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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 06/21/2010

Christian churches oppose Race to the Top, Obama blueprint

By Valerie Strauss

Here is an extraordinary letter that should erase any doubt that opposition to the Obama administration's $4 billion Race to the Top is wide and deep.

Sent recently to President Obama and U.S. lawmakers by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, a community of 36 communions with a combined membership of 45 million people, this letter expresses deep concern about the education priorities of Race to the Top and of Obama's “blueprint” for education reform.

It criticizes the administration's effort to push states to increase the number of charter schools, its plan to turn some of the federal money used to help poor children into competitive grants, its punitive approach to dealing with low-performing schools, and the "ugly" demonization of public school teachers.

The letter says:

*“We are concerned today when we hear the civil right to education being re-defined as the right to school choice.”

*“While competitive, market based “reforms” may increase educational opportunity for a few children, or even for some groups of children, do they introduce more equity or more inequity into the system itself? We reject the language of business for discussing public education.”

The pastoral letter is long but worth the time to read every word.

A Pastoral Letter on Federal Policy in Public Education: An Ecumenical Call for Justice

Dear President Obama and Members of Congress,

The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA is a community of 36 Christian communions with a combined membership of 45 million persons in more than 100,000 congregations across this country.

Our member churches – from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches – do not agree on all things! We stand united, however, in our conviction that the church is called to speak for justice in public education. We affirm that each life is infinitely precious, created in the image of God, and therefore, that every child should be given opportunity for fullness of life, including a quality and affordable education.

We further affirm that our society's provision of public education—publicly funded, universally available, and accountable to the public—while imperfect, is essential for ensuring that all children are served. As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we look for the optimal way to balance the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. We know that such a system will never be perfect, and we pledge as faithful citizens to continue to improve the schools in our communities and to make our system of schools more responsive.

We value democratic governance of public schools.
We support democratic governance of public schools. Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that traditional public schools provide access for all children. We believe that democratic operation of public schools is our best hope for ensuring that families can secure the services to which their children have a right. On balance, we believe that if government invests public funds in charter schools that report to private boards, government, not the vicissitudes of the marketplace, should be expected to provide oversight to protect the common good.

Public schools must guarantee each child's right to educational opportunity.
We value the contributions of parochial schools managed by some of our communions and the contributions of charter schools operated by some of our congregations. We affirm, however, the position of our 1999 General Assembly that “as a general rule, public funds should be used for public purposes.”

Knowing that traditional public schools continue to educate more than 90 percent of our nation's 50 million school children, we again echo the 1999 General Assembly that called “on our members to direct their energies toward improving the schools that the majority of children will continue to attend.”

As you craft the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, originally the 1965 cornerstone of the War on Poverty, we ask you to remember that the Civil Rights Movement sought to ensure expanded opportunity for all children through public education. In 1954 the Supreme Court eliminated de jure segregation and guaranteed access for all to public schools previously available only to the privileged, and in 1965 Congress began providing federal funding for public schools serving children in poverty through Title I.

We are concerned today when we hear the civil right to education being re-defined as the right to school choice, for we know that equitable access to opportunity is more difficult to ensure in a mass of privatized alternatives to traditional public schools or in school districts being carved apart into small schools of choice. Experimentation with small schools must not cause us to lose sight of society's obligation to serve all children with appropriate services; we must continue to expect public school districts to provide a complete range of services accessible to children in every neighborhood of our cities.

Choice-based alternatives being proposed in local, state, and federal policy pose serious questions that we ask you to consider regarding equal access and public oversight. Here are just a few examples:

*When large high schools are broken into smaller schools or when charter management or education management organizations are brought in to operate small schools, what happens to children with special needs and English language learners when small schools cannot provide the more expensive services such children need?

*In so-called “portfolio school districts” which are projected to manage an ongoing churn of new schools coming into existence and weak schools being forced to close, won't closing public schools and moving the students increase student mobility in cities where poverty already means that too many children change schools too often? What is the consequence for a neighborhood or a community when a public school is closed or its entire staff fired?

