How faith can — and should — inform our school choice

The theologian Karl Barth interpreted the biblical command to love one’s neighbor as oneself in a curious way. He said it means to act as if we ourselves are our neighbor.

Since reporter Keri Mitchell is spotlighting Dallas public schools this month in several editions of the Advocate, allow me to offer some thoughts I hope will make for a better future for our community, regardless of what attendance boundaries one lives in.

First, public schools are not just a means of education for underprivileged and economically disadvantaged students; they are for everyone. And yet, urban school census statistics say otherwise. Dallas schools are severely segregated for two reasons: school zones have traditionally been drawn by neighborhood boundaries, and neighborhood subdivisions are clearly marked by wealth divisions; and those with greater resources often choose to send their children to private rather than public schools.

Since the 1954 Supreme Court decision on Brown vs. Board of Education, legal challenges to segregated schools have focused primarily on race. But race is an elusive and deeply-charged way of addressing the problems. It is true that Anglo citizens make up about half the population of Dallas but less than 5 percent of DISD enrollment. This means that the vast majority of white Dallas students attend private schools. DISD is 70 percent Hispanic and 23 percent African American. But data make clear that socioeconomic diversity in schools — that is, a fair mix of rich and poor — is an even better and less polarizing way of addressing the matter of improving student academic outcomes.

Second, many urban school districts are coming to understand this and are creating experiments in public school choice. These non-geographical innovations avoid the privatizing-voucher approach that undermines public education in the name of choice. They benefit students poor and rich alike — in educational outcomes, and also in improved social and cultural intelligence.

Wealthy parents do not want to send their kids to public schools merely to participate in a social experiment at the expense of educational achievement. But the truth is — and this is where the narrative has to change in our neighborhoods and churches — it’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and.

The bonus for America would be enormous if our public schools were more socioeconomically diverse. We would be pulling some up without dragging others down, the dragging down part always being the lingering fear. But we would also create relationships and mutual understanding from a young age across class and cultural divides that would begin to restitch the fraying national fabric.

Third, there are legitimate reasons for parents who can afford it to send their children to private schools. They may do so because they want explicit religious instruction that reinforces teaching at home and in church/synagogue/mosque. Children may have learning challenges and need more personalized attention than they will get in some public schools. But this doesn’t account for all the reasons the vast majority of Dallas’ wealthier families send their kids to private schools. Many think of it primarily in terms of gaining or maintaining a generational socioeconomic edge. Sadly, the consequence to that is perpetual hope for a few and despair for many.

I wonder what we would decide about where our children go to school if we made the first criterion what we would do if we ourselves were our neighbor?