller group with a set of beliefs, values and convictions about education.

One of the strengths of democracy in the United States is that we have deeply held national convictions about individual rights and rights of minority perspectives. Yet, our debates in education do not always seem to tap into these values. Wherever we end up with an educational policy or practice, how does it honor and prospect the minority perspective and the rights of individuals?

8. Recognize the role of educational philosophy.

People have fundamentally different educational philosophies that often lead to their position on policy and practice. People sometimes change their philosophies, but this fact means that we are not going to have universal consensus. What we have to decide is whether we want to be a system or nation that honors a diversity of philosophies in education or whether we deem it better to force our philosophy on the rest of the community, state, nation, or world. By how I framed that statement, I suppose you know where I stand on the issue.

9. Be candid and leave time for discourse.

I’m thinking specifically of bills on the state and national level, along with other broader initiatives. It means that we don’t try to push things through unnoticed. It means we have to be willing and seeking to engage the broader public in conversations about where we will go. I know I’m being a bit idealistic with this one, but if even a few more people took this to heart, we would all be better off.

These are some of the perspectives that I think can help us have a more open-minded, rich, candid and substantive discourse about the future of education. What about you? Consider sharing some of your thoughts in the comment area or bring the conversation over to Twitter, LinkedIn or our favorite social outlet.