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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Fall 2002, Vol. 29 No. 2

Our Public Schools: Inclusive Mission Brings Us All Together

Jan Resseger

On a May Iowa morning, I sat in the sunlight pouring through the colored windows into Herrick Chapel at Grinnell College as I listened to one of my daughter’s classmates present her Baccalaureate address. Thirty-three years after my own graduation from this college, I had returned to celebrate with my daughter as she graduated. As I began to listen to Ms. Julia Haltiwanger, I did not realize that her speech and the other graduation events would become an important lens through which I would spend the summer reflecting on my work as a public schools advocate for the United Church of Christ.

Ms. Haltiwanger exhorted her classmates to change the world, not so much because of the horrible injustices that surround us all, but because, "A world so full of important and wonderful things leaves absolutely no room for apathy and no excuse for being jaded." "When we care, when we do the best we can to make things better, we’re doing it because of the things and people that are important to us. We should all be activists because of all the things we love about our world, the beautiful things that make us glad to be alive."

Ms. Haltiwanger’s speech has challenged me. Working as I do in the Justice and Witness Ministries of the UCC, I know that I cannot follow her advice entirely. Working as I do to eliminate economic and racial injustices in public schools in the United States, I am called to put the spotlight on injustice itself, to tear the blinders off the eyes of smug people who deny inequity and prefer to pretend we can manage away social injustice with a quick, simple remedy. As our nation’s largest social institution, public schools embody attitudes that desperately need challenging-attitudes about race and poverty, power and privilege, and cultural dominance and marginalization. Our unwillingness as citizens to fund public schools in particular locations is especially troubling because it reflects our attitudes, our biases, and frequently a level of bigotry we all prefer to deny.

But what about following Ms. Haltiwanger’s advice? Should we set about working for public education justice on the premise that the schools many have come to disdain as "failing schools" are somehow worthy and beautiful? Could we imagine that we need to preserve our nation’s system of public schools because it is one of our greatest blessings—that this vast system will be the key to enabling the vast majority of children to participate in meaningful work, to maintaining and enriching the vitality of our cities, to developing the arts and literature, to building our capacity to manage the environment, to helping us listen and appreciate the growing cultural diversity in our nation, and to developing some consensus across our vast diversity about the dreams we share for our children?

UCC Rejects Vouchers

After a stressful and busy spring, I had not taken time until we began our long drive out to Iowa to reflect deeply on the implications of the long awaited U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Zelman Voucher Case, a decision not yet announced in May, but anticipated within only a month. The Cleveland voucher program is something I know well. The UCC’s denominational offices are here in Cleveland, and I have been watching this program since Rep. Mike Fox proposed the bill to the Ohio Legislature back in 1992. I watched a previous challenge to this program all the way through the state court system in the late nineties, and I’ve been watching the Zelman case itself move through the federal courts beginning with Judge Solomon Oliver’s 1999 finding in federal district court that the program was unconstitutional.

[Fall 2002 Issue Contents]