5 Things Pastors Can Call For, So States Continue to Improve Public Schools

As a matter of Biblical Justice, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) has brazenly chosen to engage its voice in discussions surrounding America’s public education system. A mere 29% of Americans express a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools, and that is just unacceptable in a nation where 90% of our students attend traditional preK-12 public school. The Bible instructs, rather, commands us, “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great,” (Lev. 19:15) and yet our students’ educational achievement is largely predicted and divided by race and income-level.

This knowledge is not new. In fact, efforts to correct this inequality have come from governments at both the federal and state level in compliance with a 2015 bi-partisan piece of legislation. Additionally, Promise to Practice, an independent peer review of states’ efforts towards school improvement in 17 states was recently released. In the report, states were evaluated as exemplary, strong, adequate, needs improvement, weak, or not available, and these results provide a basis from which pastors, faith leaders, and Christian parents can begin to engage with the public education school system in their states.

Romans 13:5-7 urges us to “Render to all what is due them,” and as men and women of faith we must hold our state and local leaders accountable in giving what is due to taxpayers which, for one, is to provide a public school system that supports the success of all students, and when it does not, to work towards improving those schools. With the school-year halfway completed, here are five things the Faith and Education Coalition and its Leadership Advisory Council suggest pastors should ask of their state and district boards of education regarding school improvement:

  1. Encourage and facilitate engagement with community stakeholders at every opportunity.

Summer Vertrees of Tennessee says, “Local education agencies have to truly seek an equal partnership in their communities where parents, taxpayers, and other local contributors can voice dissent, encouragement, or innovation without fear of retaliation, repercussions, or apathy.” For school improvement plans to really take root and succeed, they must reflect regular input and commitment of not only state officials and policy experts, but also parents, local leaders, education advocates, and other organizations that serve families and children.

  1. Make equity a clear focus for underperforming schools and subgroups.

States do students a great service when school districts are required to expressly demonstrate how they will address inequities – such as outlining how they intend to provide underperforming students with greater access to high quality teachers, rigorous curriculum or enrichment opportunities – in order to receive additional funding. According to Promise to Practice, this is something that fewer than half the states in the study reasonably achieved, and Rev. Abraham Hernandez and Lourdes Delgado hope this vagueness does not cloud the necessity for Connecticut’s schools to recruit and increase the number of high quality bi-lingual teachers that serve the growing English-Learner (EL) population, because as they put it, “Right now, our EL students’ achievement compared to that of traditional students is simply unacceptable.”

  1. Ensure funds are distributed to districts based upon the quality of their school-improvement funding application and their needs-assessment.

Promise to Practice discovered that school-improvement funds were not necessarily allocated based on the quality of the plan, rather, simply the completion of the plan. In Texas, for example, the state’s school-improvement scoring rubric assigns points according to whether or not certain elements are present in the application rather than if the elements have potential quality or efficacy. We hope to see in school-improvement plans a clear demonstration of the matching of a school’s need with evidence-based strategies before states commit to providing additional funding for the district or school.

  1. Construct a school-improvement sustainability plan.

JoAnn Lira comments, “It is encouraging to find that the strongest part of New York’s school-improvement plan is the support system it has put in place, so that not only will educators receive the expectations and schools receive incentives, but school boards will also receive training.” It is great to see states serious about school improvement. However, what happens once the school is no longer in the “needs improvement” category? Promise to Practice found that “no state [whatsoever] articulated a clear plan for supporting schools after they exit improvement status to help ensure they maintain gains.” School-improvement efforts must include exemplary plans for ensuring that schools do not fall back into the “needs improvement” category, otherwise our state’s good work will be all for naught.

  1. Implement a system of recurring accountability of school-improvement efforts.

States and districts should work together to establish a monitoring cycle on school-improvement implementation. We can imagine a system based on milestones and timelines, such as a 30-60-90-day cycle, that relies on key data in order to make decisions and evaluations on the school’s or district’s progress. Dr. Floralba Arbelo says, “In my state, Florida, schools that enroll EL students and other under-represented groups must ensure that data metrics include subgroup data that has the potential to inform practices and support policies for these high-need groups. The urban areas, the counties with the most diverse groups of students and faculty, these are the ones most affected.”

Many communities in our nation need a caring and loving leader who is looking out for the best interest of the community members. Faith leaders can do their part to understand school improvement efforts happening in their state and communities so that our schools are held accountable in meeting the goal of providing our students with an education that prepares them for college or a career upon high school graduation. Pastors, ministers, parents, and leaders, I encourage you to utilize this sample letter and communicate these school-improvement standards to your state and district boards of education. Your voice needs to be heard.

The Rev. Girien Salazar
Director, Faith and Education Coalition-NHCLC