Author Archive | Charles Glenn

Why America is behind Europe on educational freedom

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.  Continue Reading →

A radical’s take on educational freedom

Radical activist Ivan Illich pushed for educational freedom beyond the boundaries of just schools.

Radical activist Ivan Illich pushed for educational freedom beyond the boundaries of just schools.

This guest post is part of our continuing series on the center-left roots of school choice.

It may be hard for younger readers to imagine a time when to be anti-establishment was a position of the political left.

Today, of course, the left is so well-ensconced in positions of power and influence in academia, media, the professions and government that those who criticize any of these bastions are immediately labeled as belonging to a neolithic right that does not appreciate the ever-unfolding benefits of the new establishment’s guidance.Voucher Left logo snipped

In the 1960s, though, to be critical of the establishment was the hallmark of the left. And no one did so with more radical intellectual sophistication than Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest and influential activist born in Austria in 1926.

Illich was best known for his leadership of the Centro Intercultural de Documentación at Cuernavaca, Mexico, which he founded in 1961 and shut down in a storm of conflict in 1976. Ostensibly a language school, CIDOC was chiefly known for its critique of the “neo-colonialism” practiced, Illich argued, by missionaries, the Alliance for Progress, and the Peace Corps, and it drew notable educational reformers of the era, including John Holt and Paul Goodman. In 1967, I staffed a conference in Puerto Rico of Christian Social Relations staff from across the United States. Illich was the primary speaker, and I can testify to his passionate eloquence in private conversations as well.

In “Deschooling Society” (1971), Illich directed that eloquence against the American educational system. He portrayed it as an unreformable bureaucracy devoted to the forced-feeding of conventional ideas into passive youth. The various reforms proposed at the time, including progressive “alternative schools” and “new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils,” he wrote, would not provide the education needed by contemporary society, nor would “the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes.”

“School,” Illich insisted, “has become the world religion of a modernized proletariat, and makes futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age. The nation-state has adopted it, drafting all citizens into a graded curriculum leading to sequential diplomas not unlike the initiation rituals and hieratic promotions of former times. The modern state has assumed the duty of enforcing the judgment of its educators through well-meant truant officers and job requirements.”

What was needed instead, he continued, were “educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.” Specifically, individuals should be enabled to acquire the skills currently taught in schools (badly, in Illich’s view, and with accompanying bad habits and attitudes) through other routes, including individual or group tutoring and mentoring by those competent to teach a particular skill.

Of course, “free and competing drill instruction is a subversive blasphemy to the orthodox educator,” but Illich argued it would be both efficient and liberating. Above all, it would deprive government of a major instrument for regimenting its citizens. “The first article of a bill of rights for a modern, humanist society,” he wrote, “would correspond to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: ‘The State shall make no law with respect to the establishment of education.’”

Illich supported school choice, with caveats. Continue Reading →

Wishing for the sprouting of education reform, near and far



Editor’s note: The U.S. is hardly the only place on the planet where parental school choice and education reform are hot topics, as Boston University Professor Charles Glenn reminds us in this post. Glenn is an associate of the American Center for School Choice, which co-hosts this blog, and has studied educational freedom in detail in dozens of countries. This is the fifth post in our school choice wish series. See the rest of the line-up here.

Every day, almost obsessively, I go online to read the latest news from Ukraine in the Kyiv Post.  It’s not that I have any solution to the military threats (and the slow but inexorable death toll of two or three Ukrainian soldiers and a few civilians each day) posed by Russia and its allies in the Donbas, or to the economic crisis, or to the struggle to eliminate corruption in government and the economy in a nation that has not yet completed the necessary post-Soviet choice wish 2014 logo

All I can do in December is hang a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag on my house in Boston to show my solidarity with friends in Kyiv and Lviv, and inquire whether they are able to stay warm enough as Putin blackmails their country over gas and oil.

But, like bulbs in the cold earth of my wife’s garden, I know the determination to create a healthy democratic society is deeply rooted in Ukraine. I know that reform of the education system is one of the key elements in the long-term success of that project of national awakening. And I know, even as the cold settles down in Kyiv and in Boston, that spring is coming, and that education reforms are coming as well.

In September, my friend Jan De Groof of Antwerp and I were privileged to spend a few days in Ukraine with those who are committed to these reforms, and we have been asked to return when they conclude the time is right for us to advise on specifics of building a healthy, accountable, and pluralistic education system.

The recent elections and formation of a government committed to a wide agenda of reforms is a source of great encouragement. News of these reforms is what draws me back to the Kyiv Post, despite all the discouraging and painful news that dominates each day.

