Editor’s note: This entry comes from Charles Glenn, professor of educational leadership at Boston University and the former director of urban education and equity efforts for the Massachusetts Department of Education. He is the author of nine books, including The Myth of the Common School, and of more than 100 articles on educational history and comparative policy. He is an associate with the American Center for School Choice, which recently joined an alliance with redefinED.
While allowing parents to choose the schools that their children attend is on the agenda of many education reformers, the rationales that we advance vary considerably, even at times seeming to cancel each other out. The appeal to contrasting reasons for supporting policies to allow school choice without financial penalty makes it hard to persuade the general public to ignore warnings from the educational establishment that such policies will fatally undermine public schools, with its corollary that only schools operated by government can create loyal citizens and social harmony.
The oldest and still the prevailing rationale in Continental Europe is simply that freedom of conscience requires it. Belgium is the only country whose independence, in 1830, was in large part the result of demands for educational freedom, a principle enshrined in its Constitution, and political mobilization over this issue continued over subsequent decades in a dozen countries. Today, every country in Western Europe has well-established policies providing public support to parental choice, including on the basis of religious preferences, and educational freedom was incorporated as a basic human right into international covenants after World War II.
A second rationale seldom mentioned in discussions of parental choice on the Continent, where it tends to be dismissed as typically “Anglo-Saxon,” is that associated with Milton Friedman, and with Chubb and Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (1990). Competition among schools, it is argued, tends to make them more educationally effective. Strong empirical support has been provided recently by Ludger Woessmann and others in School Accountability, Autonomy and Choice around the World (2009), which uses data from more than a quarter of a million students in 37 countries to conclude that “rather than harming disadvantaged students, accountability, autonomy and choice appear to be tides that lift all boats … In particular, the additional choice created by public funding for private schools is associated with a strong reduction in the dependence of student achievement on SES.”
This brings us to the third rationale, that of providing parents with limited resources the same opportunities to guide the education of their children that the rest of us take for granted. It was as a state official responsible for desegregation and equal opportunity that I came to support choice, after attempting to eliminate it through mandatory assignments in the 1974 Boston desegregation plan. The crisis we created in Boston led me and others to seek alternative ways of desegregating the schools in other Massachusetts cities, and eventually in Boston as well. Magnet schools and “controlled choice,” we found, also had the effect of creating better education and enhancing the professionalism of teachers as they designed schools intended to appeal to parents.
In general, the first two rationales have had only a modest effect on public policies in the United States: the concern to rescue students from unacceptable schools in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and elsewhere has provided the rationale for new arrangements. Thus when the school board of a suburban county near Denver took the highly unusual step of offering scholarships for five hundred of the pupils currently enrolled in its schools to attend private schools, mostly with a religious character, there was some ambivalence among choice advocates because the families involved were almost all middle class. How could this be reconciled with the priority of opportunity for poor children trapped in under-performing schools?
I agreed to serve as expert witness in support of the Douglas County scholarship program this summer because I was impressed that the plan had been developed in careful detail with appropriate safeguards, and because it seemed to me an opportunity to challenge a state constitutional provision discriminating on the basis of religion in making public funds available to schools. These state “Baby Blaines” are a major barrier to expanding parental choice, and it is important to the cause of educational freedom that they be challenged at the state level, as is occurring in Colorado.
But it is also important that the constituency in support of school choice be expanded to include as many parents and voters as possible. Surveys have shown repeatedly that this support is much stronger among urban black and Latino respondents than among white suburbanites, as one might expect given that the latter have exercised school choice through residential decisions and beyond that have little opportunity to do so. Programs like that in Douglas Country can bring the educational freedom rationale – and the interest of influential parents — to the support of the equity rationale upon which previous initiatives have relied.