The founder of the 2,000-member Pastors for Texas Children is coming to Indiana, and he has a message for the state's lawmakers:
“Voucher schools and charter schools are being established in states to be parallel systems of education supported by the public,” said Charles Foster Johnson. “We think that's wrong. We think it's wrong basically for religious- liberty reasons.”
The Fort Worth Baptist minister spoke via Skype to about three dozen educators and clergy last month in an information session hosted by Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education. His remarks were a warm-up to a visit Monday, where Johnson will meet with advocates in Fort Wayne and Indianapolis interested in establishing an Indiana counterpart to his Texas group. That group successfully blocked repeated efforts to pass voucher legislation, including an attempt last year to tie school funding to such a bill. That's no small accomplishment in a state with strong Republican majorities and a governor intent on establishing school choice.
“We've become somewhat the tip of the spear in public education advocacy here in Texas,” Johnson said. “What we have learned is when the local minister comes alongside the local educators – the superintendents, principal, classroom teacher – whoa! The legislator listens. Because we are preachers, and we stand before congregations. And congregations vote. We're influence brokers in the society. ... We are forming partnerships with these other servants of God – who serve our children through the public schools.”
Pastors for Texas Children has a simple model. Its members talk to ministers, youth ministers and children's ministry leaders about the “moral message of public education for all children” and urge them to connect with their local schools as supporters and volunteers, but without proselytizing, according to Johnson. Some then take the additional step of becoming involved in public advocacy: “This is what a voucher is. This is what proper funding for public schools is all about. This is why vouchers are bad for society.”
The message is catching on. Pastors for Oklahoma Children is now in place, and there are efforts to establish groups not only in Indiana, but also in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arizona, Nebraska, Missouri, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Johnson, whose pastorates have included the 6,000-member Trinity Baptist Church of San Antonio, speaks with a frankness unusual in education conversations in Indiana.
“I am a Baptist Christian. I have certain convictions that have shaped my experience of God, faith, church and – frankly – I don't want my tax dollars supporting religious programs that I don't agree with, any more than my friends of other faith traditions don't want their tax dollars supporting religious programs that might adhere to my own beliefs,” he said.
“I don't agree with my tax dollars supporting Muslim charter schools – the Gulen movement, that believes in male superiority over females. And that's what's happening here in Texas through Harmony Charter Schools,” Johnson said. “I love my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters – they have a wonderful faith tradition – but I don't believe in the infallibility of the pope. I don't believe in the veneration of Mary, any more than my Catholic friends want their tax dollars supporting Baptist church-schools that teach the priesthood of all believers, a concept they don't believe in. This is the reason why – for 240 years – we have had church-state separation. We don't need to go soft on that conviction now.”
Johnson said Indiana doesn't need 2,000 faith leaders to influence its lawmakers.
“If you had 25 conversant, well-informed pastors that made visits at the Statehouse, you probably could block some bad policy and promote some good policy,” he said,. “A little bit goes a long way. You know the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – it's really true.”
But Indiana's voucher system, now in its seventh year, is well entrenched in the state's education system, with more than $520 million spent on Choice Scholarships since 2011. More than 90 percent of schools accepting voucher students are faith-based – primarily Catholic or Lutheran. Many Hoosiers seem to equate support for vouchers as the faith-based position, even though about 90 percent of Indiana families choose public schools.
The powerful case offered by Johnson and Pastors for Texas Children, however, could have many rethinking the blurring line between government and Indiana's church-based schools.
“It's called church-state separation,” he said. “When you take public dollars through vouchers and charters that are connected to religious schools, you are violating the First Amendment. You are violating the religious liberty, a gift from God – James Madison didn't make it up – that government should not be involved in religion.”
Karen Francisco is editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.