How a stubborn Catholic Church fostered worldwide educational choice

I head this week to Madrid for the annual meeting of OIDEL, a Geneva-based organization promoting educational freedom around the world. We advocate for policies that allow parents to decide to what school they entrust their children and that allow teachers to decide to which educational project they will dedicate their energy and their passion.

Some on the board are especially concerned about conditions that allow Catholic schools to flourish with integrity (I joke that it is as the “token evangelical” that I was made vice president), a reminder that, were it not for the Catholic Church’s insistence on separate schools for its children, there would be no effective choice in many countries for either parents or teachers.

While today school choice on the basis of pedagogical emphasis is spreading, especially in the English-speaking world, the precedent for tolerating “structural pluralism” in education and thus making room for charter schools, academies, and other alternatives is the stubborn resistance of Catholics in scores of countries over many decades to the imposition of a single monopolistic system of education.

It is easy to forget how persuasive has been what I have called “the myth of the common school,” the belief that only through sending all children to schools identical in their programs and underlying philosophies could social and national unity be achieved. Horace Mann and his allies were not unique in this conviction; it can be traced in every country that I have studied. In my book on education under communist regimes and in my recent Contrasting Models of State and School, I’ve shown how dangerous this program is to freedom of conscience and of political life.

Lately my historical research has focused on the conditions of opinion that led to Supreme Court decisions, after World War II, forbidding public funding of faith-based schools. This occurred at the very time when the United States was endorsing international human rights covenants asserting the right of parents to decide about the education of their children.

While my earlier work had shown how fears about the effects of immigration in the 19th century promoted anti-Catholic sentiment, the 1940s and 1950s were a low point in concerns about immigration in which, nevertheless, fears about Catholicism and about Catholic schooling flourished. Why was that?

To summarize what I will spell out in my next book, Challenging the American Model of State and School, American opinion leaders in that period saw the Catholic Church as the great enemy of educational and other dimensions of freedom. It is, on the surface, hard to see how to reconcile this belief with the long struggle by the Catholics for educational freedom, in the United States and in Europe.

Justices Rutledge and Black and other members of the American elite understood educational freedom in an individualistic dimension, as educational experiences that “freed” the student from family and from traditional beliefs and loyalties. The existence of schools answerable to parents rather than to Society, and dedicated to fostering alternatives to the prevailing secular worldview, was thus a threat to educational freedom rather than an expression of it.

Readers of Rousseau’s Emile often ask how an education ostensibly designed to create a radically free individual could, instead, produce a young man totally dependent upon his teacher. We might well wonder, similarly, how those receiving an education designed to free them from all external commitments could find a secure footing in convictions, rather than be blown about by every cultural trend, every fashionable opinion.

Two understandings of educational freedom, then: one calls for policies providing for a diversity of schools competing on equal terms and reflecting the educational convictions of parents and the educators they trust. The other calls for a single model of schooling that promotes rootless individualism and calls it freedom.

Every day we see encouraging signs that the persuasive power of this model is waning. One of the most recent is the school board election in Douglas County, Colo., in which the board’s policy of providing scholarships for hundreds of its students to attend non-public (including faith-based) schools was a central issue. With over 67,000 votes counted, the three winners were all supporters of the policy. Now we will see whether the appeal of the district court’s decision against the policy will allow it to be continued – and set a precedent for real educational freedom.

Catholic Schools, Education and Public Policy, General, Policy Wonks, Religious Education, School Choice


  1. I agree with you completely. I contribute to The Children’s Scholarship Fund, which I am sure you have heard of and am totally in support of the school choice movement. I live near Chicago which has got one of the poorest performing districts in the country and a barbaric president of its Teacher’s Union. She is nasty to everyone and refuses anything that threatens the status quo. Rahm Emmanuel, the mayor,l tried to get the high school’s day extended 2 hours (they currently get out about 2pm) but she nixed it. She comes from the philosophy that the teaching profession exists for adults not children. Mayor Emmanuel now is going to give school principals substantial bonuses in hope that it will result in improved student performance. However, I am not optimistic, as I have read that such bonuses have not been shown to have any effect on student performance. I think the only hope for Illinois is the passage of a parent law. But as far as I know no such thing is in the works.

  2. Sorry, I meant to say parent trigger law.