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.

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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.


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.

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