Should Low-Income Public Schools Accept Help from Non-Evangelizing Evangelicals?

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: Yes, but only with strong oversight.

Samuel G. Freedman at the New York Times has an article in today’s paper about how a group of evangelical Christians are helping revitalize Roosevelt High School, a public school serving a lot of low-income families. They paint walls, repair bleachers, offer tutoring, help coach the football team, etc.

(Leah Nash – The New York Times)

Normally, that’s not a good match… but it seems to have worked out fairly well for this school and many others in the area:

In all the years the program has operated, [principal] Ms. [Charlene] Williams had not heard a single complaint that the evangelicals were evangelizing. After church volunteers wrote personal welcome notes to every incoming ninth grader, SouthLake’s pastor, the Rev. Kip Jacob, read through them all, making sure nobody had signed off with “Praise the Lord” or “God bless.”

The Portland model, as it might be called, has brought its two founders inquiries from about 50 other cities and hundreds of churches across the country. While avoiding the tripwire of church-state separation, the program here has addressed two needs: that of urban mayors coping with static or falling budgets for public services, and that of a young generation of evangelical Christians drawn to the cause of social justice.

It’s a risk on the part of the school districts involved but this is the sort of cooperation that could work as long as Christians abide by the non-proselytizing rules and the school administrators continue to provide oversight for the whole process. Hats off to the young evangelicals volunteering for this, but one overzealous Christian could ruin this entire partnership.

The article doesn’t mention whether non-Christian groups are allowed to help out as well and I’d love to know the answer to that. I don’t know that another group would have the manpower that the local churches can provide, but I wonder whether, say, young atheists or Muslims would be allowed to join the group.

As this project grows, so does the opportunity for abuse. I would love for it to work out — the students at these schools could sure use the help — but I wouldn’t place blind trust in the workers just yet.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • 3lemenope

    The only real problem that occurs whenever some outside entity steps up to help a flagging school is that it puts perverse pressure on the school district to fund them even less. As the private entity relieves the public of its burden there is little chance the public will willingly take it up again.

    Which is not by any means anyone’s fault in the school or the church. It’s excellent they were able to figure out a working partnership like this to meet their needs. I just worry as it “becomes a model” it becomes just another way for school districts to foist responsibilities on others.

  • Erin

    You bring up a valid point. It’s like when charter schools pop up in an area and the public schools lose funding from the decrease in student population. Short term, this seems nice – parents can choose to have their children go to a school that advertises more structure and educational/enrichment opportunities. But then what becomes of an already-struggling public school that now has less funding to work with? We end up with a chain of charter schools run for profit and a pay/benefits structure for school staff that barely covers the cost of living. And the gap between poor and rich widens while the middle class becomes a thing of the past.

    /off my soapbox *blushes*

  • Michael

    Sounds like the easy way to test it is for an atheist group to join in.

    If it’s not a problem, that won’t be a problem.

  • ThyGoddess

    Well, the way I see it is that if they don’t preach Jeebus to the kids they’re just a friendly group of concerned volunteers who wants to help their local school. And that’s just dandy and really nice of them.

  • concerned_and_grateful_citizen

    More good points, no need to blush.

  • C Peterson

    I also see this as a big problem, and a big risk. As somebody with responsibility for an underfunded public school, I’m keenly aware of just how important it is not only to be properly funded, but to have consistency and dependability in funding. It is very difficult to operate a school when you have no idea what your funding is going to look like next year. When a school becomes dependent on a private income source, there are even fewer guarantees than with public funding.

    Government funding tends to be use-it-or-lose-it. If a school gets outside funding for something, the government may reduce funding for that thing in future years (as you suggest… and it does happen). But the private source isn’t committed. Something changes there, that funding goes away, and the school is left hanging.

    It’s one thing for a school to raise private money, or secure volunteer help for enhancing extracurricular programs. It’s something else altogether to depend on that for academics, or for maintaining facilities. Any issues of state/church separation aside, this really reveals an underlying problem that needs to be addressed.

  • C Peterson

    Different states have different sorts of charter schools. Here in Colorado, charter schools are public schools. They can’t operate at a profit. They only differ from other schools in having a degree of autonomy (that is, a separate board from the district board) in deciding how they operate. They don’t affect public school enrollment numbers at all.

