Christians and Education Inequity: An Interview with Nicole Baker Fulgham


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

When Nicole Baker Fulgham met one of her fellow faith-based public school advocates for coffee once, he recounted a conversation he had with a friend who is a long-time elementary school principal in the Bronx. Asked about his interaction with local churches, the principal said: 

“In my twenty years of working in the Bronx, the neighborhood churches have only reached out to me two times. One time they came to lobby for prayer in public schools. The other time they protested new science curriculum that included evolution. Twice they contact me in twenty years---and they wanted to talk about school prayer and evolution. But you know what? For twenty years I’ve had kids who cannot read or do basic math. My students struggle to make it through school. We don’t have enough books, supplies, or resources for them. Our school building is literally crumbling around us. The kids have life-threatening, urgent needs. They’re hungry; they’re homeless. But in all these years, you’ve only criticized. You’ve never helped. Taking evolution out of my textbooks won’t change a thing for my kids. They’ll still be poor, uneducated, and stuck in the cycle of poverty. But not one church person has ever asked me about any of those things.” 

Ouch. 

The conversation made an impression on Nicole, who is the president and founder of The Expectations Project, a national organization that mobilizes people of faith to support public education reform and close the academic achievement gap. Spurred by this experience and many others from her career in education, Nicole recently released a book entitled Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids . 

I found Educating All God's Children both informative and challenging, and I wanted to introduce you to this true woman of valor. So today I’m thrilled to share a conversation with Nicole Baker Fulgham about Christians and the important issue of education inequity.  

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Rachel: In your book you describe how Christians have historically been very involved in improving education for disenfranchised children. Tell us a little more about that.

Nicole: I was so encouraged to learn about the long history of Christians working on educational equity issues. All the way back to William Wilberforce starting Sunday Schools for poor children in England, Christians have played a significant role in the fight for educational opportunity. Protestant groups founded some of our nation’s first public schools to ensure that every child (not just the children from elite families) had the opportunity to learn. And more recently, Catholic schools and Lutheran schools have demonstrated a staunch commitment to urban education—at a time when many wealthier families fled from our nation’s cities.

Rachel: You note that while Catholics, African Americans, Hispanics and many Mainline Protestants have continued to be involved in public education, White evangelical Christians are largely absent, until a “culture war” issue arises—(around school-led prayer, evolution, sex ed, etc.)— and the protests begin. What do you think happened? Why this disparity between an historical investment in public education by Christians and the current state of things?

Nicole: Yes, it’s heartbreaking to think that many people in the country haven’t perceived Christians as concerned with one of our nation’s biggest injustices. The good news is that I deeply believe this tide is starting to turn. At The Expectations Project, the non-profit organization I lead, we see so many Christians being drawn to this work. But on the whole, if we’re honest with ourselves, certain groups of Christians haven’t focused much effort on eliminating public educational inequity. Some of the disconnect is based on where some of us may live. If our own neighborhoods and schools are great, it’s easy to forget about those who aren’t as fortunate. And, historically, the evangelical community has taken several steps back from public schools over the last few decades—particularly since prayer was removed from schools. If we view schools as antithetical to our beliefs, it’s likely harder to get motivated to improve those same schools. Finally, I don’t think many Christians are aware of our historical connection to public education—and we need to reclaim that history and purpose.

Can you share some examples of churches that have partnered with schools to cast a better vision for public school achievement and equity?

One of my favorite stories is a church in Southern California whose pastor became burdened with educational inequity. He and his staff did a little internet research to identify the lowest-performing public school closest to their church. The pastor reached out to the principal and requested a meeting. In that initial meeting the church leadership simply said, “We are from a church about fifteen minutes from here, and we see that some of your students are struggling. How can we help?” The principal was taken aback, but mentioned that the school needed new computers so they could provide more robust instruction for students who were lagging behind. The pastor went back to his large congregation and raised an offering of about $50,000 for the school. Not surprisingly, the principal was blown away—and incredibly grateful. That, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The church held appreciation dinners for the teachers, and they began tutoring students and truly getting involved in the life of the school. Through their actions, this church demonstrated God’s love for the students, their families, and the teachers. And, in the midst of that, the students received additional support to improve their academic achievement.

You suggest that some of the most effective models of closing the academic achievement gap are found at the school-based level. Can you share some examples?

Sure—I love talking about what’s working in public schools! More and more public schools are defying the low expectations of kids in low-income communities. These schools have a lot in common: They’re setting high expectations for all students, and they don’t waver on that. They are incredibly resourceful about how to help students meet those standards. They’re extending the school day to give kids more opportunities to catch up on what they missed. They are finding social support services to meet the needs of families who are struggling with poverty. These schools typically have a phenomenal principal who establishes a welcoming, community-based culture for kids and families. And, not surprisingly, these types of schools tend to attract and retain some of the very best teachers. And, quite honestly, none of these ideas are revolutionary—but they do require very hard work from multiple stakeholders.

What would you say is the #1 thing that Christians who aren’t directly involved in education as teachers or administrators can do to help change the disparity and achievement gap within America’s public schools?

This might surprise you, but I think Christians can have the biggest impact by becoming vocal champions of what’s possible in low-income public schools. Our society desperately needs more advocates for public schools who deeply believe in the God-given potential of every single student. If we don’t believe this type of success is possible, we will never garner the political will to enact the hard, but necessary, reforms. If we start proclaiming this belief over and over again in our communities—and then start putting our faith into action by becoming tutors, starting public school partnerships, and contacting our local, state, and national elected officials to demand change—then we’ll have a movement!

How do you respond to church leaders who are afraid of making education a priority within their congregations because they fear the public policy issues related to education are too political?

I totally understand this hesitation. The current climate on public education reform is often caustic and divisive. At times, neither “side” of the debate shows a lot of generosity towards each other. But I’d suggest that’s exactly why Christians should get involved in these issues! Where politics, special interests, and discord abound, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s in the best interest of the people who have the tiniest voice: the children. We have a unique opportunity to make educational equity a moral issue. We can bring courage to the debate, along with the commitment to find common ground. I deeply believe that we will not get to the best outcome for children in poor communities without faith communities taking a stand.

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Be sure to check out Educating God’s Children. You can find The Expectations Project online or follow Nicole on Twitter. 

If you're interested in becoming a better advocate for kids caught up in education inequity and are looking for some place to start, consider getting involved in Educational Equity Sunday. 

So, how has your church been involved in public education? What obstacles keep you and your faith community from engaging more? 

 

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