Widening support for school choice

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.

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BY Charles Glenn

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.

One Comment

I believe that suburban parents who pay high property taxes to educate their children are understandably concerned when parents living in poorly performing districts choose to send their children to schools in the suburbs and have no financial stake in their education. Thus, I think it only equitable that out of district parents should be required to pay tuition according to their ability as the price of choosing an out of district school. Additionally this should motivate out of district parents to become closely involved in their child’s education. Parental involvement has been shown to be an important factor in a child’s sucess in school. The Children’s Scholarship Fund makes partial scholarships available to low income parents to enable them to send their child to the school of their choice. The remainder of the tuition is paid by the parents often with difficulty, but The Children’s Scholarship Fund has far more applicants than it can award scholarships to in spite of the requirement that part of the tuition be paid by parents. The financial stake that the parents have in their child’s education causes them to be closely involved in their children’s schooling. I think it is worth trying out this model with parents who choose to send their children to out of district schools.

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