Pastors for Texas Children challenges local faith leaders to advocate for public schools

By Cory McCoy Updated October 18, 2018 – Tyler Morning Telegraph

Robert E. Lee Good Vibrations Choir Sings The National Anthem

Robert E. Lee Good Vibrations Choir Sings The National Anthem

A group of faith leaders, public school administrators and community members came together Tuesday morning to make their case for increased advocacy for public schools.

More than 100 people representing a variety of faiths and East Texas communities attended the Celebration of Public Education Breakfast hosted by Pastors for Texas Children at First Christian Church in Tyler.

The Rev. Charles Johnson, executive director, made the case for strengthening the bonds between churches and the public schools that serve their children.

“We want to stir up lots of affirmation, engagement and assistance,” Johnson said.

He said the goal of Pastors for Texas Children is to increase engagement through offering real, tangible assistance such as school supplies, teaching assistance, food security, volunteering and advocacy.

“Public education is a provision for God’s common good for all of our children,” he said. “We can create a place where churches can come together unified for public schools because it is the will of God that all of our children receive a quality education. We are trying to witness and work and act in a way that public education ceases to be a wedge issue in our society.”

Johnson said public schools need more people willing to put aside party lines and rhetoric and focus on simply doing the right thing for students. During the event, former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff was honored by the organization for embodying that willingness.

“We are in a moral crisis in this state and we wanted to honor Lt. Gov. Ratliff as a positive example of the moral leadership that can be done,” Johnson said. “It is possible, and it’s up to us.”

Thomas Ratliff, a former State Board of Education member, accepted the honor on his father’s behalf.

Ratliff spoke about his father’s original vision for a voucher plan that would have required true equity. He said that equity is not possible under what the program proposals have become today, with accessibility and accountability not being a requirement of private schools wishing to receive state funds.

He said recent proposals would allow the parent to choose by giving them the funding to put toward private schools, home-school, online learning, tutoring or other educational services.

He discussed his father’s vision for a fair system for all students, that wouldn’t overwhelmingly benefit families who are not economically disadvantaged. He said the current proposals are not truly equitable, with no proposed oversight attached to ensure programs such as transportation, meal options and special education, among others.

“That was a level playing field; it’s not sliding $8,000 under the door and saying, ‘Do your best. We’ll trust you.'” he said.

He pointed out that charter schools in Texas receive the same level of state funding vouchers would provide private schools, yet charter schools have largely failed to catch on outside of large urban areas.

“Let’s think about Tyler, Longview, Mount Pleasant. After 22 years of the charter school program in Texas, how many charters are in Northeast Texas?” Ratliff asked. “If you pass a voucher bill, how many (new schools) are going to come to northeast Texas? None, if they wanted to be here they already would.”

Charter schools are few and far between in the area, with none offering transportation to students. Ratliff said offering vouchers with no accountability attached would only encourage for-profit schools, which aren’t prioritizing all children equally.

Ratliff warned of the risk vouchers could pose in resegregating public schools, because they wouldn’t be required to serve low-income populations or minorities equitably.

Former Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses expanded on the damage that shrinking funding has on public education and the children it serves.

“We in this room know we’re teaching a population that is rapidly changing and 65 percent are economically disadvantaged,” Moses said. “We want people to be able to earn their opportunity, it’s education. That’s what made this country great, that’s what made this democracy great.”

Moses said the state is facing a crisis, with only 30 percent of Texans having school-age children and rapidly shifting demographics.

“Will an older, (wealthier) aging population pay to educate a younger, poorer population that doesn’t necessarily look like them?” he asked.

Moses told attendees to start changing minds through positive affirmation, by telling teachers, students and citizens they matter and are valued.

He said throughout his career he often was asked how much it costs to educate a student, and his answer was the cost of education is the value we place on it.

Tyler Council of PTAs Vice President Elicia Eckert said she hopes next month on Election Day that East Texans will vote for the candidates who have the best interests of their children in mind, but she also hopes to see more churches get involved with their local districts.

“It is crucially important we advocate policies, but I believe it’s just as important that we get into those schools,” she said. “This is my prayer today, that we have an outpouring from people of faith asking how they can help.”