The Christian and Closing the Opportunity Gap
Kelsey Lambrecht, a 2009 graduate of Concordia University, Nebraska, earned a master’s in education degree from the University of New Orleans in 2012. Kelsey currently teaches high school in New Orleans and plans to found a new open enrollment charter high school in Baton Rouge in the fall of 2017. Kelsey can be reached at email@example.com.
Introduction: A First Person Account
I am a product of Lutheran schools. I value that education greatly and think often about how much it shaped me and my beliefs. Thus, my dissonance in articulating why I think it so important that Christians send their children to public schools.
In 2009, as a graduate of Concordia University, Nebraska with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and behavioral sciences, I moved from Nebraska to New Orleans to teach with the non-profit organization, Teach for America. As a new participant in Teach for America, I thought I was moving south to teach in a high-need, urban school setting. Technically, that was and is still accurate. Embarrassingly, I didn’t realize this would mean teaching almost exclusively young people of color. And honestly, prior to moving I hadn’t really thought about the racial make-up my students would represent. I was naive that these two elements—urban high-needs school districts and students of color—had such a strong correlation. Blame me first and foremost for that youthful naivety. While I love my rural Nebraska heritage and the Christian education I received there, we can also include these background conditions for my lack of awareness.
During my first year of teaching, a presenter at a conference I attended introduced me to the concept of the achievement gap for low-income students of color, explaining that this concept is nuanced and that we would spend the rest of our teaching careers deepening our understanding of the nuance. At the time I thought, “That’s a weird thing to say; it seems pretty explainable via a few graphs and a short discussion.” Nearly a decade later, I know I was wrong. Daily I realize I’m void of explanations to fill the gap between the macro summaries of our culture and economy and the individual stories of my students. It is nuanced.
The Achievement Gap: A Reality We Can’t Overlook
High school graduation rates are on the rise. For four consecutive years from 2011 to 2015, national graduation rates have increased, and the U.S. Department of Education reports the 2014-2015 national rate of 82 percent as an all-time high.
But even given the celebratory increase in graduation rates over the last 10 years, consider this: Two kindergartners meet on their first day of school. They say little to one another at first (they just met each other after all), but as time goes on, they bond over sharing the same favorite color (green), having carpet spaces side-by-side during show-‘n-tell, and laughing together whenever their teacher reads The Very Hungry Caterpillar. One kindergartner is black, and the other is white. Despite having so much in common, and despite being so young, statistically the white peer is already 15 percent more likely to graduate from high school.
The achievement gap is real. Or rather, let’s re-norm that expression and call it the opportunity gap. This term more accurately explains what is happening in public education for many of our country’s young people. Says Kayla Patrick in Education Post:
The language we use is powerful, especially to small children who need all the support and encouragement they can get. Discussions in education must not devalue the lives and experiences of minority and low-income children, who are most affected by education policy. We must call the disparity in education what it is, an “opportunity gap,” instead of implying that low-income and students of color are less than because they do not have access to the tools that would enable them to perform at the same levels as their white middle-class peers.
Public Schools: The School of “Choice” for Those Without Wealth
The opportunity gap is indeed a matter of inequity. CityLab, the investigative reporting unit for The Atlantic, provides this unsurprising summary: “[K]ids from richer families are far more likely to go to private school than kids from poorer families. Only 6 percent of kids in households with incomes under $50,000 attend private schools, compared with 26 percent of kids in households with incomes of $200,000 or more.”
Those who live in areas affected by low-income public schooling tend to opt-out of public schools if possible—though for many, this is not possible. Yet for those whose public schools are in wealthy communities, private school attendance drops significantly. In Chappaqua, New York, for example, only 2 percent of students are enrolled in private schools. Their median price per square foot for housing is $326, more than double the national average of $136. Chappaqua is a wealthy suburb of New York City, and the local school district is performing well. When a local district is performing poorly, however, “private school enrollment … is more than four times as high as private school enrollment in the highest-rated school districts” in the country according to CityLab findings. Meanwhile, kids from poor families are often stuck in the low-performing district schools. Their ability to opt-out is more limited.
There are thousands of children who are victims of the opportunity gap. While their wealthier peers are often able to opt out of a low-performing school or district, those without wealth are far less able to leave and access other educational options. There are school districts where children have no choice but to attend a D or F rated school (a failing or nearly-failing school).
CityLab’s studies indicate that New Orleans and Baton Rouge rank in the top five cities in the country for highest private school enrollment. As an illuminating exercise, go to your own state’s department of education website and sift through district and school performance data. My 20 minutes on the site for Louisiana’s department of education revealed some telling data. For example, in Baton Rouge, where 19.1 percent of children attend private schools, there are public schools where the average score attained on the ACT college entrance test is 13 (on a scale of 1 – 36). Attending school in this district means the overwhelming statistical probability is that college is NOT an option for that student. Sorry, young person: this is the hand you’ve been dealt.
