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1998 General Assembly, Nov. 9-13, Chicago

Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools Calls for NCC
to Provide Moral Leadership in Public Education

Theological Basis for the Policy
Text of David Hornbeck's Address to NCC General Assembly
Proposed NCC Policy on "The Churches and the Public Schools"

CHICAGO, Nov. 11, 1998 ---- Calling for the 35 communions of the National Council of Churches (NCC) to use their "moral vision and political power" to support the rights of all public school children to a quality education, the Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools brought the delegates at the NCC’s annual General Assembly to their feet with his cry for action.

"I come to you because no important social change has ever taken place in this land without the leadership of the church," said Dr. David Hornbeck, the superintendent of the Philadelphia School District. Dr. Hornbeck has a successful track record of reform and is one of the parties, with the mayor and the School Board, to file an historic civil rights lawsuit to press for fair funding for Philadelphia’s students. "I come to you today to make the case for the next great Civil Rights battleground of the nation – public education."

"Public education and the disadvantaged children of this nation are at a crossroads," he said. "Poor and black and brown kids across the nation need faith communities to find their moral voice." He encouraged faith communities to tell elected officials "that whatever experiments they may want to try," like vouchers, "they must first level the academic playing field for the many, many children who have been historically left out."

Dr. Hornbeck’s comments came in the context of a proposed policy statement on "The Churches and The Public Schools at the Close of the Twentieth Century," which received a first reading at this year’s meeting. Comments made by delegates during today’s debate and during a hearing to be held Nov. 13 will be considered by the originating committee, the statement will be revised and it will be brought to next year’s General Assembly for final approval.

The policy statement asserts that "public schools have been a cornerstone of our democracy," points to the disparities in funding of public schools and "affirm(s) once again that public moneys should be used only for public schools."

The statement also encourages partnership programs between churches and public schools "to provide after-school and vacation help, enrichment and adopt-a-school programs, and literacy and reading emphases." Dr. Hornbeck called on the NCC to encourage just such partnerships, saying, "It is my understanding that the NCC communions represent 231,000 parishes, with an estimated 43 million Christians in attendance each week. Since there are only 87,000 public schools in the United States, there are almost three parishes and 500 active Christians for every school. We have the people. We need only respond, each of us, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me!’"

Dr. Hornbeck outlined the disparity of educational opportunity available to children of different races, income levels and native languages. "Philadelphia has more than $1,500 less per child per year than is spent on average in the surrounding 61 school districts. The highest spending districts in our region spend about $7,000 more per student."

This disparity results from "the low expectation that large numbers of individuals in every stakeholder group have of our children," Dr. Hornbeck said. "There is a widespread belief that children of color, children who are poor, kids for whom English is a second language, and disabled children simply cannot learn at high levels. It is 'the bell curve.' This expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Dr. Hornbeck, who holds both seminary and law school degrees, repeatedly cited moral and religious reasons for remedying this imbalance. He drew on faith-based sources, including scripture and an opening quote from Rabbi Abraham Heschel, "To speak about God and not protest gross unfairness to our children is blasphemous."

The policy statement also spelled out the NCC’s theological basis for its position. "As Christians, we are mindful of both Jesus’ extraordinary care and concern for children, and of his admonition that those who put stumbling blocks in the path of children would be better off if they were thrown into the sea with a millstone tied about their necks (Mark 9:36-42)," it reads. "In our society, to fail to provide a child with the best kind of education available is to put an almost insurmountable stumbling block in the path of that child."

NCC delegates were overwhelmingly supportive of Hornbeck’s comments and of the policy statement, although some felt the policy statement does not go far enough.

"This resolution says nothing about increasing funding to public education," said Dr. Hazel Steward, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) delegation who is also a regional Superintendent of Schools in Chicago. "In Illinois, the percentage of money given to education has decreased from 49 percent to 32 percent. I would hope this statement would ask for state legislatures and the national Congress to increase education funding."

"This dances around the real issue," said Ms. Bettie Durrah of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who lives in Atlanta. "We have talked a good talk. In order to walk the walk, we need to ask congregants to place their children in public schools."

"We need a stronger directive than just encouraging," concurred Clydia Nahwooksy of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. "I don’t know how many of you watched that old TV show ‘Bonanza,’ but Hoss Cartwright, who was my hero, said in one show, ‘Them that gots, gets.’ From my experience in the Native American community, so many people don’t get because they don’t know how to work the system."

"We need to find new ways of partnership, including mixing students from the suburbs (with urban children)," commented Dr. Constance Tarasar of the Orthodox Church in America.

The Rev. Conley Hughes of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. said even though his denomination supports a network of private schools, "I believe in the separation of church and state. This policy statement is a well balanced approach to a very complicated problem."

Bishop Jon Enslin of the ELCA was critical of the tone of the document. "I am not sure that new ways are always malicious," he said. "The issues are more complex than is communicated here." He also said that the conviction that public funds should only be used for public purposes might disturb some "wonderful connections between churches and government" that exist today.

Delegates largely agreed with Dr. Hornbeck that any NCC policy will need to lead to pragmatic action plans. "You are the tacticians," he told the delegates.

"From our experience in Philadelphia, I know that the barriers we face in public education are not educational ones," Dr. Hornbeck stressed. "The barriers are ones of will, resolve and politics, both inside the system and outside. They arise from what a piece in the New York Times Magazine recently characterized as government of, by and for the comfortable. The moral leadership of the ‘Servant Church’ is needed in public education."


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