What’s Good Enough in Texas Public Schools?

Sermon delivered August 12, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

As this Shabbat marks a major milestone in the life of Chelsea and her family, my own family will experience a significant transition in the week ahead. Robert, our older son, will begin Kindergarten at Howard Elementary. On Wednesday morning, we got to meet the teacher and see the classroom. Robert, of course, is the brightest and most adorable child in the whole school, at least in our opinion.

And what else should we think? In the early 1980s, when I was a counselor at Greene Family Camp, Loui Dobin, who is still the Camp Director, spoke to the staff on the opening night of Staff Orientation. His theme was: “Every camper is the most important person in the world.” He emphasized the inestimable value of each and every child in our bunks. Yes, one child would seem brighter, and another more obedient. And yes, one child would be defiant and another painfully shy. And yet, out of hundreds of campers, each one would be the single most important child there, in the eyes of his or her own parents.

Loui might have added, of course, that each child is the most important person in the world in the eyes of God, the Parent of us all. Each and every one is created in God’s image. No child is more important, or less important, because he is brighter. No student is created superior, as evidenced by her being more musically talented. No child is more deserving of attention, because his parents or wealthy. No student is less entitled to opportunity, on account of her parents’ being homeless alcoholics.

Such an ideal is no less an American promise than a Jewish value. While we hear a great deal about interpretation of the Constitution these days, the true foundational document of our nation is the Declaration of Independence. Though they did not always practice what they preached, our founders famously proclaimed: “All men are created equal.” Whether they meant to include women or not, we understand their meaning to embrace all Americans.

Strange, then, that equality does not seem to be a priority, as our society sets about the task of educating its children, the most important people in the world.

I lived in Chicago around the time that Jonathan Kozol published a book, entitled, Savage Inequalities. He described the huge discrepancies between the education offered to children who lived in Chicago’s wealthiest suburbs and those who live in its poorest inner-city neighborhoods. These differences are “savage,” as the book title suggests, because poor children’s lives are set on almost inescapably dead-end paths, starting from the lack of opportunity offered them in school.

In Chicago, many suburban folks go about their lives, rarely even seeing those unfortunate children whose futures are doomed. We live differently in San Antonio. Toni and I, Robert and Daniel, are privileged to live in this community’s best-financed school district. Literally two blocks from our house, on streets that we drive, live folks with severely limited educational opportunity. We know they are there.

The truth be told, the inequalities in our city are not as broad as those Kozol describes in Chicago. Our better schools, public as well as private, don’t strive for the excellence found in Glencoe, Illinois. And yet, in many ways, the situation is similar. Why in the world do we have nineteen school districts in Bexar County? The answer is as easy to ascertain as it is difficult to swallow: In generation after generation, as the population expanded out from the center of town, folks who established one new neighborhood after another chose to keep their public school taxes in their own part of town. They thereby assured that their own, relatively wealthier sections of the city would have better schools. They hoped, in that way, to maintain their real estate values and ensure the superior education of their own children. They did so without thinking of the expense to poorer kids, who would not benefit from the newer area’s tax dollars.

Has this experiment succeeded? Ask San Antonio business leaders about the challenges of attracting new enterprises to our city, when employers examine the educational attainments of potential employees. Ask city and county health officials, who tax all of us to cover the costs of the tremendously greater teenage pregnancy rates in poorer school districts. Ask students and parents, teachers and administrators, in Bexar County’s poorly funded districts.

Unfortunately, our political system perpetuates the inequality. Two blocks from our house, those folks don’t just have a different school district; they also have a different Congressman, a different State Senator, a different State Representative, a different Mayor, and so forth. My own elected officials are offered no political motivation to work to improve education for poor children. For all practical purposes, poor folks don’t live in their districts; my elected representatives don’t rely on the votes of the underprivileged, a pattern that is replicated across the State and around the country.

For many years now, a group of Texans, emanating from the impoverished Edgewood School District in our own community, have pushed for equality in Texas schools. Some time back, they prevailed in Texas courts, which ruled that greater equity is an imperative of our State’s Constitution. The result is most often called “Robin Hood.” The school district where Robert will begin classes Tuesday must surrender much of its tax revenue.

The result has been good for nobody, which is the reason that school district leaders across the state, from districts both wealthy and poor, are back in court, seeking a better future. The case has been heard by our State Supreme Court, whose Chief Justice, the Honorable Wallace Jefferson of San Antonio, recently said, in a talk I attended, that everyone, including the members of the high Court, would prefer that the Legislature design a solution. What greater, more sacred, purpose could our elected representatives have?

The Legislature has been a disgrace. Instead of talking about school equity, our leaders speak of lowering property taxes. Instead of pushing for equitably sharing tax burdens, they seek to raise sales taxes, shifting even a higher percentage of education costs to those who can least afford it. Instead of debating quality education, they focus on special interests, seeking new ways to take money away from the public schools, through instruments like charter schools and vouchers. We’ve heard little about the most important person in the world, every Texas child. In its place, we’ve heard much about the personal and political conflicts between State leaders within the same party. When our own Temple member in the Legislature cast a particular deciding vote, he faced criticism for party disloyalty, irrespective of his principled, not partisan, motivation. Indeed, the fact that he voted on the basis of principle rather than party seems to have been the complaint!

Our State leaders should be ashamed of themselves. Instead, they self-righteously go about their finger pointing. None of this serves Texas children. Each and every one of our kids deserves better.

When Toni, Robert and I went to visit Howard on Wednesday morning, we and the other families were greeted by an experienced teacher, who was genuinely excited to see us. Her reputation for excellence preceded her. She had clearly read a letter we had written, as she evidenced knowledge about us and our child, as she did with other children and their families. She was filled with joy, when a dad told her that she had correctly pronounced their difficult, ethnic last name, which she admitted she had been practicing. Robert is one of eighteen students in the class. Mrs. Rogers shares an assistant with another teacher. The cheerful classroom’s equipment includes some very well worn blocks and other learning toys, but also a number of computers.

Robert, like Daniel, is the most important person in the world for Toni and me. What’s good enough in Texas public schools? Nothing less than the education, the attention, and the resources that any parent would demand for their most important person. I am confident that Robert will receive that education in our public schools. I am equally certain that such an opportunity is not offered to the child who lives two blocks from us. Is that child not also the most important person in the world?

And who is responsible? Are Toni and I less accountable for those children who live two blocks to the west of our house than we are for the ones who live two miles to the east? Our greatest medieval sage, Maimonides, answered that question, when he wrote that the greatest responsibility of any community is to establish a school for all its children.

Our faith, like our nation’s Declaration of Independence, teaches us that every child is created equal. If the education offered in one district, anywhere in this nation, is not good enough for our own children, then it is not good enough for any child. I am confident that parents in our congregation and our neighbors, living almost exclusively in the better area school districts, will always insist on educational excellence in our own parts of town. Therefore, equality in education across the State, even across the nation, cannot possibly drag down our own schools. If equality is the standard, then the elected officials who represent me will have a clear self-interest in improving the educational opportunities offered those kids who live two blocks away, for nobody will tolerate a representative who doesn’t provide good education for the most important person in the world.

What’s good enough in Texas public schools? Only equality will do. Our religious tradition and our American values demand no less.