Winning and Losing
I do want to be distinctly clear. I am a fan of the private—in this case, Lutheran—education I received. I’m incredibly grateful for it, and would definitely want something similar for my children.
Meanwhile, the opportunity gap is nuanced, and as a Christian now at work and service in the world, specifically in the world of low-income public education, I continue to work at sorting out the complications.
We know from the news of the past two years following the Ferguson, Missouri, events that we live in a country where segregation is somehow still okay. In hundreds of school districts across the country, there is a widely disproportionate number of poor children of color in public schools and other children who are in alternate modes of education. And we have plenty of evidence to suggest that segregated schools are bad for kids. Segregated schools present us with the challenges of greater levels of poverty paired with greater educational needs. When we take kids who are already academically behind and put them all in a school together, they don’t perform and advance as well as they would in a diverse school. When we survey the public school landscape in our country, there is a reality that cannot be overlooked: academically, some are winning, and some are losing. Winning is undeniably linked to wealth. Losing is undeniably linked to lack of wealth. Whether knowingly or not, we participate in a system that perpetuates inequality when we choose to remove ourselves from public school participation and involvement and leave behind a concentrated set of high educational needs. The need to actively dismantle this reality is apparent. What role does the Christian play in this dismantling?
I believe in Christian education. I know its value and influence. It was an experience that was invaluably good for me and many of my peers.
I also know hundreds of kids from my classrooms who are incredible and have really big dreams for their futures. They are working hard every day and truly deserve a future of limitless opportunity. In my heart of hearts, I know that an integrated school experience will serve them better than the segregated one they are receiving (I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the same is true for those on the other side of the coin; we live in a diverse country; our children’s educational experiences ought to reflect the world they will all grow up to lead).
I don’t know how to ensure our public schools are no longer segregated unless we actively make choices to integrate.
Choosing private schools is a privilege. Among other directives, Jesus asked His followers to live a life of sacrifice. Now is a time of unparalleled importance that Christians consider deeply a call to forgo this privilege in order to take an active role in public education at all levels. Segregation is not okay and it’s not good for kids. We are far too long past the Civil Rights Movement to be accepting de facto segregation without persistent action. The only hope for our children is change in the way we think about and participate in public education.
And I’d like to think my Christian education is also to “blame” for my arriving at this conclusion.
 I have not specified a number or percentage of Christians who should send their children to public schools. I am inviting the reader to consider the Christian’s involvement in public education as an opportunity in their Christian vocation. For some local examples of Christian involvement in public schools, see “Back to School: Seeking the Peace of a Very Liberal City by Helping to Rejuvenate a Deteriorating School” by Rachel Lynn Aldrich, World Magazine, Vol. 29, No. 18, Sept. 6, 2014, https://world.wng.org/2014/08/portland_public and “A Local Pastor Turned Public School Champion” by Nathan Clark and Laura Joyce Davis, Christianity Today Online, Jan. 21, 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/thisisourcity/richmond/local-pastor-turned-public-school-champion.html
 The Teach for America mission statement says, “Our mission is to enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible in our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.” See their website at https://www.teachforamerica.org
 See the NPR report, “U.S. High School Graduation Rate Hits Record high” at http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/12/15/459821708/u-s-high-school-graduation-rate-hits-new-record-high and the U.S Department of Education report at http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-high-school-graduation-rate-hits-new-record-high-0.
 See Why We Need to Stop Calling It the ‘Achievement Gap’ by Kayla Patrick in Education Post, July 22, 2015, http://educationpost.org/why-we-need-to-stop-calling-it-the-achievement-gap/
 “Where Private School Enrollment Is Highest and Lowest Across the U.S.” by Jed Kolko, CityLab, August 13, 2014 at http://www.citylab.com/housing/2014/08/where-private-school-enrollment-is-highest-and-lowest-across-the-us/375993/
 For background on school rating systems, see the National Association of Secondary School Principals, “A-F School Rating Systems,” at https://www.nassp.org/who-we-are/board-of-directors/position-statements/a-f-school-rating-systems?SSO=true
 See for example Educating Milwaukee: How One City’s History of Segregation and Struggle Shaped Its Schools by James K. Nelsen (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2015). See also the article in this edition of Issues in Christian Education by Chris Cody, “School Vouchers and Christian Education” for additional background on Milwaukee schools.
 For a narrative on desegregation and a program in Missouri that surprised participants and observers, go to This American Life, Episode 562, “The Problem We All Live With” at http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/the-problem-we-all-live-with. Nicole Hannah-Jones, narrator of this episode, has an article in the New York Times titled “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City”(June 9, 2016) at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/magazine/choosing-a-school-for-my-daughter-in-a-segregated-city.html?_r=5&utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term