A Texas pastor who has fought private school vouchers in his home state is bringing his call of support for traditional public education to Tennessee.
“Vouchers are corrupt. It’s a failed idea,” said the Rev. Charles Foster Johnson of government programs that allow parents to use taxpayer money to pay for tuition at private or religious schools.
The Baptist minister from Fort Worth is founder of Pastors for Texas Children, and on Tuesday launched a four-day, five-stop statewide speaking tour in Chattanooga. Since its founding in 2013, his nonprofit group has mobilized more than 2,000 Texas pastors and faith leaders to help stall voucher bills in that state’s legislature. He hopes to do the same in Tennessee.
Johnson’s mission is starkly different from church leaders who want public funding available for religious and private schools. He is a fierce advocate of separation of church and state, as well as local control of schools and education funding.
“We want full funding of our public schools, and we are against privatization that diverts God’s common good money to underwrite private schools,” he said. “The public should stay public, and the private should stay private.”
His advocacy model is being replicated in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Mississippi, and now Tennessee, where Johnson is rallying local pastors this week during stops in Knoxville, Nashville, and Pleasant Hill. He’ll close out his tour on Friday at First Baptist Church of Memphis, the city where some Tennessee lawmakers sought last year to create a pilot voucher program. That effort failed, but groups on both sides expect some type of voucher legislation will be introduced next January, when a newly elected General Assembly convenes under a new administration replacing outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
“Just as in previous years, these bills will come straight out of the chute,” said Travis Donoho, a public school advocate in Knoxville who recruited Johnson to speak across Tennessee. “We plan to bring pastors to the State Capitol to oppose vouchers and related legislation.”
Voucher supporters are mobilizing faith leaders, too. “Just last week, I met with a group of Latino pastors in Nashville who are very fired up about giving parents more school options,” said Shaka Mitchell, state director of American Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group. “Pastors want their people to have their children in schools that work for them.”
American Federation for Children was led by Betsy DeVos before she became U.S. secretary of education under President Donald Trump. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to defeat voucher opponents in the Tennessee Legislature.
Johnson says his group isn’t flush with cash. He is appealing to pastors to speak out against vouchers out of a “moral duty” to advocate for children, especially poor children, who don’t have a voice in today’s power structure. This week, he’s speaking mostly in churches where his supporters have invited congregational leaders to sign up with the newly formed Pastors for Tennessee Children.
The group organized in January when Johnson was invited to Knoxville by local faith leaders and education groups.
“Tennessee and Texas are very similar in terms of the importance of religion and also the fact that rural Republicans have blocked vouchers for years in both legislatures,” said Donoho, a retired labor union organizer. “We want to help our rural pastors strengthen the spines of their rural legislators, both Republican and Democrat. This is not strictly a partisan issue.”
Pastors for Tennessee Children started this week’s tour with about 60 members who already partner with neighborhood schools as part of their local ministries — donating school supplies, maintaining school grounds, mentoring and tutoring students, and supporting teachers with gestures of appreciation.
Advocacy on public education policy is the next step, organizers say.
“Public education is to be cherished and supported,” said Donoho. “We don’t need to be giving public money to private and religious schools. Doing that undermines our public schools, which is a possession of every American and every Tennessean.”
Johnson is networking with faith leaders in 10 other states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Florida, and North Carolina, where vouchers already have a foothold.
“We come into an area and bring people to the table and brainstorm about how we can help our schools,” he said. “As ministers and clergy, we’re natural connectors. We’re able to convene people to unify around our neighborhood schools. It’s powerful.”