Martin Luther penned famous words in 1524 as a command and a warning to the people of Germany. At the dawn of the sixteenth century, education reform was a major concern for those who sought the good of society and humanity. At the time, there existed no formally organized educational system; most education went on at monasteries, cloisters, or similar institutions. During this time period, however, these once-great institutions and their educational methods were falling into disrepute. In addition, formal education was limited to the wealthy – children of royals, nobles, or wealthy merchants. The only education available to the vast majority of children fell into the category of the merely practical – apprenticeships and the like.
Luther, like so many others before him, believed that the ultimate goal of education was to produce good citizens – moral, honest, upright individuals. He believed that society would prosper, not so much by its wealth and its power, but by the character of the individual citizens of a given society. Thus, Luther urged the leaders of German cities and towns to establish solid Christian schools.
Four hundred years later, America stands at a similar crossroads. While the vast majority of our children do receive an education, it is an education whose purpose and results are in dispute. Across the nation, government schools regularly graduate students that lack even the most basic skills necessary to succeed in American society. Stories of students who could not read, but who were consistently passed from grade level to grade level in the interest of the child’s psychological/sociological well-being, are now so commonplace they fail to shock. Numerous are the stories of both children and teachers who have been held as virtual hostages to the violence of students whose contempt for the dignity of those around them knows no limit. Despite these tragic and growing problems in our nation’s schools, the answers proposed by supporters of government schools is always the same: Funnel more money into those same failing schools and programs.
On September 18, 2002, the seven bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pennsylvania issued a pastoral letter, Seeking Justice in Public Education Funding , attempting to offer some framework to address the ongoing crisis in public education in the United States. Among the solutions offered to address the difficulties in funding public education, the document offered two telling proposals:
- Support a system of taxation where government collects revenue based on its citizens’ ability to pay and provides assistances according to their needs; and
- Advocate for education and tax policies that provide just distribution of educational resources.
While the bishops acknowledge Martin Luther’s call to establish Christian schools for the benefit of society, they also state that “our Christian concern for general education can be advanced best by maintaining, improving, and strengthening a system of public schools that serves all children according to their needs.” The bishops repeatedly cite the call to care for each according to his or her need, and to collect from each according to his or her ability to pay. It should be noted, however, that pious statements should not serve as a substitute for substantive analysis.
The Lutheran bishops of Pennsylvania have fallen into a trap common for those interested in reforming education. The belief that more money alone, or money more equitably shared, will somehow solve the problems of a failing educational system ignores a fact that should be obvious to the bishops: Small Christian schools, and other private schools, do a much better job of educating students with far less funding. In Pennsylvania, for example, government schools spend an average of $7,367 a student, each year. This sum only includes the cost of salaries, classroom instruction, and the like; it does not include the considerable costs of construction and security.
On the other hand, according to the Shenango Institute for Public Policy, Christian schools in western Pennsylvania spend, on average, a total of $2,546 a student annually. Typically, these Christian schools also have more direct contact between students and teachers, with student to teacher ratios averaging 9-to-1, as opposed to the public school ratio of 17-to-1. Finally, as noted by Dr. Hans Sennholz in his commentary on the bishop’s pastoral letter , “The Christian school pupils generally score two years ahead of their classmates in public schools.” In spite of their own comments, the bishop’s solution to the crisis of government schools remains the same – higher taxes and increased spending.
As the moral and intellectual landscape of government schools continues to erode, serious questions are raised and serious solutions are required. Justice demands that believers allow no child to remain languishing in government schools that are incapable of performing the task for which they were founded: educating generations of children to be morally responsible and virtuous citizens. In Psalm 78:5-7, God commands “our fathers to teach [His laws] to their children; that the next generation might know them ... and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God.” It is abundantly clear to a great many believers that many government-run schools have failed in the important work of educating a virtuous citizenry. How different things might be if this were equally evident to some of our religious leaders.