The PFPS Interview: Reverend Johnson of Pastors for Texas Children

Reverend Charles Foster Johnson, co-pastor of Bread, in Fort Worth, Texas; Founder and Executive Director of Pastors for Texas Children, a faith-based advocacy group that works to promote and advance public schools in Texas; and head of the national Pastors for Children organization spoke to Jessica Levin, Public Funds Public Schools Director. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jessica Levin: Reverend Johnson, we are speaking with you about our shared goal of keeping public funds in public schools. Pastors for Texas Children has been fighting for public schools and opposing vouchers for many years and has also grown to have a national presence. Please tell us more about the organization’s mission, how you carry it out, and from the perspective of faith leaders, why are public education and vouchers such important issues?

Reverend Johnson: We came out of an organization called the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. And, of course, the Baptist denomination is aptly represented in Texas, as you might imagine. In 2011, $5.5 billion was stripped from public education in the Texas budget, and in 2013, only $3.4 billion was reinstated, which is what got our attention. At the same time, forces in the Legislature were pushing private school vouchers. A number of ministers got together from the Commission, and in 2013, we spun off into our independent organization by simply doing this: standing strong for public schools as a component of God’s common good, or what we might call the public trust.

Really candidly and personally, it comes out of a very sort of pedestrian and prudential concern that our families are employed by public schools; our church members are employed by public schools. It is axiomatic that the wife of a minister is oftentimes a classroom teacher; that bus drivers, lunchroom workers, particularly in rural communities, the public school is the chief employer. So we started mobilizing those ministers. Traditionally, a lot of those rural ministers lean Republican, and we got them together with urban ministers, who, I’m generalizing, lean Democrat. And it was interesting for us to have a bi-partisan group, across the spectrum theologically. We might have lots of disagreements doctrinally and on scriptural interpretation and theology, but we came together around great public schools. And here we are, eight years later, and we have thankfully played a key role in keeping private school vouchers out of the state of Texas, much to the chagrin of Governor Abbott and the right-wing of the Republican party in Texas.

JL: You have certainly played a key role in keeping Texas voucher-free. Tell us the historical context for that. How long have pro-voucher groups been trying to pass a voucher program in Texas?

Rev. Johnson: I have been a Texas minister for over 30 years, and literally as long back as I can remember. You know, the voucher idea comes out of a reaction to public school racial integration. It was the idea of some market-based economists, who felt taxes for this provision of the public trust were not appropriate, and that individuals should be able to either keep those tax dollars or have those tax dollars diverted to their private schools, their homeschools, that we should shop on an open market for our educational “products” so to speak. Here we are, 50 years later, and it is an abysmal idea. It’s failed. We know when that happens profiteers will keep a lot of that money and only pass along a little bit of that money to the education of our children. On the other hand, if our public is holding educational institutional systems accountable, that is, we have a public accountability, transparency, and lots of our fellow citizens see how the money is spent, we will have a better chance of delivering a more fruitful educational product for our children. And this is why, after all these years, we are making astonishing successes in public education, and on the whole public schools exceed voucher schools, homeschools, even charter schools in delivering a quality educational product.

JL: And tell us more about what type of push for vouchers you saw in the Texas Legislature this year.

Rev. Johnson: So right out of the starting gate, the Legislature started in the middle of January with a provision in HB 3. It was a pandemic relief bill. It had a low number, which means it had a high priority. This was the Governor’s priority. This was the Speaker’s priority. Well, there was a little provision that if the public educational provision was not delivered in some district somewhere in a remote rural place, that child could enjoy a diversion of those public funds to have that educational opportunity provided in a private institution or nonpublic school.

We saw it, we smelled a rat immediately, we identified it, we got together and agreed, “Yup, this is a voucher.” We went to the chair of the committee, Dustin Burrows, a House member from Lubbock, and told him, “This is a voucher.” All his people, all his staff, himself, other House members said, “Nope, this is not a voucher,” and we’re going to keep it in the bill. Then we went to Mr. Burrow’s local community. I know everyone in Lubbock. I got on the phone, and I started calling ministers, city council people, city hall people, school board people in all the respective districts in Lubbock. Dustin Burrows’ phone rang off the hook, and then about two days later he called and said he’d like to meet with us. We went in, and it was a short meeting, about three minutes, and he said he just wanted to let us know that they had taken the voucher (now he’s calling it a voucher) out of HB 3. That’s the way it works. What you have to do is mobilize local leaders in the community. Later on there was SB 1716, which was a more pronounced voucher policy.

JL: It was a special education voucher, is that right?

Rev. Johnson: A special education voucher is what it was. We thought we had it stripped from the bill, but it got put back in without a hearing. The committee chair did not want to have a hearing on it. We forced a hearing and essentially got an amendment proposed that changed the flow of the funding so that oversight to the funding could be given to our local service centers that are public institutions. We have 20 of them in Texas. The education service center will serve a number of independent school districts, 60 or 70 sometimes 80 school districts. It is publicly funded, it is publicly overseen, it is publicly controlled. And what the amendment in SB 1716 did was give the education service centers the control over the money, not a private entity.

