Voices

Prophecy fulfilled

Public education is crumbling because its mortar is disappearing

Issue: "Broken promises," March 25, 2006

I watched a small bit of prophecy being fulfilled last week-and sadly, it was happening right on schedule.

I had first heard the prediction about 20 years ago. "I know you hear everywhere," said Roy Lowrie, "that the public-school system is about ready to fall apart. Such forecasts are premature. I think that such a collapse is surely coming-but probably not for a decade or two."

Mr. Lowrie was a veteran of the educational scene. He was the founding headmaster of the pace-setting Delaware County Christian School in Philadelphia's west suburbs. He was a national leader of the Christian school movement that burgeoned especially in the 1970s and 1980s. And he was always a man who insisted that such schools be built on positive foundations rather than on the ruins of other systems.

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But he was also a realist about what was happening in the nation's public schools. Now he was explaining why, in the late '80s, it was wrong to announce the imminent breakdown of state systems.

"Here's why," he said. "The public schools continue to be staffed by tens of thousands of very good people. Many, many of them are devoted, knowledgeable, and sincere Christians-and their influence is profound. Some of them are not so focused that way, but are rooted in a general Judeo-Christian tradition that offers cohesion to their society.

"But little by little, and soon at an accelerating pace, those good people disappear from the scene. Some of them, just because of the passing of the years, retire. Others, wearied by the battle, step aside. The battles of discipline, of political correctness, of knowing just how far they can go in their Christian witness-those battles take their toll.

"Such people," Mr. Lowrie concluded, "are like the mortar between the bricks in a big building. They hold it together. But take that mortar away, and first a wall collapses, then the roof, and then the whole building. It hasn't happened yet, but already you can see the cracks and the signs of future crumbling."

So I wasn't surprised last week when a good friend suggested she might be at the end of her rope as a public-school teacher. It had been a down week. A close colleague was moving to another position. A supervisor who should have been appreciative of my friend's efforts had become distant and cool. The support systems that all of us need in our workplaces, she was suddenly discovering, simply were no longer there.

March is contract renewal time for most teachers, and my friend was struggling. Now I looked at her, and thought: She is the mortar. She is exactly what America's public schools need if they're going to survive with any semblance of intactness. She pours herself into her work. She exudes the love of Christ to her students, to their parents, and to her colleagues. She spends after-school hours with the neediest of her kids. She is a standard setter as an educator and as a friend. She has won awards wherever she has gone. She's what you remember as a teacher's teacher.

And now the desperately needy state system is on the edge of losing exactly what it needs the most. She may rally her commitment and stick with it all for another year or two. But if and when she leaves, you know what the system will be forced to fall back on as a replacement. Instead of her 15 years of experience, someone with a third that much, at most, will step into her shoes. Instead of someone with firm ideas about right and wrong and God's perspective on life, students are likely to find a new teacher with a relativistic view of everything-someone reared on the philosophy that prompts you to ask about every moral issue, "Who am I to say?"

My friend is still wrestling with her decision-and I really don't know which way it will go. She has a keen sense of calling (which is literally what vocation is all about), and whatever she does, she wants to be sure the Lord is guiding her. The very process, though-and the agony associated with it-reminds me every time I watch it of Roy Lowrie's prophecy 20 years ago.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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