In America and abroad, no reason to fear faith-based schools

Editor’s note: America isn’t the only place where school choice raises questions about not only education, but pluralism, citizenship and social integration. Noted school choice expert Charles Glenn, a Boston University professor and American Center for School Choice associate, writes that European countries with far more evolved choice systems continue to wrestle with these issues – but have no reason to fear faith-based schools.

Early in June I was one of the speakers at a conference on educational freedom in The Netherlands and Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium). It is no exaggeration to say these are the poster children of “school choice,” the two areas where its implications have been worked out most fully over the past two centuries (see my Contrasting Models of State and School, Continuum, 2011). Today, upwards of two-thirds of pupils in this area of some 23 million inhabitants attend non-government schools with full public funding.

Much of the discussion among the participants was about the details of how schools have been able – or not – to preserve their independence in the face of government regulation. I will not try to summarize that discussion here, except to note that as always the devil is in the details and we can learn a great deal from the experience over many decades of the interaction between schools seeking to maintain a distinctive religious or pedagogical character and government officials seeking to impose common standards. (The updated 2012 edition of Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education will include, in four volumes, detailed descriptions of how this relationship plays out in nearly 60 countries, most of them written by leading education law experts from each country, including these two.)

My own contribution at the conference was to raise openly what is beginning to be debated in Belgium and The Netherlands: is educational freedom still relevant, given changing circumstances? Is there still a need for schools not owned and operated by government and promoting worldviews that are in contrast with that of the societal majority? And, is the growing societal pluralism created by immigration an argument for or against such schools? Some, in fact, have claimed that the justification for non-public schools no longer exists because (a) some of them have ceased offering a truly distinctive education as a result of secularization, and (b) to the extent that they actually distinctive, they are a barrier to the social integration required in the face of the growing presence of Muslims in Western Europe.

My paper confronted head-on the widespread fear, among European elites, of strongly-held religious views, and argued that in fact “communities of conviction” make an essential contribution to the health of civil society. I cited research on faith-based schools in the United States to show they have by no means had a divisive effect or made their students unfit for active and positive citizenship.

While we do not yet have similar in-depth studies of the effects of Islamic schools in The Netherlands (where about 50 are publicly-funded and regulated), the investigations that have been carried out have found that, while sometimes gravely lacking in educational quality compared with other schools, they are not subversive of participation in Dutch society. In fact, there is every reason to believe that immigrant parents, and especially those of the second generation who are now parents themselves, seek an education for their children that will prepare them for success in Dutch society while solidly-grounded in a religious tradition – or, having explored that tradition, to reject it.

This led to my four policy recommendations based on experience in a number of countries with seeking to achieve high-quality education for pupils of immigrant and ethnic-minority origin:

• Reach out to their parents with accurate information, organized around their primary concerns, about the educational choices available to their children. This information should be communicated not only in writing and through the media, but by well-trained and impartial members of the target groups, in the appropriate languages.

• Hold schools accountable for measurable results, broadly conceived (that is, for example, not just results on a single test), while leaving them broad latitude to achieve those results through any appropriate methods and on the basis of any religious or educational perspective that has been clearly presented to parents before their choice of the school.

• Allow schools broad discretion in selecting staff on the basis of the declared mission of the school, and of terminating staff who fail to support that mission effectively.

• Intervene vigorously and effectively if there is evidence that a school is failing to achieve adequate results, or is harming pupils through the methods employed.  The principle should be clear: there is no right to operate an inadequate school, even if parents can be persuaded to select it.

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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.

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