  • JET

    It’s great to have a coordinated effort like this, but you don’t have to be a member of a group to help out in our public schools. I volunteer at one of the schools within our district teaching kids to read. I picked one of the lowest performing schools in the district, talked to the principal, and was assigned to a classroom where the teacher said she could use some help with readers below grade level. I sit in the hallway a couple of times a week and we read, read, read. The students I work with are behind in reading due to language barriers or socio-economic reasons where the parents simply don’t have the time or means to work with them. It’s impossible for a classroom teacher to give individualized attention to these students. Of course, working one-on-one with students, I had to have a background check, be fingerprinted, and have a current TB test on file, but once I did that, I was welcomed with open arms.

  • compl3x

    Non-Evangelizing Evangelicals? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

    If the volunteers understand the rules, then I can’t see a problem. But all you need is one person to think it is their duty to make disciples of the students and the whole thing falls apart. At that point the evangelicals might be so deeply rooted in the system than any attempt to remove them for breaking the rules will be viewed as “persecution”.

  • JET

    At least in our district, all public schools are underfunded equally. The difference is that where you have a higher socio-economic demographic, the parents are more financially able to make up the difference through fundraisers or fee-based extra-curricular programs like music or art. This is the gist of the problem and the gap just keeps getting wider.

  • Machintelligence

    I wish that were totally true. They do affect the enrollment numbers at non-charter schools and tend to siphon off the students with more involved parents. Teachers do not have to be state licensed at charter schools, but that doesn’t seem to have affected the quality of education.

  • Houndentenor

    No one cares that the individual people belong to one religion or another or none at all. We care about using a public institution to proselytize.

  • Houndentenor

    The problem is that we underfund the schools and then complain that they don’t do a good job. And what we do fund gets wasted in the state capital. Pay teachers better and you’ll get better teachers and schools will improve. Parental involvement in education (mostly making sure kids do their homework, but also things like reading to your kids when they are young) also have a big impact. This isn’t that hard. We just don’t want to invest the time or money and then blame the results on someone else.

  • C Peterson

    Here our charter school teachers need the same state credentials as any other public school teachers, complete with any special endorsements (such as teaching middle school versus elementary school).

    Our school doesn’t siphon off anybody, since it’s 30 miles to the next school. Kids either come here or they home school. But the shifting of students isn’t such a big issue in Colorado, in any case, since in this state kids can go to any school they want, not just the one closest to them or in their district.

  • Beth

    Something similar is happening at our local schools. A church is passing out free school supplies and hair cuts at a festival on school grounds.The church says it is their festival the city says it’s their festival…so I went to see how badly school and church were intertwined. It turned out that the church isn’t preaching, all games and prizes they were running were secular. The only time I saw a cross was on the church.s logo, which was displayed on volunteers shirts and name tags. They didn’t even have any church information and no mention of God. I don’t like that they used school property when they have two church campuses and a Christian school of their own, but they seemed to be there just to help and not to preach. My kids had a great time and got a few items for school.

  • Beth

    The logo wasn’t big, I should add. The cross is in negative space between four rectangles.

  • Dave

    I don’t see a problem. This is how society should work. It’s not like they are wearing Joe Klein T Shirts and singing hymns.
    PZ Myers ‘ I look forward to the day when religion is like masterbation, something you practice in the privacy of your own home and don’t talk about in public’.
    That is exactly what is happening here.
    All kudos to them.

  • gander

    I still think it’s a little hinky. Question, “Who gave us these goods and services?” Answer, “Such and such Church”. On the face of it, it IS evangelizing, just more subtle. Why the schools in particular? Because they have an “in”, the only way they can convince the law that they’re allowed. VERY close supervision, and very strict controls are called for. Good thing, on the one hand, because the schools need the help. Bad thing that the schools need the help in the first place. For the churches, it’s too damn convenient that we underfund public schools so much. Know what I mean?

  • Nerdsamwich

    The answer to all this is, of course, that it’s Oregon. The entire state has been bending over backwards in the last decade or so to foster civic pride. Every level of government produces highly-visible improvement programs, which inspires businesses and other groups to build goodwill in the same manner. Only place in the Union where everyone seems proud to pay their taxes, because they can see them at work.