Meet the Texas Pastor Who's Standing Up for Public Education—And Taking On the Lone Star State Power Structure

Pastors for Texas Children mobilizes faith leaders to stand up to politicians who seek to dismantle public education.

Pastor Charles Johnson
Photo Credit: Pastors for Texas Children

Jennifer Berkshire: Your group, Pastors for Texas Children, which mobilizes faith leaders in support of public schools, seems to have ruffled a few feathers in the Lone Star state. A group with ties to the Koch brothers recently threw some absurd criticisms your way.

Pastor Charles Johnson: We have not responded to these attacks. We are seasoned pastors not unaccustomed to criticism. Our Lord counseled his disciples, “Beware when all speak well of you.” Last we checked, our 8,500 public schools, 5.4 million Texas schoolchildren and 750,000 plus public school teachers and employees need us focused on them—not on a few naysayers.

JB: For readers who aren’t familiar with Pastors for Texas Children, here’s your opportunity to spread the word about what you’ve been up to. Let’s start with the part where you helped to defeat a bill that would have sent taxpayer money to private religious schools—a top priority for GOP leaders. How’d you pull that off?

CJ: Texans have always been reluctant to take public money and subsidize private education with it. This idea has been around in Texas for a long time, long before Pastors for Texas Children was organized. There’s been an historic alliance between the faith community and the educational community against private school vouchers. Our rural communities tend to be small, they’re closely knit neighborhoods and they’re bound together by the public schools. Now the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor and the power structure of Texas have made school vouchers their top priority, so what we’ve done is double down.

We call them out, we utilize media, both local and statewide, and we meet with our leaders face-to-face—particularly in the House of Representatives, the elected officials that are closest to their local schools and their local churches. We tell our Representatives that your constituents believe in public education and you’ve got to represent them instead of whatever wealthy donors you’ve been listening to. But it doesn’t work as well on the Senate side. In today’s political climate, Senators basically answer to the Charles Kochs of the country who are funding them.

JB: The cause of sending kids to private religious schools on the public dime has been around for decades and has new life these days thanks to high-profile advocates like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. But while voucher proponents invoke religion to make the case for defunding public schools, your group makes the opposite argument.

CJ: There is a foundation of faith in the education of a child that has a spiritual element to it—you’re illuminating and enlightening that child. What we do in our movement is underscore and highlight the moral foundations of public education. This is a basic human right. It’s like food. Every child deserves a quality public education and it is the responsibility of the public to ensure that they get it. In states like Texas and North Carolina, you can’t get elected dog catcher without having Jesus as your campaign manager. So we come along as pastors, ministers and priests and say that, here’s what faith stands for. It stands for the education of every child. It is a public trust. It’s an enterprise owned by every person in the community and it’s a charge before God, a divinely appointed responsibility.

We are not going to go soft on public education. It’s what built this country. Public education, at least in Texas, is a conservative value. So when we come into those public spaces and confront the ridiculous assertion that God has been taken out of our public schools, the Governor of Texas doesn’t know what to say to that. He’s left speechless.

JB: In state after state, the Catholic church has been playing a prominent role in pushing for school vouchers. I’m curious about whether you’ve had any luck convincing Catholic leaders to join you in supporting public education.

CJ: In Texas and elsewhere, the Catholic priests believe that the state has a responsibility to divert public money to parochial schools. We just happen to have a fundamental disagreement on this issue. They argue that the parent is the ultimate authority in the education of a child and so it is morally justifiable for that parent to be able to use the state’s money in the education of his or her own child. Our response is that that isn’t correct. The public interest is for all of the children to be educated. It is a public trust and a moral obligation—that’s what the word trust means. Everybody pays their taxes. A tax is an investment in the public good and everybody has to pay it: Catholic folks, Baptist folks, atheist folks, Muslim folks… Everybody pays their taxes into the community chest and out of that, all of the children in the community are educated. It’s in our interest that that happens.

