Why America is behind Europe on educational freedom

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ChoiceAroundTheWorld_FINALThe United States ranks among the lowest of Western democracies in governmental support for educational freedom, and particularly for the right of parents to select schools that correspond to their own religious convictions.  This principle, explicitly included in the international human rights covenants, is supported through public funding of faith-based schools in dozens of countries, including almost all members of the European Union. Despite voucher, tax credit, or educational savings account programs in a number of states, educational freedom is by no means the norm in the United States as it is in most comparable nations.

Although the rate of religious practice is considerably higher in the United States than it is in Europe, we have been much slower to recognize in a practical way the religious-freedom right of parents to make decisions about the schools their children attend, and to do so without financial penalty. School choice, a luxury for most American families, is taken for granted by Danish or French or Swedish or Spanish families. In the Netherlands, for example, only about 30 percent of children attend what we would call “public” schools, while the majority attend Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, or Hindu schools that are fully funded by government. 

My Contrasting Models of State and School describes how this situation developed in four European countries.  Essentially, the aggression of secularist elites during the nineteenth century, seeking to employ popular schooling for state-building and “social progress,” roused the common people into political activity. The struggles were long and bitter; the Dutch speak of a 70-year schoolstrijd, the Belgians of a lutte scolaire, but the outcome in these and other cases was a political settlement recognizing the autonomy of faith-based schools to express a distinctive perspective while receiving full public funding. One result is that there is now little conflict over schooling in these countries and the political parties of the Left, when in office, have not sought to establish a public school monopoly.

In the United States, by contrast, two factors have long prevented such a pluralistic educational policy, a process I describe in The American Model of State and School . One was the fear aroused by Catholic immigration in the 1840s and after, abetted by reports of the struggles between the Catholic Church and republican governments in Europe.  The other was the complacent assumption, in the absence of the sort of secular aggression that began much earlier in Europe, that locally-controlled public schools were generically Protestant.

It was, in short, in response to aggression by what we would now call secular progressives in Europe that, through long political struggle, a dozen nations adopted policies protecting and financially supporting religious liberty in education. It was the former lack of such secular aggression in the United States, together with hostility toward Catholics, that for a century made such policies seem unnecessary to most Americans.

In recent decades, of course, the situation has been reversed.  In highly-secular European countries, faith-based schools continue to be publicly funded and are seldom attacked, while such schools live a precarious financial existence in the United States, despite the high level of religious belief and practice in American society.

Alarmingly, American faith-based schools also suffer today from secular progressive challenges to their personnel policies, accreditation, tax-exempt status, and in general to their ability to provide education based upon a distinctive understanding of the nature of a flourishing life and a just society.

Americans who value faith-based schools should learn from the nineteenth century European experience that only a determined social and political resistance, perhaps over many years, will vindicate the cause of educational and religious freedom.

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Charles L. Glenn is professor of Educational Leadership and Development and former Dean of the School of Education at Boston University, where he teaches courses in education history and comparative policy. From 1970 to 1991 he was director of urban education and equity for the Massachusetts Department of Education, including administration of over $200 million in state funds for magnet schools and desegregation, and initial responsibility for the nation's first state bilingual education mandate and for the state law forbidding race, sex, and national-origin discrimination in education. He is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Glenn is author of a number of books, including the historical study The Myth of the Common School (1988, 2002), which has been published as Il mito della scuola unica (Milan 2004), El mito de la escuela publica (Madrid 2006), and will be published in Portuguese in 2012. He has also published Choice of Schools in Six Nations (1989), Educational Freedom in Eastern Europe (1994, 1995), Educating Immigrant Children: Schools and Language Minorities in Twelve Nations (1996), The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-based Schools and Social Agencies (2000), as well as some twenty articles in four encyclopedias, and several hundred other articles, book chapters, and monographs on education policy.

In 2002 he and Jan De Groof of Belgium published Finding the Right Balance: Freedom, Autonomy and Accountability in Education, a study in two volumes of how 26 countries balance educational freedom with common standards and accountability, pupil and teacher rights with the integrity of school mission. An abbreviated version appeared in Italian as Un difficile equilibrio, and in English (for distribution in Eastern Europe) as Education Freedom.

Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education (2004), a substantially revised and expanded version in three volumes, covers 40 countries. A new four-volume edition will add more than a dozen countries, and up-date the others, for 2012 publication.

Glenn is currently completing a series of books on the history of educational policy in North America and Western Europe. His book on The Netherlands and Belgium, Germany and Austria, Contrasting Models of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control, was published by Continuum in April 2011. A companion volume, The American Model of State and School: An Historical Inquiry, is in press, and he is writing Challenging the American Model of State and School: School Choice and Cultural Pluralism on the antecedents and prospects of current structural reforms of education.

African American/Afro-Canadian Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present and Native American/First Nations Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present were published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2011. His book-in-progress on the harmful influence of certain ideas about education, The Genealogy of Bad Ideas in Education, will be published by ISI Books. His next project will be The Contested School: State and Church in France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico.

Glenn is active in educational policy debates in the United States and Europe, is vice president of OIDEL (the Geneva-based NGO promoting educational freedom worldwide), and a member of the boards of the European Association for Education Law and Policy and the Council for American Private Education, and of five scholarly journals. He has served as a consultant to the Russian and Chinese education authorities and to states and major cities across the United States, and as expert witness in federal court cases on school finance, desegregation, bilingual education, and church-state relations in education. His BA and EdD degrees are from Harvard, his PhD from Boston University.