Education reform in Ukraine has a long way to go, though there are many centers of excellence. Continue Reading →

Catholic schools, gay employees and the duty of loyalty

Charles Glenn

Charles Glenn

In recent months, there has been a steady stream of high-profile stories about Catholic school policies towards gay employees. In one, the front page of the New York Times relayed the controversy at a Catholic school in Washington State that fired an administrator after he married another man. In another, the front page of the Boston Globe featured a story about a Massachusetts Catholic school that cancelled its job offer to a prospective food services director when it learned that he was in a same-sex marriage.

Predictably, the tone of both accounts, and the great majority of those quoted, was sympathetic toward the victims of these decisions. While I understand this instinctive reaction, I’d like to point out the implications of limiting the freedom of non-public schools to choose whom to employ.

First, a word about my own background: For more than 20 years, I was the Massachusetts official responsible for enforcing the law against discrimination in schools. After I became a professor at Boston University in 1991, I was appointed the university’s representative on the Governor’s Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth. Currently I serve on the state advisory committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights. And I am not Catholic.

I am also vice president of a Geneva-based NGO that promotes educational freedom around the world. Experience with many countries has convinced me that we should be very careful about limiting the autonomy of non-public schools – and, indeed, of public schools, but that is another discussion – to preserve and express distinctive visions of the nature of a flourishing human life and how to promote it in children.

Educational freedom, both the freedom to provide education and the freedom to choose a school for one’s children, is protected as a basic human right by several international covenants, as well as by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. These freedoms are interdependent: that of parents to choose is meaningless unless there are accessible schools with different approaches to education, and that of schools (and of educators) to create such distinctive approaches is frustrated if they must serve families whose children are assigned involuntarily and thus must provide a lowest-common-denominator education that no one will object to.

If schools are not allowed to differ on the basis of different understandings of the Good Life, as faith-based schools and also many independent secular schools do, they will differ only on test scores. Parents with more resources will always find a way to get their children into those with higher scores, either through moving to affluent areas or through paying tuition. Because they offer a distinctive education, a nationwide study by Jay Greene found, private schools in every region of the country were more racially-integrated than residence-based public schools.

But schools, whether private or choice-based public schools like the charters that have been so successful in Boston, cannot maintain a clear focus on their distinctive educational mission unless free to select teachers who are whole-heartedly committed to that mission, whether it be Montessori, or Catholic, or Jewish, or a focus on the arts.  Without a team of staff who agree on their shared mission and can work together on the basis of mutual trust, such schools of choice might as well pack it in. Continue Reading →

Balancing freedom & justice to shape school choice accountability

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Choice Words blog. It’s one of many pieces written in response to Fordham’s release of a “school choice toolkit” for lawmakers that called for more regulatory accountability measures for “voucher schools.”



Policy-making usually involves trade-offs, finding the right balance between competing objectives and even principles. This is especially true in education, where so much is at stake, both for vulnerable children and for the health of society.

One of the principles that should guide educational policy is that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (article 26, 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in San Francisco in 1948). Officially, at least, this right is acknowledged by almost every nation, and in many of their constitutions; it has been settled law in the United States since the Supreme Court’s 1925 ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (268 U.S. 510).

Americans agree, as Terry Moe showed in Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (Brookings Institution, 2000). This is especially true of parents for whom public school provision is of inadequate quality. “Among public [school] parents, vouchers are supported by 73 percent of those with family incomes below $20,000 a year, compared to 57 percent of those with incomes above $60,000.   . . . 75 percent of black parents and 71 percent of Hispanic parents, compared to 63 percent of white parents. . . . 72 percent of parents in the bottom tier of districts favor vouchers, while 59 percent of those in the top tier do” (212).

Moe also found, however, that “enthusiasm for regulation is remarkably uniform and cuts across groups and classes – including private [school] parents, who appear quite willing to see the autonomy of their own schools compromised in the interests of public accountability” (299). This expectation of government oversight is also well-established in international law and practice, and specified in the Pierce decision.

On the other hand, if the regulatory hand of government is too heavy, the right of choice becomes meaningless: what’s to choose among schools forced to be alike? Continue Reading →

In education debates, the tired arguments of secular fundamentalism



Editor’s note: This piece is in response to Friday’s guest post from Alex J. Luchenitser of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

It seems simplest, though scarcely elegant, to reply to attorney Luchenitser’s statements one by one, though I will leave to the lawyers how a school choice tax credit is a state expenditure while tax deductions and tax exemptions are not.

First, it is not true that I assert that states should be forced to fund religious schools; my point is that, if a state chooses to fund private schools through parental school choice, it should not discriminate against those with a religious character. The recent ruling in Duncan v. New Hampshire does precisely that, allowing scholarships derived from tax credits to go to private schools on condition that those schools not be “of any religious sect or denomination,” citing the language of an 1877 amendment to the N.H. Constitution.

By the way, it also does not prevent those scholarships from going to homeschooling families no matter how religious their efforts may be, suggesting religious education is excluded only if you do it with other people. How sensible is that?

