DALLAS — At least two high-profile Christian organizations are pushing back publicly against far-right attempts to dismantle public education in Texas.
“We're pastors, we’re faith leaders, we’re pro-life people," said the Rev. Charles Johnson.
Johnson is the executive director of Pastors for Texas Children. He joined the Y’all-itics political podcast to talk about the discourse on education happening across the nation right now.
"Sometimes we're just confused about why education isn’t part of a pro-life agenda – why public education isn’t part of a patriotic, pro-American, a pro-capitalist, pro-business kind of a message," Charles said. "It ought to be."
Public education, long said to be the great equalizer in society because children of all socio-economic backgrounds can attend, is the latest flashpoint for Republicans.
For example, Texas school superintendents are quitting. There are ten openings in North Texas, including at the Dallas and Fort Worth ISDs. State lawmakers are questioning districts on what kind of books they have in their libraries. The legislature passed a law banning transgender students from playing on sports teams that correspond to their gender identity. An obscure term called Critical Race Theory has consumed parents who believe it is being taught in Texas classrooms.
Rev. Johnson’s group and Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Austin) even tangled on Twitter over public education recently.
“’Pastors for Children’” has gotten the memo,” the congressman Tweeted over the weekend. “Use [public school] teachers to hide behind while saddling up with powerful teachers unions to subject non-rich parents to a monopoly system with little control or options for their kids. Very pastoral of them.”
Texas does not have teachers unions. There are organizations like Texas AFT and the Texas State Teachers Association, but neither are real unions with authority for negotiating contracts in collective bargaining or calling for work actions like strikes.
Pastors For Texas Children, a Fort Worth-based organization, says it is an independent organization that advocates for public schools.
On Twitter, the group responded to Congressman Roy: “Congressman @chiproytx, your repeated lies about our [public school] teachers & the pastors who support them, are shameful, embarrassing, and shockingly immoral. You may mock them and us with your political lies against these servants. But you cannot mock God.”
Republicans have long favored "school choice" and so-called vouchers to let a student use taxpayer money to partially pay to attend a private school.
But now, much like the southern border with Mexico, public education has surfaced as red meat in Republican politics.
Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accused "left-wing educators" of showing children "explicit pornography" in schools.
Cruz would not cite specific examples, according to Business Insider, “but instead pointed to books that have made parents angry at school board meetings in general.”
“Take a look at some of the portions from books that parents are going to school boards and reading out loud; this is what my child is being taught,'" the senator told the on-line publication.
Rev. Johnson said it’s all a political smokescreen to create chaos.
“If CRT (critical race theory) is a problem, if pornography is a problem, you guys have been in charge in Texas for 27-years," Johnson said. "Are you just now discovering it? Are you producing it? What if we were to go all over the state and say that you were pornographers? You're more responsible than our public school teachers. Obviously, we're not going to do that, but you get the point."
"We're in this program of sheer destructive chaos," he added. "That's their only agenda. The only agenda. And that is wrong."
Teachers are an easy target, Johnson continued, because the far-right knows that educators are too busy in the classroom to push back. Many school districts also drew the ire of Texas Republican leaders during COVID-19 when some – even in conservative areas – refused to ban masks like the governor ordered.
In an op-ed last week for Baptist News Global, publisher Mark Wingfield argued that “it’s time to stop the insanity that is killing public education.”
“It is disgusting, dismaying and disheartening to see the continued attack on public education from conservative evangelical Christians and people who pretend to be evangelical Christians but couldn’t find John 3:16 in the Bible if you asked them,” Wingfield wrote. "It is time to stop being shocked at this behavior and stand up against it."
On Monday, Pastors for Texas Children launched its first ever ad campaign supporting public schools with radio and television spots.
Wingfield and Johnson urged voters to take a closer look at who’s running for school boards across the state because Republicans have not only criticized districts, but some are also running for seats on the school boards. If they win, they could gain authority to hire and fire superintendents.
Wingfield, a former associate pastor, rebuts people who accuse him of having a political agenda.
“The political religious landscape in America has shifted so far to the extreme right that those of us who used to be in the middle now look like we're on the extreme," he explained. "We haven't moved. We haven't changed. I'm the same person I was six years ago. But the landscape underneath us has shifted so far under the unbelievable right, that it makes everything else look political right."
Rev. Johnson, quoting scripture and Texas law together on the podcast, urged voters to elect lawmakers from either party who will support and bolster public education.
“We're not used to, as pastors, making everybody mad, y'all. We don’t get that. We’re just trying to do article seven, section one of the Texas Constitution: '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,'" Johnson said.
"We look at Genesis Chapter 2: 'God brought all the animals to the human to see what the human would call them.' That's education. Education is absolutely necessary in order to be fruitful, multiply and replenish the Earth and subdue it,” Johnson added. “I don't mean to preach to y'all, but I do want to give you guys an understanding of what motivates us with this. This drives us nuts.”
The lively conversation is on this week’s episode of Y’all-itics.