We put on so much pressure. That was harder to do than the HB 3 voucher because we had to work each individual member, by the way both Democrats and Republicans. That may be illuminating information for your readers. This doesn’t always follow party lines. You have rural Republicans who are opposed to vouchers, and you have some urban Democrats who are for them. They serve some House districts that have some low performing poor schools, and they are sometimes hoodwinked into thinking that a private school voucher policy will somehow help their poor children of color. We have to come in very carefully, very patiently, tell that Democratic House member why they are wrong about that, and how the powerful rich interests will benefit from the voucher and not their children.

JL: Tell us more about how these lessons or successes can be replicated elsewhere, or what advice you’d give advocates in other states.

Rev. Johnson: Two things come to my mind, and they are extraordinarily important and very relevant to our constituency and your constituency and the education advocacy community in general. The first thing is to form a partnership with administrator groups, teacher groups, community groups, religious groups. Do it now, immediately, if not sooner. If a state can get 20 groups, the superintendent groups, the teachers’ unions or associations, the PTA, then go to the denominational bodies. Form a pro-public school, anti-voucher coalition. If you can only agree that vouchers are wrong, fine.

JL: The support for public education is so widespread in every state in our country, but there are such well-funded groups pushing back.

Rev. Johnson: That energy is not harnessed. And it takes a community leader to do that, somebody with a pulpit, someone with a microphone, a PTA, a parent, sometimes the most powerful advocate is a parent. That coalition is absolutely essential.

JL: You have certainly made a very convincing case for coalition, and we agree with you. Did you have a second major lesson?

Rev. Johnson: The second thing is to get those rural Republicans and urban Democrats together. Public schools are a conservative American public value. Don’t be afraid to use the word conservative, and don’t be afraid to use the term conservative Democrat, and don’t be afraid to cross that party line to form a caucus, whether you call it that or not. We’re trying to work on that formally down here, formally forming a pro-public education caucus that brings Democrats and Republicans together. But if you can’t do that, at least have an informal caucus because everyone needs cover in the House. They’re always running. They run every two years. They are running every time you see them at church, every time you see them at the softball field.

JL: There have been many places where public schools have been under attack and vouchers heavily pushed, and many states have passed voucher bills in their 2021 sessions. Many more than in previous years. You’ve given us a lot of great insight on how you fought vouchers in Texas. Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers about why Texas has been successful in fighting off vouchers while some other states have not been as successful?

Rev. Johnson: Two things come to mind. The main thing we do on the policy side is teach our congregations how to assist a public school, how to form a relationship with their neighborhood public school. That’s the most important thing any advocate can do. It doesn’t get any more grassroots than that. Those congregational leaders will learn everything they need to know about the effect of bad policy and the effect of good policy.

The second thing we do is hold events called “A Celebration of Public Education.” We put 200 people in the fellowship hall. We get a guest speaker. The local band plays. The kids come and recite poetry. We have an hour-long program heralding and highlighting the glory of public schools. And the mayor’s there, the city council is there, the chamber of commerce person is there. And we give a fiery presentation on the danger of privatization. That takes a lot of effort and time. So, if we do that during the 20 months when the Legislature isn’t in session, the four months they are in session we already have a foundation. Pastors for Children is in eight states, but we’re doing all this on a shoestring. We are going to do this same thing in other states where we are not yet planted because we know it will work. People believe in their public schools.

JL: And looking ahead, what do you think is on the horizon in terms of voucher legislation and the efforts to oppose it? What should our public education advocates and allies be watching out for?

Rev. Johnson: Well, the special education voucher is always the gateway voucher. Everybody wants to help special needs children. A lot of our children are special needs children, so the first thing we need to do is define that. And the second thing is to give them the evidence that the public provision cares for the special needs child much better than the private provision, and that most private schools are not equipped for it. Watch out for people purporting to believe in racial equity taking a few statistical examples about the lack of performance among kids of color in urban, blighted neighborhoods. Watch out for those privatization forces using “racial equity” as the pretext for their privatization. Somehow we have to find policies that will invest in those poor schools to deliver our poorest children the best education product. We need to have a publicly controlled, publicly designed, publicly implemented policy specifically targeting those schools to turn those schools around.

JL: Public Funds Public Schools sees a lot of this the same way, that adequate and equitable public school funding is the key to making sure children have their constitutionally guaranteed right to a high quality education. I know that Pastors for Children does a lot of work on school funding just like Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the partners collaborating on PFPS. And we see vouchers as anathema to that goal. Sounds like Pastors sees it the same way.

Rev. Johnson: Same way. You bet.

JL: You have offered us both very inspiring words about our loftiest goals of making sure every child has that guaranteed public education as well as really practical tips for building the coalitions you talked about and fighting voucher bills when you see them. Anything else that you’d like to tell us before we end the interview?

Rev. Johnson: I would say this: let’s all keep exploring this principle of partnership. I don’t think we’ve exhausted it. I’ve given a few tips, but it certainly isn’t any sort of magisterial compendium of knowledge. I think we all need to drill down on this. What does it mean to identify a partner, to submit to that partner, to find the solidarity across distinctions for the sake of the public good? I think we’re all hungry for that. You all are fighting on the legal front, that is enormously important, and I think a lot of this anti-public education policy is unconstitutional and illegal. And you all are winning those battles and will continue to. But this whole idea of coalition, of partnership, it is really compelling to me, and I just don’t think we have milked that coconut dry.

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