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?

Fourth, attorney Luchenitser repeats the familiar claim that, “From the time of the founding of our republic, one of our basic constitutional principles has been that no taxpayer should be forced to contribute to the support of a religious faith to which he or she does not subscribe.” This is not true, and for the sake of brevity I refer him and the reader to four of my historical books which show in detail how, throughout the 19th century, local, state and federal governments funded religious institutions, or gave a religious character to public institutions. When they decided not to do so, it was on political grounds and without reference to the First Amendment or to Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation.” The “principle” to which he alludes was discovered after World War II.

Fifth, he repeats his earlier charge that, “Displeased with these states’ commitment to America’s tradition of church-state separation, Dr. Glenn apparently seeks to force states to fund religious schools. He points out that a good number of other countries do so. But many of these countries have a history of established churches, and a concomitant history of religious strife.” This is another superficial and inaccurate invocation of “history.” As I show in “Contrasting Models of State and School” (2011) and several earlier books, the public funding of faith-based schools in Western Europe, Australia, and most of Canada was adopted to bring an end to conflict over religion and did so; indeed, the Dutch call the 1917 agreement to provide equal funding, after seven decades of struggle over the religious content of public schooling, “the Pacification” – and so indeed it proved to be.

In recent decades there has in fact been far more conflict on religious grounds over the content of public schooling in the United States than in any of the other countries profiled in our four-volume “Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education” (2012).

Sixth, attorney Luchenitser alleges that, “As a result of such programs, in order to obtain a quality education, poorer parents may have no reasonable choice but to subject their children to religious indoctrination in a faith different from their own.” No doubt this shot is intended to hit close to home, since he is aware that I was for 21 years the Massachusetts state official responsible for educational equity and for preventing discrimination on the basis of religion, among other factors, and that I serve on the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Quite apart from a purely speculative theory of how the tax credit scholarship program might function, he assumes Catholic and other faith-based schools engage in “indoctrination,” a charge disproved by countless well-regarded studies by impartial scholars like Coleman, Bryk, Peshkin, and Campbell. Surely he is aware that many urban Catholic schools enroll primarily non-Catholic pupils, and that no evidence has emerged that non-Catholic parents believe their children are being indoctrinated.

Finally, he offers the fantastic suggestion that, in a manifestation of concern for states’ rights, the U.S. Supreme Court might forbid the states from funding secular private schools. Here, I must confess, he ventures into a realm of speculation where I am simply incapable of following.

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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.