On the heels of William Wilberforce’s work to abolish slave trade, a different but similar work began in Britain by Richard Oastler in the 1830s. Oastler gathered a small group of Christians in Yorkshire to campaign vigorously for laws to protect thousands of child laborers who were subjected to long hours of work with no hope for school or future advancement.
These were not the traditional agricultural or domestic jobs that kids held for many years prior. At issue were the sweeping changes ushered in by the Industrial Revolution and the new jobs that were hot, dangerous, and geared towards ultimate profitability for the factory owners.
When profits became the driver, the children suffered.
It became universally recognized by growing numbers that these were inhumane conditions for children that likened the possibility of lifelong poverty. Once the profit over people motive was brought to light a variety of groups began to organize.
The prospect of child exploitation through labor was completely legal until the people banded together and fought against this injustice.
Kids raised in Oklahoma today are protected from commercial industries attempting to convert child labor into profits for their investors and themselves.
And yet a new danger has risen. The factory has been replaced with business opportunities masquerading as schools that are lauded as new profit centers by self-described “edu-preneurs”.
In an increasingly competitive global economy an untapped $620 billion education market has proven too tempting for some investors and hedge fund managers.
Out-of-touch billionaires like Betsy DeVos and, unfortunately, even some of our own state politicians, experience confusion when confronted by growing numbers of pastors about our moral concerns.
However, that Christians would band together against loopholes allowing a few to enrich themselves on the backs of children should be no great surprise.
Understanding the dangers of greed, the faithful are quick to point out the limitations of capitalism and that it must always be balanced with a healthy sense of the common good of all people.
For just as surely as profit becomes the driver, children will suffer.
Today profiteering flies under the radar by being marketed as “school choice”. This movement in part diverts public assets and resources into private pockets. But the cost is a loss of the common good of education for all children.
Indeed privatization of public schools shares striking similarity to the injustice Oastler and Christians in Britain fought nearly 200 years ago.
Of course no one disagrees with parental choice, but the liberty of the individual is not an absolute right. Of higher value is the common good which acts as a balance. Oklahomans have long held the value of looking out for one another. So much so that we enshrined free public education for all children directly into our state constitution.
And Oklahoma is not alone. Every single time privatization has come before a vote of the people, it has been defeated across all states. While completely clear and evident that the will of the people is to continue our journey together for the public education of every child - legislators cannot seem to let go of this scheme to move funds intended to bless all children into the pockets of a few.
Pastors rose to fight this threat in Texas, then Oklahoma and now Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas. Christians who abhor the prospect of child exploitation cannot stomach profit driven corporations taking over public schools.
We stand with the local community-driven public schools because they are full of people we know teaching, administrating, driving busses, feeding kids, and wiping little noses. These people are our church members, our friends, our neighbors.
Those defending children in England realized the profiteers would not self-police themselves for the needs of children - laws would need to be passed to end the practice of exploitation.
Oastler died before realizing the fullness of his dream, but as Britain entered the 20th century, elementary education finally replaced child labor and became compulsory and free for all children 12 years of age and younger.
With profit as a motive in Oklahoma’s school choice movement, children suffer. Bold leadership is needed to say: enough.
Pastor Clark Frailey is a local church pastor and Executive Director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids--a non-denominational coalition of pastors from across Oklahoma that advocate for local public school children.