October 1999 Church & State | Viewpoint

Of all the groundless, hurtful attacks on public educators, none is more painful than the charge that public schools are "godless" institutions of secular humanism. From Phyllis Schlafly and William Bennett to Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, the staccato drumbeat against public education includes religious defamation.

The Constitution requires that public education be neutral in the arena of sectarian religion, but that's a far cry from the debasement heaped upon public educators. A torrent of abuse has flooded the airwaves since the shootings in Littleton--if only the Ten Commandments had been posted. If only prayer had been permitted. If only school teachers were not void of values.

It is ironic that the religious and political critics bring no facts to the table. Columbine High School was rife with religion--the kind permitted under the Constitution. There were Bible clubs, a religious organization for athletes, "prayer at the pole" and a largely Christian faculty.

The crescendo of calumny heaped on public education by the likes of Cal Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and other politicos is a partisan attack. They promote vouchers and charter schools--the resegregation of America, this time along class lines.

Who is for spiritual values for kids and who is just kidding? Can you name one other institution that comes nearer to biblical injunctions than public schools?

Feeding the hungry? Last year for nearly 30 percent of public school children, it was the only hot meal they got.

Clothing the naked? There's hardly an elementary school in a poor neighborhood in America that does not have a clothing closet stuffed with underwear, socks and other necessities for have-not children.

The widow's mite? The average teacher spent more than $400 of personal funds for such things as workbooks and pencils for poor children.

Visiting the prisoners? Those are public educators manning the GED, vo-tech, literacy and skill centers behind the walls-- redeeming tens of thousands of otherwise lost lives.

No greater love? The Littleton teacher who herded children into a room for safety, then shielded them with his own body, lay shot and dying in front of the praying students he had saved.

Role models? No other profession provides a higher percentage of Sunday school teachers.

Suffer the little ones? Who takes millions of little ones who are retarded, developmentally disabled or mentally handicapped? Who redeems the dispossessed and the delinquent in alternative education programs?

If you're looking for values, consider the majority of teachers who spend their own time and money mentoring students, sponsoring non-academic class activities, all the while attempting to deal with the most undisciplined generation ever to enter public education.

Because teachers can't pin on a church label and baptize the students doesn't make public education any less spiritual. It isn't the babbling critics who wrap themselves in religious intolerance who are making a difference for all of God's children. They preach to the saved in the rear echelon while public school teachers staff the front line.

Public educators don't have the time or the inclination to bash Christian, parochial or other private schools, or the home schoolers who so often bitterly denounce public education.

Look who comes to public school among the 46.5 million enrolled this year, then consider who truly does God's work:

* Six million for whom English is a second language.

* Six million special ed. children.

* More than two million abused children.

* Nearly 500,000 from no permanent address.

* One out of four comes from extreme poverty, often born out of wedlock, and many are abused, neglected, unwashed, unwanted and unloved.

You won't find these kids on Robertson's "700 Club" or at Kennedy's Florida church or playing in the backyards of William Bennett or Lamar Alexander. They won't profit from the $114 million that poured into Dobson's Focus on the Family last year, and they won't be adopted by the childless Pat Buchanans.

The teachers who minister to them are scorned on editorial pages and maligned from ignorant pulpits, but they keep on keeping on--and only God knows why. They earn the poorest salaries among all the industrial nations, yet a new study shows they are among the brightest college students and nearly half hold master's degrees.

With all its warts, public education produces more math and science brains than all of private education combined. From astronauts to Pulitzer prize winners, from Nobel laureates to the clergy, they are in the front rank.

The public school day may not start with a Hail Mary or an Our Father, a mantra or a blood sacrifice, but public education does more of God's work for children every day than any other institution in America--and that includes the churches.

Frosty Troy is editor of The Oklahoma Observer. He serves on the National Advisory Council of Americans United. The Viewpoint column is a forum for varied opinions and does not necessarily represent the stance of Americans United.