What shall we as Christians think and do regarding the ongoing controversies between teachers and their employing school districts? I offer these principles and practices for your consideration.
Traditionally United Methodists favor strong public schools and the rights of people to bargain collectively. Specifically, we have adopted the following social principles and resolutions.
- We believe that every person has the right to education. We also believe that the responsibility for education of the young rests with the family, faith communities, and the government. In society, this function can best be fulfilled through public policies that ensure access for all persons to free public elementary and secondary schools and to post-secondary schools of their choice. Persons should not be precluded by financial barriers from access to church-related and other independent institutions of higher education. We affirm the right of public and independent colleges and universities to exist, and we endorse public policies that ensure access and choice and that do not create unconstitutional entanglements between church and state. We believe that colleges and universities are to ensure that academic freedom is protected for all members of the academic community and a learning environment is fostered that allows for a free exchange of ideas. We affirm the joining of reason and faith; therefore, we urge colleges and universities to guard the expression of religious life on campus.
- Once considered the property of their parents, children are now acknowledged to be full human beings in their own right, but beings to whom adults and society in general have special obligations. Thus, we support the development of school systems and innovative methods of education designed to assist every child toward complete fulfillment as an individual person of worth. All children have the right to quality education, including full sex education appropriate to their stage of development that utilizes the best educational techniques and insights. Christian parents and guardians and the Church have the responsibility to ensure that children receive sex education consistent with Christian morality, including faithfulness in marriage and abstinence in singleness. Moreover, children have the rights to food, shelter, clothing, health care, and emotional well-being as do adults, and these rights we affirm as theirs regardless of actions or inactions of their parents or guardians. In particular, children must be protected from economic, physical, emotional, and sexual exploitation and abuse.
- We support the right of all public and private employees and employers to organize for collective bargaining into unions and other groups of their own choosing. Further, we support the right of both parties to protection in so doing and their responsibility to bargain in good faith within the framework of the public interest. In order that the rights of all members of the society may be maintained and promoted, we support innovative bargaining procedures that include representatives of the public interest in negotiation and settlement of labor-management contracts, including some that may lead to forms of judicial resolution of issues. We reject the use of violence by either party during collective bargaining or any labor/management disagreement. We likewise reject the permanent replacement of a worker who engages in a lawful strike.
We have historically taught that public education is a great healer of divisions between groups of people. It is the primary way people learn about the world. It is the first source of critical thinking that leads to breakthroughs in both the sciences and the humanities. We support teaching because there is no industry with as great a consequence on the health and well-being of our planet than teaching.
Applying the Principles
Looking at these principles, where does the church stand in our local circumstances? Strong-arm tactics-such as taking teachers’ health-care coverage in order to ‘win’ an argument-are an egregious violation of fair bargaining. Mudslinging of public officials on either side also is outside of acceptable Christian practice. How we bargain is very important. Truth ultimately must prevail.
I look at it this way: given that our society shows value through money (salaries, wages and benefits), and given truth and knowledge are among the great goods, it seems like ample pay for teachers is a good thing. I would welcome the day when my local Division 1 university paid its Physics professors more than the football coach. Same goes for primary and secondary levels. Ultimately public education is a public trust: we all pay into it because we all benefit from it. Like a friend once said: your future heart doctor is sitting in high school Biology right now. Do we want her teacher worrying about how to make ends meet?
Finally, these matters will eventually get resolved. Teachers will return to work, and our kids will return to the classroom. Lawyers and mediators will go home. Everyone else at the bargaining table will have to figure out how to restore trust. Administrators who claim to support teachers will have to demonstrate it. Teachers will have to realize that administrating is complicated. I would hope that the Christians on both sides will lead the way in rebuilding that trust.
Actions out of Principles
What then are we to do? Yes, pray. For teachers, administrators, mediators, board members, kids, classified staff (all the non-teachers in a school), etc. Also, be a civil witness reminding people to seek truth and walk humbly. Organize our space for that time when parents need a place to go or send their kids. Picketing is fine, do it civilly. Supporting the board is okay, do it civilly. Denounce bullying tactics and ugliness. Encourage resolution. Embody fairness. See the other as human, not just an enemy. Think and act as ambassadors for the students. Stay involved. Get ready for the aftermath.
Finally, in as much as you talk abut this, make sure to listen. The feelings of disrespect are real. The feelings of vilification are real. Listening and not adding to people’s anxieties are very valuable skills to be employing.
That’s my take. What’s yours? What spiritual principles are you leaning on through all this? What do you want/need at the resolution of this controversy? I’d love to hear you.