I’ve got to tell you though, and this is going to get thorny and some folks might bow up at this. I take offense when those bishops roll up to the state capitol and they’re given deferential treatment and the red carpet is rolled out for them and they march in line into the hearing room and they’re given seats of honor. Hold on! I’m a Baptist. I believe in what’s called the priesthood of all believers: you, me, children. I don’t believe in the infallibility of the Pope, for example. I don’t believe that and I don’t want my tax dollars going to a school that teaches that, anymore than Catholic folks want their tax dollars going to a Baptist school that teaches the priesthood of all believers. It’s called church/state separation, people, and it’s what this country was built on. We can’t give up on that now.

JB: One of most depressing things I’ve read in a while was the recent series in the Orlando Sentinel about Florida’s now $1 billion voucher program. One of the schools they profiled had kids sitting in cubicles being taught that the earth is 6,000 years old.

CJ: I read that too. It was horrendous. Vouchers were a high priority for the Bushes and my hope is that they may be starting to rethink some of this stuff. Obviously they’re Texans so we know people who know them, and Laura Bush is a public education proponent. These voucher schools buy some online curriculum and hire inadequate teachers, and after a few years the private school shuts down and the kid ends up back in the public schools. But in the meantime, the classroom is now overcrowded, the teacher's aide has been cut, the nurse is gone, the librarian is gone, the community liaison position has been cut. Now the teacher has to bring the child up to grade level and then we punish her through an oppressive testing regime. It’s a racket. It’s a corruption.

Ministers need to stand up for justice and call it out, in Texas, in Florida, in all these red states. People need to wake up. I’m glad the Orlando paper called it out and we’re trying to capitalize on that with some organizing in Florida. Once we show the ministers that there is a concerted, well-funded attempt to dismantle public education, they begin to mobilize.

JB: At some point, states like Florida and Texas that have been pushing school choice at the expense of their public education systems are going to run afoul of their own state constitutions. This isn’t my insight, but the argument of a smart law professor in a new paper everyone should read. I’ve heard you make a similar case.

CJ: A general diffusion of knowledge is what the Texas Constitution says. Article 7, Section 1: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”

That means a general diffusion of that knowledge through the public trust. Not some little church school over here that doesn’t know beans when the sack’s open about educating a child. Education is very technical. It’s hard to do. It takes competent, well-trained, well-educated people to do this work. This business of the state diverting tax money to what my daddy would have called jack-legged schools—it’s corrupt, it’s wasteful, it’s certainly not conservative, and it’s got to stop.This is why we call public education a moral value. People are made in the image of God. Not just some people—all people. And that means that we get to name God’s world. It’s a fundamental human right. That requires the best standards of knowledge that we have.

JB: You describe Pastors for Texas Children as providing 'wrap-around care and ministry to local schools, principals, teachers, staff and schoolchildren.' But where do you draw the line between caring for schools and proselytizing?

CJ: That’s an excellent question. How do we do this, child by child, in a way that doesn’t violate a human’s civil liberty of religious freedom? When Pastors for Texas Children partners with a school and supports that school we start by submitting to the authority of the people who are in that school. When we walk through those doors as members of an interfaith organization of 2,000 faith leaders, the very first thing we ask is, what do you need us to do? Is it school supplies or student mentoring? Is it a teacher appreciation day in the community? You tell us. And we adhere scrupulously to the principles of religious liberty and church/state separation. Let me emphasize that word—scrupulously. We believe fully in the First Amendment prohibition against any religious instruction in our public schools. But we also believe that faith communities should be 100% behind public education as a core institution of democratic society and the common good.

JB: I heard you speak recently to a group of teachers and you referred to standardized testing as an affront to God. I've heard a lot of people argue against testing, but never in quite those terms.

CJ: Here's what I meant. There is no such thing as standardized education. It’s an oxymoron. Education is a uniquely applied enterprise according to the individuality of every child. My teacher knows me and knows my name. My teacher wants me to succeed in life and is working hard. Even a little child at an early grade level understands that. Get rid of the standardized test. A child is not an automaton but a human being made in the image of God. When you add the profit motive to the testing industry it makes it a moral issue. It’s a sin for corporations to come in and make markets out of our classrooms. Something doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be good. Let’s understand education as a gift from God. We don’t want the corporation to make the classroom a market.

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Jennifer Berkshire writes about the end of public education and co-hosts a biweekly podcast on education in the time of Trump.