*When there is competition to attract students to a range of small schools or charter schools, and when these schools are sought out by parents who are active choosers, what happens to the traditional neighborhood public schools which are left to serve the majority of special education students, English language learners, and homeless children?

*What happens to children whose parents, for whatever reason, do not participate in choice? We recently heard students whose families simply bring them to register at the neighborhood public school called “over the counter” children. Many of us and many of our children have at some time in our lives been “over the counter” children. We have assumed that universally available and easily accessible public schools were part of the American Dream.

The federal Race to the Top competition brings federal pressure on states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools. When charter schools are regulated state-by-state, how can the federal government ensure that what has been very uneven charter school regulation across the states be made more uniform to protect the public interest?

Finally as it is proposed that federal grants be made more competitive—in the Race to the Top competition and the President's recent “Blueprint” for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—by deemphasizing Title I formula grants and increasing Title I competitive grants, how will we protect the educational opportunities of children in states and districts that are the losers?

While the Title I formula program has been too small to make up for the impact of family poverty and the 3:1 inequality of school funding among the school districts in most states, it remains the federal government's primary tool for distributing funds by formula according to need, for the purpose of expanding opportunity for poor children.

While competitive, market based “reforms” may increase educational opportunity for a few children, or even for some groups of children, do they introduce more equity or more inequity into the system itself?

We reject the language of business for discussing public education.

Not only has the language of the marketplace entered discussions of school governance and management, but we also notice that the language of business accountability is used to talk about education, a human endeavor of caring.

The primary mechanism of the No Child Left Behind Act has been annual standardized tests of reading and math for all children in grades 3-8, followed by punishments for the schools that cannot rapidly reach ever increasing test score production targets. We worry that our society has come to view what is good as what can be measured and compared.

The relentless focus on testing basic skills has diminished our attention to the humanities, the social studies, the arts, and child and adolescent development. As people of faith we do not view our children as products to be tested and managed but instead as unique human beings, created in the image of God, to be nurtured and educated.

ESEA Reauthorization must expand educational opportunity.
As you craft the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we call on you to be faithful to the law's original purpose: expanding educational opportunity by providing additional support for the schools that serve our nation's poorest children. We ask you to address what are too rarely named these days:

The cavernous resource opportunity gaps—from state to state and from school district to school district— underneath the achievement gaps that No Child Left Behind has so carefully documented. We ask you to allocate federal resources for equity and insistently press states to close opportunity gaps.

It is time to guarantee for all children in the United States a comparable opportunity to learn that includes a quality early childhood education, highly qualified teachers, a curriculum that will prepare students for college, work and community, and equitable instructional resources. It is also time to recognize that the blessings of health care remain unequal among American children, as do enrichments like after school programs, and summer experiences.

We value public school educators.

Our biblical heritage and our theology teach us that we live in community, not solely in the marketplace. As we strive to move our imperfect world closer to the realm of God, we recognize that we are all responsible for making sure that public schools, as primary civic institutions, embody our love for one another.

We are called to create institutions that serve families and children with hospitality. We are called to work as citizens for the resources that will support a climate of trust and community within each public school. We are also called to value those whose vocation is teaching.

Lately we have been dismayed by federal policy that encourages states to change laws to eliminate due process, to devalue the credentials of excellent teachers, and to fire teachers and principals as though that were a tested recipe for school reform, when we know that no research supports the President's proposed “turnaround” model that purports to improve a school by firing the principal and at least half the staff.

We look for a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that honors the professionalism of teachers and treats these individuals with respect. Wholesale scapegoating of public school teachers is an ugly and unfortunate development in federal policy.

We pledge to partner with you for just reform.

We pledge to partner with you in prayer and action, working for reform that values the whole child as uniquely created, values teachers, and encourages and equips the family and community to participate in nurturing the full development of every child.

