A history lesson on educational freedom

Editor’s note: School choice isn’t just an American debate, and it’s not just at issue now. Noted school choice scholar Charles Glenn offers redefinED readers some historical context. This is the first in a three-part series.

While protections for educational freedom emerged from political struggles in a few countries – notably in Belgium, with the independence movement of 1830, and in the Netherlands, with the political mobilization of the Protestant and Catholic “kleine luyden” later in the 19th century – these were exceptional until after the Second World War.

It was only in reaction to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century that the international community became aware of the need to put in place protections for the freedom of families to choose an alternative to government-sponsored schooling. Communist and fascist regimes sought to carry out more thoroughly what had already been implicit in the educational programs of mildly progressive governments of the late 19th century, but in a way that stripped the mask from the elite presumption to reshape the children of the common people.

The post-war movement to define human rights included the right to educational freedom, defined as “the liberty of parents . . . to choose for their children schools, other than those established by public authorities . . . and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” This right is by no means self-evident even in democratic regimes, where ‘progressive’ elites may think it their duty to use the educational system to make children better than their parents.

The words left out of the quotation above, “which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State,” leave the door open for governments to impose requirements upon non-government schools which would make it impossible for them to maintain the distinctive character sought by parents. There is clearly an obligation upon contemporary governments to take steps necessary to protect children as well as to ensure the public interest is served by all elements – private as well as public – of the educational system. The education of the next generation is a matter of public concern and should be guided, in a democratic system, by shared assumptions about the common good . . . within limits reflecting the pluralistic nature of society.

The effort to respect the role of parents as the primary advocates for the education of their children and thus to find the right balance between liberty and accountability in education – to ensure society’s necessary goals are met and vulnerable individuals and groups are protected  without falling into what Kant called  the “greatest conceivable despotism,” a paternalistic government – is the theme of the four-volume set we are publishing this November, with 65 country reports and a number of integrative essays (Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education, Nijmegen: Wolf Legal Publishers).

The period from approximately 1900 to 1945 can be seen, in retrospect, as that of the triumph of the state school in most Western nations. While Catholic and other private schools educated millions of children, they played an essentially secondary role, as an alternative or (in the United States and Australia) as the province of working-class immigrants. The state’s ‘common school’ represented an unchallenged cornerstone of society.

This position began to be challenged after World War II and the challenges became increasingly insistent in the 1970s. In the political reasoning that began to be formulated in a number of countries, terms such as “subsidiarity” and “sphere sovereignty” began to be heard. It was argued that government should actively create the conditions within which entrepreneurial and competitive conduct in a wide range of spheres become possible, rather than seek to occupy all those spheres itself. Over-centralization began to be considered a problem. While the welfare state continued to expand and government activities extended into more and more areas of life, there was at the same time a growing disenchantment with the ability of government and its bureaucratic rationality to address human needs effectively.

In this context of dissatisfaction, there were calls for a “retreat from the state,” for “re-inventing government,” by adopting  new techniques of social organization that lead to empowerment for sectors and agencies distant from the center – and thus of the institutions which people create for themselves. Public authorities from Finland to Australia, and political regimes from left and right, have increasingly sought ways to maintain the benefits of the welfare state without having government seek to be the exclusive provider of services and benefits. As Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus wrote in an influential little book:

The proposal is that, if these [civil society] institutions could be more imaginatively recognized in public policy, individuals would be more “at home” in society, and the political order would be more “meaningful.” Without institutionally reliable processes of mediation, the political order becomes detached from the values and realities of individual life.  Deprived of its moral foundation, the political order is “delegitimated.”

It is the intention of these proposals that policymakers conceive of citizens in new ways, not as the objects of government action but rather as characterized by responsibility, autonomy, and choice, with energies and information available for common societal purposes.

These proposals should not be confused with the “marketization” or “commodification” of human services, including education; they are not a manifestation of “savage capitalism.” The proponents are insistent that what they are calling for is the utilization of a “third sector” of voluntary associations which, while not of the government, are also not of the market, but rather of the civil society of voluntary associations.

The proposed reforms aim to enhance the powers of citizens as active members of society, seeking to improve their quality of life and that of their families through acts of choice.

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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.