Can Friends Really Make a Difference in Educating All Our Youth?

Quakerism’s social testimony addresses the Inner Light that exists in each individual, and my home state of Pennsylvania gives particular recognition to a nonconformist who was imprisoned for publicly speaking truth to power. He was briefly disinherited by his father and believed in civil disobedience, decision by consensus as a mode of social change, and love towards fellow human beings. This immigrant came to Philadelphia from a well-to-do family. He was expelled from college and accused by many of being totally out of touch with reality. Today, in Philadelphia, this Quaker nonconformist, William Penn, who had a vision of an education for rich and poor, Quaker and non-Quaker, looks down upon me from City Hall. Penn envisioned an inclusive society open to the different ethnic and religious groups, with required education for all children. The reality today is that in the midst of this land of plenty, the wealthiest nation in the world, where Friends schools are flourishing in many places, we have seriously unequal and underfunded public schools in the inner-city and rural areas. Will Friends grapple with the commitment that is given lip service by the state: to educate all our children equally?

I am co-chair of the Public Education Working Group of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Years ago, before there existed a Public Education Working Group, I was invited to join the Committee on Education. I was a vocal advocate for public schools. I had been working since 1972 as a teacher of English to speakers of other languages in a Philadelphia public school and felt truly blessed to have found my calling working with Hispanic, Southeast Asian, and African children and questioned whether the committee really wanted me on board. After being assured that my views would be welcome, I joined. What I found was a dedicated support community for the students, staff, and institution of Friends schools, many of which had a well-deserved fine reputation. But I didn’t feel that Friends were interested in hearing about public schools: the overcrowded classes, outdated books in libraries, schools with leaking roofs, and students and parents (many of color and lower economic means) who saw they were not equal, not valued. Year after year, I asked myself whether there was any logic in my coming to the committee.

There were times I felt demoralized. There seemed so little that we 300 public school teachers in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting could accomplish for the youngsters and their parents who were relying on us to counteract the ravages of poverty, violence, and drugs, particularly with so little interest on the part of other Quakers. I recalled Jose, a 6th-grade student in my class. He didn’t come to class one Thursday. Jose had been accidentally killed in a gang shooting on his way home from school. I was in despair knowing that I had been unable effectively to address the issues that confront him and his classmates. Sometimes I felt myself growing resentful. I asked myself, “Why don’t the students in the public schools have a playground, flowers and grass outside the school, resources such as a computer lab and a library with an actual librarian, and fewer than 33 students in a class?” Then my colleagues could effectively teach and minister to the Inner Light that exists within each child. This is what is available to students in private schools and our city’s suburbs where annual student funding is more per child per year than the Philadelphia inner city schools. In addition, every year I see principals and teachers leave the city and make $20,000 more per year in the suburbs, while the media downgrade teachers and the union.

In 1985, Foster Doan, then executive director for the Committee on Education, encouraged me to go forward with a leading I had voiced, recognizing the contributions of Friends whose witness is working in public schools. We inaugurated a program giving grants to Quakers working in local public schools. The first year, three Friends were given grants totaling $4,500; this past year we awarded $12,000 to 11 recipients. Since those early days, the committee has separated into two distinct entities: the Friends Schools Working Group and the Public Education Working Group. We had doubts as to whether public education would be even less in the minds and hearts of Friends when the Public Education Working Group was separated from the larger group. The reality has been that our meetings have been enthusiastically attended. We have made important alliances with members of the local Federation of Teachers, a former secretary of education, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, the superintendent of schools in Trenton, and members of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. We have explored such issues as vouchers and charter schools, support programs for preschool teachers, and discrepancies of funding. We have been profoundly impressed by the reports from grant recipients whose innovative projects have made a valuable contribution to the lives of their students, parents, and colleagues.

Are we doing enough to make sure that every child gets an education that will ensure his or her ability to make a contribution within the community? The answer is clearly, “No!” Although we struggle to remain optimistic, public education is a mammoth of challenges. I ask myself, “How do I/we involve each Friend, neighbor, voter; how do we put a face on these young children with that of God within each one?” We Friends speak of letting our lives speak, of living our lives according to our consciences, and of working to enrich the entire community including our neighbors, our children, and our children’s playmates. This means an involvement in the lives of those who come from very different backgrounds.

William Penn understood that no one is superior or inferior to another on the basis of race, creed, or economic situation. Penn’s vision of The Holy Experiment must be continued by Friends. We Quakers have an obligation to play an active role in giving an equal and quality education to all of God’s children. One way for us to begin is for each monthly meeting to ask itself the following queries. Our hope is that meetings will return to these queries over time, to test what has not yet been done.

Query: How do we identify, nurture, and support those among us who labor in education? How do we know who in our meeting are teachers and administrators in schools and the conditions under which they work? What do we do to offer to them the kind of help, both spiritual and concrete, that they need to feel sustained in their work?

Query: How do we educate ourselves about the conditions, programs, and needs of our local schools? How do we support each other as individuals and the meeting as a whole in becoming involved in the schools? How do we develop the skills and talents to become active participants in the life of the schools, whether through volunteer efforts, supporting special programs, or by serving on school governance boards?

Query: If, in our inquiry, we find great discrepancies among schools, particularly in the available resources, how do we work to bring about equity of resources and, therefore, equal opportunity for all children? How do we as a corporate body advocate for full funding of public schools? How do we respond to alternative funding proposals, such as school vouchers, charter schools, altering the tax base that supports schools, etc.?

Query: How does our meeting help each family make its best decision about schooling for its children? How do we ensure that these decisions are made in a prayerful manner? For meeting children who attend public schools, how does our meeting nurture their spiritual growth?

Query: How can we help create the resources for every school to have what the finest of our Friends schools have?

Friends have long held a strong commitment to education, understanding that while many inequalities exist in our society, education is one path to equality of opportunity. There is enormous energy and talent within our meetings. There is an equally enormous need in all our schools for those talents and that energy. The Public Education Working Group hopes each Friend and every meeting will find a way to share their talents and resources to create a fair and equitable world for all children. Then, as Fox said, we will be able to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.