We pledge to partner with you by:
*encouraging congregations to value public education and teachers through sermons, worship, and prayer;
*supporting parent education and adult literacy;
*encouraging congregations to partner with public schools to provide tutors, school supplies, exposure to computers and many other supports;
*supporting out-of-school supports like better and widely available pre-school and after school programs; and
*continuing to educate our members about the value of Community Schools that surround public schools with social supports.

We ask you to partner with us to challenge the unfair and detrimental language of the current discourse in educational reform, to re-examine untested assumptions about public education policy, and to ensure that untested models of school reform are not imposed from above in our nation's most fragile school districts.

Too often criticism of the public schools fails to reflect our present societal complexity. At a moment when childhood poverty is shamefully widespread, when many families are under constant stress, and when schools are often limited by lack of funds or resources, we know that public schools cannot be improved by concentrating on public schools alone.

They alone can neither cause nor cure the problems we face. In this context, we must address with prayerful determination the issues of race and class, which threaten both public education and democracy in America.

Sincerely,
The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon General Secretary
The Rev. Peg Chemberlin, President
On Behalf of the Governing Board of The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA

[You can see a list of the members of the governing board by clicking here]

-0-

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 21, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Teachers  | Tags:  arne duncan and school reform, charter schools and pastoral letter, churches of christ, education reform, elementary and secondary school act and reauthorization, esea reauthorization, national council of the churches of christ, national council of the churches of christ in the usa, obama and blueprint and education reform, obama and school reform, pastoral letter, pastoral letter and obama and education, president obama's blueprint for education reform, race to the top, reauthorization of no child left behind  
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Comments

You guys should stop complaining cuz one the health care we have now isnt as good as it was supposed to be. also the law has just been signed give it a try u guys are too hard on democrats they went to college and we voted for most of these people.so if u want to say u have the right to choose tell that to ur congress men or state official. as for obama people are just tryin to make it look like america made a mistake he has done things to help us and we had a full 8 years of a terrible president and i will be so as happy as ever when a obama fixes bush's mistakes. You can find full medical coverage at the lowest price from http://bit.ly/9sfoMb obama has to put up with the wo0rld judging his every move and trying to fix the mess we are in we are lucky anyone wants to be our president. STOP COMPLAINING AND GIVE HIM A BREAK. i wanna see one of yall do what he sas done. some people are just so ignorant.

Posted by: lowefaber21 | June 21, 2010 6:54 AM | Report abuse

National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA? Isn't this the same crowd driving educational policy in states such as Texas?

ANY/EVERY stance these right-wing Christian Nazis support becomes tainted. I would go so far as to say anything they support as it relates to public education, I would automatically oppose.

They're religious zealots looking to impose their views on anyone ignorant enough to listen. Creationism and/or intelligent design as dogma in our public schools in place of evolution? Come on you jihadists. Beam yourselves up into the twenty-first century before it's over, will ya?

Posted by: phoss1 | June 21, 2010 7:22 AM | Report abuse

to Phoss1:

The National Council of Churches is the opposite of the group you describe. It is made up of 38 Christian denominations, many of which are fairly liberal. This has nothing to do with what is happening in Texas. There are liberal Christians! You need to re-read the statement quoted above; it is about concern that public education is being hurt by the policies started under the Bush Administration and now being continued by the Obama Administration.

Posted by: reg6 | June 21, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse

phoss1,

"National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA? Isn't this the same crowd driving educational policy in states such as Texas?"

I don't believe the National Council of churches has anything to do with what's going on in Texas. They are a pretty diverse bunch and generally aren't as conservative as the churches in Texas.

Posted by: aby1 | June 21, 2010 8:14 AM | Report abuse

Arne Duncan was known for ignoring the public's opinion when he was in Chicago, I am guessing he will ignore this letter.