I compare this discrimination, in my previous post, with the racial discrimination laws adopted in the South during the same historical period, and I urge that it is similarly unjust and should be challenged by anyone concerned with fairness. Equal treatment is my only claim.

Second, he challenges my conclusion (based on a careful review of the historical evidence detailed in my 24,000-word “expert report”) that the anti-aid (or “Blaine”) provision added to the New Hampshire Constitution in 1877 was the result of anti-Catholic bias. To respond to this I can only offer to provide a copy of my report to anyone who would like to review the evidence with an open mind.

Third, he claims, “the New Hampshire constitution today neither allows anti-Catholic discrimination nor has such an effect.” It is true that today the effect of that particular provision, as applied in the recent ruling, is even-handedly discriminatory against all organized religious groups in favor of groups, no matter how strong their ideological flavor, that claim a secular basis. Is this progress? Continue Reading →

Time for a ‘Brown’ ruling on religious discrimination in education

Charles Glenn: it's time for a ruling on par with Brown v. Board of Education that ends legalized discrimination on the basis of religion.

Charles Glenn: it’s time for a ruling on par with Brown v. Board of Education to end legalized discrimination in education on the basis of religion.

New Hampshire joined other states in adopting a tuition tax credit program in 2012; now this has been partially blocked by a ruling that illustrates how urgently the United States needs a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court doing, for legalized discrimination on the basis of religion, what Brown v.  Board of Education did for legalized discrimination on the basis of race. In fact, the two institutional forms of bigotry – one adopted by Southern Democrats, the other by Northern Republicans – are intertwined historically.

The 2012 New Hampshire law allows businesses to claim credits against business taxes owed equal to 85 percent of amounts they donate to state-designated “scholarship organizations.” The organizations then award scholarships up to $2,500 to attend non-public schools or out-of-district public schools, or to defray costs of home schooling.

Opponents charge that this violates Article 83 of the state constitution, which stipulates “no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of the schools of institutions of any religious sect or denomination.”

After a one-day hearing and more than six weeks of pondering, Judge John M. Lewis ruled June 17 that funds raised through tax credits were public funds (even though they had never been in government coffers), and could not be used for scholarships to religious schools. This left the door open for their use for scholarships for non-religious schools.

State Rep. Bill O’Brien, who had been House Speaker when the law was enacted, told the Manchester Union-Leader the ruling “does not address why it is permissible for the state to allow tax breaks for religious organizations through college scholarships, but it is not permissible when it’s a tax credit of this nature.”

According to the Union-Leader, “Charles Arlinghaus of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy said, ‘The final decision in this case was always going to come from the Supreme Court, which I’m sure will uphold the law. No education tax credit has ever been struck down by a Supreme Court in any state. This ruling is particularly odd. The entire program is fine unless a parent by their own choice chooses a religious school. By this logic a program is illegal if neutral and only legal if actively hostile to religion. That’s absurd and I trust the Supreme Court will find it so.’”

Whatever the results of the appeal, it is a timely reminder of the need for a decision at the highest level to undo the lingering effects of religious discrimination in the American legal system. Continue Reading →

Families should be free to choose schools they trust

Every school, whether intentionally or not, teaches more than academic subjects. Simply participating in the daily life of a school, its routines and how it justifies and enforces them, its norms for relationships among pupils (of the same age and of different ages) and between youth and adults, the ways in which adults relate to one another (closely observed by their pupils), and a thousand other aspects of schooling teach lessons for life. Those lessons may be very positive, may be life-transforming for youth who come to school from difficult backgrounds, or they may be negative, teaching cynicism, manipulation, even cruelty.

Good schools in every country, it is fair to say, are characterized by a sense of mission and a well-defined understanding of the nature of human flourishing which in turn shapes a distinctive culture, a caractère propre, affecting not only the overt curriculum and teaching methods but also those habits and mores which teach so much. One of the best books about American schools, “The Shopping Mall High School,” points out that

students of all kinds usually thrive by participation in institutions with distinctive purposes and common expectations. Magnet schools, examination schools, and schools-within-schools are expressions of the desire for communities of focused educational and often moral purpose. Because they are special places to begin with, teachers and students feel more special in them. Both are more likely to be committed to a purpose and the expectations that flow from it if they choose — and are chosen by — schools or sub-schools than if they are simply assigned to them. The existence of a common purpose has an educational force of its own, quite independent of the skills of individual teachers. It also helps good teachers do a better job and may soften the impact of less able teachers.

Paradoxically, the ability of school staff to form coherent communities expressing a shared understanding of education for life may be limited by efforts of government to require that they take on such agendas. It remains to be seen whether education officials can resist the temptation to set standards in such a form that they inhibit the distinctiveness which is a natural result of collaboration to shape the life of an individual school. Clear but limited outcome standards are what is needed.  Continue Reading →