Starting Places

A Sermon by Jennifer Brooks, ministerial intern
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– February 24, 2002 –

[Choir finishes "Simple Gifts."]

Every time I hear the song "Simple Gifts," I'm impressed by its wisdom. "Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.... To turn, turn, shall be our delight, till by turning, turning we come round right." I like the song's idea that we may have to turn to go back, to look at things again, to see from another perspective. The ability to re-examine the world and our place in it is a gift.

I wonder if this idea influenced the philosopher John Rawls, whose words appear at the top of the order of service for today. Rawls spent most of his career thinking about justice, particularly the justice, or injustice, of the different positions people hold in the world. He tried to imagine what society would be like if it were designed by a group of people from different walks of life who did not know what their positions would be in the new world they were designing. He thought that they would choose to create a just society, out of self-interest if for no other reason. For most of his working life, Rawls turned this idea around and aroundótrying to "come round right" in his vision of a just society.

The just society Rawls imagined was one where people's lives would not be determined by the social and economic position of their parents. Rawls came to the conclusion that the most significant generator of injustice is the inequality of "starting places." Children don't choose their parents. They don't choose to grow up poor. They don't choose to live in bad neighborhoods with poor schools.

Rawls recognized that "the institutions of society" like the public school system can reinforce "starting-place inequality." Early childhood education, followed by education at the high-school level, is one of our society's most influential starting places. For many children the local public school is not "the place just right." It's hardly a "valley of love and delight." Today we take a look at public education in an effort to figure out how this crucial "starting place" could help to eliminate inequalities rather than create them. How the public schools might begin to work justice not only for our children, but for the children who are not our children.

Among the uniquely gifted people here at Paint Branch is worship associate Leo Jones. Leo is fortunate among us in that he is privileged to do work that reflects his core values. Based at Johns Hopkins University, Leo helps public schools better serve the children who attend them. I've asked Leo to share some of his experiences with public education, as well as his vision of what publicly-funded schools could be.

[Leo speaks.]

Earlier this morning, Leo read to you an excerpt from the story of Cedric Jennings. Cedric grew up in an inner-city Washington, DC neighborhood as the only son of a single mom. His mother was on welfare for his earliest years. When Cedric started school, she went back to work. Because her minimum-wage job did not allow her either to live in a good neighborhood or to pay for child-care, she gave him his own key to their apartment and warned him about the drug dealers. Would any of us here today CHOOSE this starting place for our children?

Cedric did well in school, so well that he was at the top of his class. In high school he was admitted to a special summer math program at Brown University. All of his classmates were minorities, but most of them had gone to suburban schools. Cedric was horrified to discover how far ahead they were, how much they already knew, how much they had been taught, that he did not know. He returned to Washington determined to go to Brown, and he did, working extra hard in an individual program designed especially for him. But his first year in college was a nightmare because the inner-city school system had not prepared him for college work. Even with all the extra preparation, Cedric started out far behind his classmates.

Starting-place inequality. Cedric was lucky. He was one of the few who overcame, mostly, the unfortunate circumstances of his starting place in life. But think of the others who never make it that far, who drop out or move into dead-end jobs.

After early childhood in an unsafe neighborhood, with minimal or no pre-school education, poor nutrition, and poor health care, those kids start school. Plaster falls on their heads. There aren't enough books. There aren't enough seats. Per-capita spending for public education is far below the budget of cutting-edge suburban school districts. In many of our major urban areas, the difference between the high- and low-districts' spending is greater than the amount the low-income districts have to spend.

We sometimes hear that it isn't money that makes a difference in good and bad schools. It's true that money can be wasted, and that dedicated teachers can find a way to teach even in bad conditions. But these spending differentials translate into vast differences between schools: in the suburbs, an 18-to-1 student-teacher ratio; a 97-percent college-admission rate; computers; music, drama, and art classes. In the cities, schools that with a 45-to-1 student-teacher ratio and a dropout rate greater than 50 percent. And another important fact: Kids at the good schools are disproportionately white; kids at the wretched ones are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

We want to think of America as a land of opportunity. But these starting-place differences in our public schools reinforce whatever starting-place inequality may be present at birth. Over 12 years of deficient public education, starting-place inequality is set in concrete. How did this happen?