Posted by: aby1 | June 21, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

The schools in Alaska are supported by the state of Alaska rather than by property taxes. So there is a more equitable distribution of resources there than in the rest of the country.

Posted by: aby1 | June 21, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

Again, the People have spoken. Eloquently. Obama and Duncan must stop fettering with the will of the American populis regarding the education of our children. An apology would also be nice. They have messed up - big time!

Posted by: shadwell1 | June 21, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Hallelujah! I think this will be hard for President Obama and Arne Duncan to ignore.

It is reasonably, honestly and compassionately presented.

Let's see Obama and Duncan sneer at this Council of churches the way they've sneered at public school teachers who are making the same arguments.

Posted by: efavorite | June 21, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

I hate to tell you this, efavorite - but Duncan is a master at ignoring people. Read the following:

http://thatsrightnate.com/2009/10/07/arne-duncan-clears-himself-in-student-death/

Posted by: jlp19 | June 21, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Bravo! This statement is clear-eyed, on the mark, beautifully articulated and full of deep compassion for the plight of our public schools.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 21, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Confusion about the nature of the National Council of Churches is understandable because so much has been written about the NCC over the past 50 years. As a matter of fact, the NCC is neither a left-wing nor a right-wing group. It is a community of 36 member communions that includes Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, historic African American churches, peace churches and mainline Protestants. This wonderfully diverse community may not always agree on traditional left- or right-wing issues, but we generally agree when it comes to basic issues -- like the right of every child to have an equal education. -- P.Jenks, Media Relations Specialist, National Council of Churches

Posted by: pjenks2 | June 21, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

The National Council of
Churches is also one of 153 national education, civil rights, religious, disability, parent, civic and labor organizations that have signed the Joint Statement on No Child Left Behind. The Forum on Educational Accountability is an alliance focused on developing and winning the core ideas expressed in the Statement. The Statement and FEA materials are on the web at http://www.edaccountability.org.

Posted by: montyneill | June 21, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Arne Duncan only listens to business people and politicians. He does not to anyone else - ever.

This is a wonderful letter the NCC put together. However Duncan will not listen.

Posted by: jlp19 | June 21, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

pjenks2 - Thanks for the clarification - and for getting this letter out.

Please keep pushing and let us know the President's and Duncan's response. They can't keep their heads in the sand forever.

Jpl19 - I see your point, however, Duncan isn't just dealing with Chicago anymore; he's dealing with the whole country and has a higher authority to answer to - and I don't mean God - I mean the President, the American people and all our children.

If his Chicago reform had worked, it might be different - but it didn't. None of the other experiments in Chicago or elsewhere that have been researched have been shown to be effective.

In medical research, when the experiment isn't working, it's stopped and medical practices are changed to protect people's health.

The same should be done in education. This is common sense.

Posted by: efavorite | June 21, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

"We look for a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that honors the professionalism of teachers and treats these individuals with respect. Wholesale scapegoating of public school teachers is an ugly and unfortunate development in federal policy."

That paragraph alone made the letter a worthwhile read. I welcome the day when I can proudly tell people that I'm a teacher with 34 years experience. In the current political climate, that's not something one wants to admit publicly for fear of being judged a slacker, child hater or waste of taxpayers' money. And people wonder why so many teachers quit within the first 5 years.

Posted by: musiclady | June 21, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

efavorite,

Duncan's higher authority is the business community that stands to make money off his so called "reforms."

Posted by: jlp19 | June 21, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

The tide is beginning to turn in support of children and teachers as the American people catch on to the fact that the present "reform" is all about directing school tax money to private pockets.

A big "thank you" to the National Council of Churches of Christ and to Valerie Strauss for knowing what is going on in education.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | June 21, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Bravo! The failure of the phony "reforms" pushed by Duncan, Rhee, TFA, NTP and the like has been well-documented. The most recent contribution was published less than 2 weeks ago (no practically no media notice, of course). Here is the link: http://www.greatlakescenter.org/docs/Policy_Briefs/Heilig_TeachForAmerica.pdf

The title is: "Teach For America: A Review of the Evidence." Perhaps the main stream media will take the tiome to review the evidence at some point, but I expect it will be long after this most recent education fad has done irreparable damage.

