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1999 NCC News Archives

Quality, Equality of U.S. Public Education to be Addressed
In Ecumenical Pilot Project in Pennsylvania

June 4, 1999, NEW YORK – Pennsylvania will be the "learning lab" for a new ecumenical campaign to increase the quality – and equality – of U.S. public education for all children. The Pennsylvania Council of Churches, Harrisburg, Pa., in cooperation with the National Council of Churches, has been awarded a $77,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation to operate the eight-month planning project, "Quality Public Education for All of Our Children."

Project goals during these first months include a substantive information and organizing effort among Pennsylvania's faith communities, including issues education and congregational programs exploring the importance of public education from the perspective of the faith community.

"It is exciting for us to encourage people in our pulpits and pews to think about public education, then follow through in practical ways to encourage our legislators to make the hard decisions needed to make Pennsylvania's public education fair statewide," said the Rev. K. Joy Kaufmann, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches' Director for Public Policy and Acting Executive Director.

The Rev. Kaufmann described Pennsylvania's multiplicity of school districts "and great inequity in the funding of those districts."

The state's contribution to each child's education has dropped from 55 to 36 percent over the past 25 years, she said, and a lot of poorer districts "just don't have the tax base it takes to provide the 'thorough and effective' education mandated by the Pennsylvania Constitution."

"The grant will enable us to hire a staff person and pull together a team from around the state representing the 22 denominations included in the Pennsylvania Council of Churches," she said. Roman Catholic, Jewish and other faith communities will be drawn into partnership to the fullest extent possible "so that we can begin substantive conversations about greater equity in public education.

The eight-month planning project is meant to lay the groundwork for a two- to four-year implementation phase – and serve as the "learning lab" for a multi-state program.

Said the Rev. Dr. Eileen Lindner of the National Council of Churches, "We at the NCC will provide the Pennsylvania Council with technical assistance as they need and as we may have. And we will be watching this project with care to see what we can learn about broader project in the future."

The Pennsylvania pilot project is launched as the NCC considers a new policy statement on "The Churches and The Public Schools at the Close of the Twentieth Century," which received a first reading by the Council's General Assembly in November 1998. Currently circulating among the NCC's 35 Protestant and Orthodox member communions for review and feedback, a final text is expected to win approval during the NCC's 50th anniversary assembly in Cleveland this November.

The policy statement asserts that "public schools have been a cornerstone of our democracy" and points to the disparities in funding of public schools. Public education has long been America's most effective anti-poverty program.

It also spells 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."

Commented the Rev. Dr. Lindner, "There's probably never been a time in the history of this republic that public education is undergoing such rapid change and challenge from within and without. Much of the challenge has to do with equity of funding, which is in the first instance both a civil rights matter and an educational opportunity matter.

"What's at stake is not only every generation of young children, but the republic itself. This nation has always operated on the basis of an educated citizenry and by and large the public schools have been the basis."

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