Building public will for public schools, faith groups organize to 'Prepare the Future'

February 2, 2011

With a $25 billion state budget deficit looming in California – where some 25 percent of ninth-graders fail to graduate from high school – people of faith are uniting statewide to raise levels of high-school completion and parent engagement in public education.

Their work to "Prepare the Future" is echoed in Ohio, where organizers in Cincinnati and Cleveland are pursuing similar goals set in place by the founder of Good Schools Pennsylvania, a retired superintendent of Maryland's state public education system.

"Ensuring equal public education opportunity is an imperative and a collective responsibility for this and future generations," said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, a founding partner of Prepare the Future (PTF) California.

The state ranks 41st in recent test results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which also reports that graduation failure grows to about 40 percent among California's African American and Latino students. The importance of serving all student populations has prompted Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno to state that "public education is one of the greatest social-justice issues before us as a nation."

Episcopal deacon Anne Reed, canon for mission in the Cincinnati-based Diocese of Southern Ohio, holds similar views. "One of the things that we know is that the incarceration rate for people who don't get to the 4th or 5th grade reading level is exponentially higher than for those who do," said Reed, a liaison to PTF Ohio. "If you can't read, you can't succeed in life. The health of our economy and future leaders depends upon good education."

Planting 'action trees'
Compelled by these concerns, PTF leaders in both states say that they are launching congregation-based "action trees" and other advocacy measures to keep education justice issues before lawmakers and the public – especially as the need for high school completion increases in vocational trades, and with the relocation of many basic labor jobs overseas.

In Cincinnati, advocates were set to meet at noon on Feb. 3 at Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral, seeking to build a base to support public education, notes Charles Wallner, vice president of Faith Communities Alliance, and one of PTF Ohio's regional coordinators. The work proceeds while Ohio faces a projected $8 billion state budget deficit.

Meanwhile, at the Episcopal Cathedral Center in Los Angeles, PTF California's board of advisers – with members from both the San Francisco Bay Area and greater L.A. – met Jan. 30-31 to strategize in planting new advocacy "action trees" for web-based organizing, parent engagement, and two youth chapters.

PTF taps faith groups' historic moral- and values-based commitment to education and social well-being. "One of the noblest achievements in the ancient Jewish world was the establishment of universal education," notes Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "As people of faith, we understand and appreciate the singular importance of a sound education, the key to rewarding work and a life of purpose and meaning.

"I am proud to work together with other faith leaders to advocate for quality public education for all our children," Diamond added, inviting all to "join us in this sacred endeavor."

"No one who engages in public justice from a faith perspective can miss the need to keep faith with the rising generation of California's youth," said Peter Laarman, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Christians Uniting. "It's a compelling and unifying area of work for all of us."

Return on investment
Impetus for PTF's initiatives in both California and Ohio – launched with grants from the Hewlett and Gates foundations respectively – comes from PTF founder David Hornbeck of Baltimore, Maryland's state superintendent of schools from 1976 to 1988. "We know what to do to assure success in education," said Hornbeck, who started PTF in 2006. "What we need is the public will to achieve it."

Hornbeck is currently advising the California and Ohio groups on developing increasingly state-based programs and funding, noting that public education systems, likewise, are state-based.

Earlier, Hornbeck succeeded in raising some $5 million for the work of Good Schools Pennsylvania which, among other accomplishments, has helped to achieve some $75 million annually in state funding for early childhood education. With activities involving some 3,000 Pennsylvanians in largely non-partisan action, Good Schools made public education the number-one issue in the 2002 gubernatorial race and succeeded in electing a pro-schools candidate.

Thereafter, Hornbeck began developing the PTF model for other states within a proposed national framework, a project affected by the economic downturn of 2007-2008. Yet, says Hornbeck, what has become clear "in the ensuing months is that the need for this kind of faith-based, values-driven action on behalf of the most vulnerable children has increased several-fold with the deepening financial and political crises that continue to blight the states."

California: Central voices
PTF California is working to meet unique challenges, says executive director Frank Alton, a community organizer with more than 30 years of ministry experience in the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches.

"In California schools, the so-called minorities have been a majority for some time," Alton said. "Now Latinos by themselves comprise a majority population in our public schools. Together with other so-called minority groups – Asian, African American, Pacific Islander, and mixed race students – [they] represent 73 percent of the student population. It is essential that their voices are central in shaping the future of public education in California."

Current participating organizations in PTF California include the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) Los Angeles, the six-county Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, Faith Voices for the Common Good, the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, Pacific School of Religion, PICO California, Progressive Christians Uniting, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Meanwhile, PTF has been introduced to other faith leaders, including interfaith and ecumenical councils, and bishops of California's six Episcopal dioceses. L.A.'s Bishop Bruno has called upon all of the diocese's nearly 150 congregations to become better acquainted with the local public schools in their neighborhoods, and to join in the work of PTF California, as a mission initiative for 2011.

Ohio: At work in north, south
Likewise, Ohio Bishop Mark Hollingsworth in Cleveland and Southern Ohio Bishop Thomas E. Breidenthal in Cincinnati have endorsed the work of PTF Ohio – configured in northern and southern regional branches – as a means for improving public education statewide.

"With the state of Ohio facing an $8 billion budget deficit, we are anticipating cuts to all social-service agencies, including education," notes the Rev. Mark Robinson, Episcopal priest and canon for mission in the Cleveland-based Diocese of Ohio, which "has been collaborating with the Diocese of Southern Ohio to promote PTF's agenda for betterment of public education in Ohio since late in 2009."

Robinson noted that PTF Ohio's Cleveland-based efforts – coordinated by Tony Minor of the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries Office there – include the collaboration of Muslims, Jews, Christians and members of other faiths.

Robinson's Cincinnati counterpart, Anne Reed, said that efforts continue to engage local congregations and parishioners in the PTF initiative. She pointed to President Barack Obama's recent State of the Union address as added incentive for the urgency of protecting public education. "Like those old commercials from my childhood, I believe that reading is indeed fundamental."

"And it's a dignity issue that goes to our Baptismal Covenant to 'respect the dignity of every human being,'" she added. "Everyone is entitled to a chance at a good education, and when the school system is troubled, where is that dignity opportunity?"

PTF Ohio's Cincinnati-based coordinator, Charles Wallner, was to speak at the Feb. 3 community issues forum hosted by Christ Church Cathedral, set to emphasize that "a well-informed citizen lobby needs to advocate for public education reforms as well as an adequate revenue base for running the schools." Also scheduled as presenters were Melissa Currence, president of the Greater Cincinnati League of Women Voters; Rolanda Smith, executive director of Parents for Public Schools; and Cincinnati City Council Member Laure Quinlivan, chair of the city's Quality of Life Committee.

Forum organizers add that "one of the goals of Prepare the Future Ohio is to convince the Ohio General Assembly and the Governor to uphold the Ohio Supreme Court's decision that funding public education is a primary responsibility of state government."

"Ohio is in the middle of seeing what it can do to sustain PTF," said Wallner, noting the importance of finding ways to communicate issues effectively "to the community at large. We seek to provide, especially through the churches, as many forums and educational workshops – to educate the clergy and laity about the need for funding and proper curriculum reform. We want to make sure that all curricula meet the needs of the students."

Wallner cited PTF's four core components: "the belief that all children can learn to high standards; reliance on effective, evidence-based instructional strategies and management/governance practices; a results-based accountability system; adequate resources, fairly raised and equitably distributed."

For further information on Prepare the Future California and Prepare the Future Ohio, visit and .

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