Acton Commentary

Education Reformation?


Martin Luther penned these words in 1524 as a command and awarning 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 formallyorganized educational system; most education went on at monasteries, cloisters,or similar institutions. During this time period, however, these once-great institutions and their educationalmethods were falling into disrepute.In addition, formal education was limited to the wealthy—childrenof royals, nobles, or wealthy merchants. The only education available to the vast majority of childrenfell into the category of the merely practical—apprenticeships and thelike.

Luther, like so many others before him, believed that theultimate goal of education was to produce good citizens—moral, honest,up-right individuals. He believedthat society would prosper, not so much by its wealth and its power, but by thecharacter of the individual citizens of a given society. Thus, Luther urged the leaders ofGerman cities and towns to establish solid Christian schools.

Four hundred years later, America stands at a similarcrossroads. While the vastmajority of our children do receive an education, it is an education whosepurpose and results are in dispute.Across the nation, government schools regularly graduate students thatlack 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 theinterest of the child’s psychological/sociological well being, are now socommonplace they fail to shock.Numerous are the stories of both children and teachers who have beenheld as virtual hostages to the violence of students whose contempt for thedignity of those around them knows no limit. Despite these tragic and growing problems in ournation’s schools, the answers proposed by supporters of governmentschools is always the same: Funnelmore 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.
  • Advocate for education and tax policies that provide just distribution of educational resources.

While the bishops acknowledge Martin Luther’s call toestablish Christian schools for the benefit of society, they also state that“our Christian concern for general education can be advanced best bymaintaining, improving, and strengthening a system of public schools thatserves all children according to their needs.” The bishops repeatedly cite the call to care for eachaccording to his or her need, and to collect from each according to his or herability to pay. It should be noted, however, that pious statements should notserve as a substitute for substantive analysis.

The Lutheran bishops of Pennsylvania have fallen into a trapcommon for those interested in reforming education. The belief that more money alone, or money more equitablyshared, will somehow solve the problems of a failing educational system ignoresa fact that should be obvious to the bishops—small Christian schools, andother private schools, do a much better job of educating students with far lessfunding. In Pennsylvania, forexample, government schools spend an average of $7,367 per student, per year. This sum only includes the cost ofsalaries, classroom instruction, and the like; it does not include theconsiderable 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 per 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.