A central cause of the spending differential is local school financing. Most schools are financed by property taxes on property in the school district. School districts are typically homogeneous that is, either predominately wealthy, with high property values, or predominantly poor, with low property values. Low property values means less money for schools. In 1976, the US Supreme Court decided a case called San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez. Mr. Rodriguez, who lived in a poor section of San Antonio, Texas, thought it was wrong that his kids went to obviously substandard schools when kids in the adjoining wealthy part of town had beautiful schools with small classes and well-trained teachers. The Supreme Court ruled that differences in school financing, even substantial differences, did not violate the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.

Now, more than 25 years later, that ruling still stands. But the state courts have had many opportunities to interpret their own state constitutions. More than half have ruled that financing has to be more even. The idea is that although differences may exist, the poorest districts should still have enough money for decent schools, even if they are not equal to the schools in the wealthiest districts. This is the approach we've taken here in Maryland.

This has been a huge step in the right direction, but not nearly enough to eliminate starting-place inequality. Leo has told you his experiences schools so inadequate that some students are taught in a basement classroom with a dirt floor.

Small class size, and individual attention, are even more crucial in poor school districts than wealthy ones. People sometimes say that "studies show" class size doesn't make a difference. Those studies usually look at small reductions, for example from 38 to 32 students. They also usually correct for other variables. That means that overcrowding, discipline issues, malnutrition, lack of sleep, asthma, other illnesses, and a child's fears about the stability of home life are set aside, so that comparisons are made between groups of children in similar circumstances.

But that's the problem of starting-place inequality: children are not in similar circumstances. A child whose family has just been evicted for nonpayment of rent, or a child who hasn't had enough to eat, or a child who hasn't been warm all night, really is not in the same circumstances as a child from a safe suburban home. It is particularly appropriate to have the UU Affordable Housing Corporation board here with us today. Education learning in school is nearly impossible for children who lack a stable living situation. In addition to housing, parental physical and mental health, income levels, and availability all affect a child's ability to learn.

Our school district lines are often drawn in such a way that the wealthy districts are carved out from the poor districts. That means that the poor districts not only have the least money; they also have the most problems. Even after the infusion of state funds as a result of financing adjustment formulas, the poorest districts have more money than they did before, but still less than the wealthiest districts. And in the wealthy districts, children typically have enough to eat, they have good health care, they have a stable living situation, they have one or both parents, or other care-givers, available to help with homework. It's the poor districts, where 90% of the problems are concentrated, that have less money.

How would money help? It could reduce class size to 12 or 15. It could pay for classroom assistants and tutoring for kids who were learning-disabled. It could pay for free after-school programs that would give kids a safe place to play and study while parents were still at work. It would pay for enrichment teachers (music, art, science) to help fill the gap minimum-wage families can't fill on their own. It would pay for food, for a health clinic on school grounds, for a social worker whose knowledge of the children could trigger action if a family needed help with housing or job placement. The school could become a center for addressing the many problems that keep a child from learning.

The school could begin to make up for the starting-place inequalities that brought those children to that school in that neighborhood.

But it takes money. Not just a bit more money, but a lot more money. Our elected representatives, however, are strangely more responsive to the needs of potential campaign contributors than to the needs of the invisible poor.

So where do we begin?

Here at Paint Branch, we begin with Beacon House, our community ministry in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington DC. We tutor, we donate money for school supplies, we mentor and support children in various ways. Look for the bulletin board in the foyer to see what help is needed, and when.

We also begin with our Task Force on Public Education, headed by Dave Haberman. The task is looking at local elementary schools with an eye to providing some support tailored to the needs of the school. It's also looking at the larger picture, and can be our vehicle for advocacy. The task force needs members. Call the ministers or Dave, and sign up.

We also begin with ourselves. This morning has been an opportunity to start looking at the problem of public education. As individuals, we can keep learning. We can be alert to newspaper reports. We can speak at school board meetings. We can write to the members of our county council and to our state representatives. We can pay attention to federal education initiatives.

A strong public education system is an American birthright. It can mean the difference between a population of well-educated, self-actualizing people living fulfilling lives, and a population divided by starting-place inequality into an upper class and a permanent underclass. America can't be the land of the free unless each child is educated well enough to search freely for truth and meaning.

Justice requires that we find a way to give to all children a starting place that we would be willing to give to the children we love and call our own.

Public education is a justice issue. We are Unitarian Universalizes. Justice is what we do.

Let it be.

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