A Texas preacher encouraged local clergy to get involved with — and advocate for — Chattanooga's public schools Tuesday.
The Rev. Charles Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, spoke at a luncheon that included local religious leaders, Hamilton County Schools educators and the Hamilton County Education Association at First Baptist Church.
Johnson, described on the Pastors for Texas Children website as an advocate, said religious leaders need to reaffirm and reestablish that a free, public education is a basic human right.
"We have a debate today about whether or not children today deserve an equal education," he said. "We all know the ills of public education and some [people's] attempts to privatize it. It's time for the church to get back together with the schools."
He encouraged religious leaders to bring their congregations together to support public schools through wraparound services such as tutoring, mentoring, supply drives and other tangible events and through lobbying legislators.
Pastors for Texas Children gained national attention after it began to lobby against efforts to use taxpayer money to send students to charter and private schools.
The group, an independent ministry and outreach group that comprises nearly 2,000 pastors and church leaders from across Texas, gained even more attention when it was criticized by Texas politicians with strong ties to the Koch brothers, according to The Washington Post.
The Rev. Diane Dougherty said that is why she traveled from Atlanta to hear Johnson speak.
"As a former educator, I am very interested in the education of children. I am a member of the Georgia Coalition for Public Education and as a faith leader, I am able to voice concerns about the privatization of public education," Dougherty said. "As a former Catholic school teacher, that's not the mission of the church to serve the children of the wealthy."
Outside of the debate over private and charter schools, Johnson said faith leaders coming together to support students and teachers was a moral imperative.
"We are going to connect every church in this town to every school and encourage pastors to reach out to schools and find out how we can help," he said.
Laura Becker, pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, agreed. She previously worked with other faith leaders and community members to advocate for safer schools and gun reforms alongside the group Chattanooga Students Leading Change during the weeks of protests and school walkouts earlier this year.
"In communities, faith leaders are still very much a voice to our congregations," Becker said. "We have a particular call and responsibility to recognize need in our communities."
Johnson is traveling across the state, encouraging pastors to join the new arm of the coalition, Pastors for Tennessee Children.
Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, first met Johnson at a conference in Minnesota and said his message was one she wanted to bring to Hamilton County.
"Educators need you. They need your support, your encouragement. The students need you," Omarkhail told the religious leaders gathered in the church's meeting hall Tuesday. "At those school boards, the school board members need to see you. Those leaders have been saying up at the dais, 'We need more people of faith involved in our schools, but they're not here.' We can go there."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.