Posted by: mcstowy | June 21, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

The DOE response to the pastoral letter:

http://www.ncccusa.org/news/100603doeresponse.html

Note details of the convoluted twisted spin in this response....a few:

"We appreciate the attention and the support NCC is showing this most critical issue. Your outspokenness about disadvantaged students has been a very important voice in the fight for equal education for all children. We share your commitment to equity and justice in education. That is why this administration is charting a path to reform based on extensive experience and research to help ensure that all students have access to high-quality teaching and learning opportunities." [DOE attempts to redirect the concerns of the NCCC to appear as tho' the NCCC shares the same desire to further the path of reform as directed by Duncan. Has the DOE collective brain had a total break with reality?]

"We understood through those meetings that there was some concern and lack of understanding about the direction of the President Barack Obama’s education agenda, and we welcome the continued opportunity to discuss those concerns." [lack of understanding? - no, they do understand, thus the concern.]

"We accept your pledge to partner on the national effort to reform the education of America’s children. But as we work together we must not accept the status quo. We cannot educate our young people in the same way that we have in the past and expect our nation to remain strong and for our students to flourish in a global marketplace where knowledge is capital. The current system has left too many behind and unprepared. For us not to respond with visionary leadership would be the ultimate act of injustice." [the pastoral letter does not convey a desire to work with the DOE in the manner in which the DOE is unleashing its agenda. What is the DOE thinking?]

The DOE cannot expect the American people to accept such twisted respones, can they? Ah, but they do. Spit.

Posted by: shadwell1 | June 21, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

OK, Council, time for a response to the DOE response, parsing their words and asking for precise clarification. For instance, what does "visionary leadership" mean. It sounds like ignoring common sense in favor of following a vision.

Ironically, it looks like it's fallen to a religious group to help a government agency understand the need to use common sense over following a vision.

PLEASE NCCCUSA, keep the dialogue going - we need your common sense approach and we need DOE to logically examine their stance and we need more of the public to understand that the DOE is promoting visions instead of sound public policy.

Posted by: efavorite | June 21, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

....."We cannot educate our young people in the same way that we have in the past and expect our nation to remain strong and for our students to flourish in a global marketplace where knowledge is capital....."

Thank you shadwell1 for giving us some of the DOE response.

My responses to the particular sentence quoted above are two:

1. Core words: 'global marketplace' and 'capital'. So, therein lies the big business interests, and probably the real push behind RTTT. I don't object to educating children for future jobs, but when it's to the detriment of the rest of their education, which big business doesn't care about, then the political agenda is deeply flawed.

2. As to the part, "We cannot educate our young people as we have in the past....";

First of all, much of the 'past' is based on centuries of tried and true methodologies/research that have generally just gotten better as we have gained greater understanding of human development - so let's not be too quick to throw the baby ('old teachers'?)out with the bath.

Secondly, there is an underlying implication that current educators have no interest in developing new strategies. Absolutely not the case - any dedicated educator is interested in meaningful, worthwhile changes, the key words being meaningful and worthwhile.

Change, especially hasty change, for the sake of change is not always a good thing.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 21, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

This is the exact same Duncan did in Chicago. He didn't listen to the public.

Posted by: aby1 | June 21, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

I suggest that the NCCC have their letter published in as many news media sources across the nation as possible. Get the word out! Help the American public know what is going drastically wrong with public education. One thing that usually makes people sit up and take note is popular opinion. Perhaps enough outcry by the American public will help Duncan listen. One request, though, please don't call it "education reform". This makes it sounds like a criminal that needs to change. Public education is not criminal, but what they're trying to do to it, is.

Posted by: kmirac1es | June 28, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

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