Suffer little children to come unto me

A shorter version of this piece was published in the Erie Times on Saturday, July 2.

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At the church I served for seven years in Franklin, there is a beautiful stained glass window designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, that depicts Jesus surrounded by cherubic and well-behaved children. The window illustrates the beloved Bible story in which the disciples turned away women who wanted Jesus to bless their children. Jesus, however, had a different idea. “Suffer little children to come unto me,” he says in Luke, “and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

The window, like those in several other 19th century churches around our region, is beautiful and comforting, but there’s one odd thing about it. Although it illustrates a scene that took place in the Middle East, Jesus and all of the children are depicted as white.

The window is a work of art and not meant to be documentary evidence, but it underscores a problem that has reached critical proportions here in Erie. Far too often, white people like me take for granted that the best things in life—even the love of Jesus—are first and foremost for people like us. We wouldn’t consciously turn children of color away if they came to us in need, of course, but we just accept that the world is structured to meet our needs, and the needs of our children, first.

This problem has come to be called institutional racism, and it is the primary force at work in the Erie School’s funding crisis.

Our schools are in trouble not because the citizens of Erie have failed to fund them—the city has the highest property tax rates in the county—but because our state’s school funding system is structured to provide inadequate resources to districts like Erie which is composed primarily of poor families of color. Eighty percent of students in Erie’s public schools are economically disadvantaged and nearly 10 percent are still learning English. But our schools receive just $11,143 in state and local revenue per student. We have 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, and Erie spends less per pupil than 484 of them, even though many of its students arrive at school already behind and in need of extra help to succeed.

To say this state of affairs reflects institutional racism is not to claim that any individual lawmaker or bureaucrat is a racist. Instead, our system of funding education is much like that beautiful window in Franklin. It assumes that if we make rules to do what seems right for white, middle-class children like my daughter, we are doing what is right for everyone. But the situation in Erie plainly demonstrates that we are not.

Our elected officials have made some progress toward averting an immediate crisis by including funds in the new state budget that could cover the Erie Schools’ 2016-2017 deficit, but they have not addressed the underlying structural injustice in the state funding system. A new statewide funding formula offers only partial relief to our school district, which still faces the long-term prospect of being placed in financial recovery status or being forced into bankruptcy.

The economic case for funding our schools is clear. A poorly educated workforce costs our region jobs and economic development opportunities, and when students fail to graduate from high school or graduate with inadequate job skills, we pay the bill for generations to come through increased costs for public assistance, public health, substance abuse and addiction services, and the criminal justice system.

But the case for funding our public schools is not just economic. As a Christian, I believe that we have a God-given responsibility to ensure that all children have the opportunity to realize their full potential as human beings. That responsibility weighs heavily on us in Erie because so many of our children come from poor families who suffer most when we ignore the common good in favor of unjust systems and codified discrimination.

“Stained glass windows may portray Jesus taking children in his arms and blessing them,” writes Episcopal priest and author Martin Smith, “but I have never seen one depicting Jesus a moment or two before, enraged with his disciples for preventing people from bringing their children to him. The story is not only about the tenderness of Jesus … it is as much about his grief and anger over the ways adults can block and suppress them.”

We need to urge our state legislators to finish the job of solving the immediate funding crisis that faces the Erie Schools. But if we do not also fix the underlying injustice in Pennsylvania’s school funding system, we run the risk of being the disciples in this story over and over again for years to come, and that will not serve us well in this world or the next.

The Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe is bishop of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

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