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.

Education Research, General, Parent Empowerment, Parental Choice, Policy Wonks, School Choice