Will education savings accounts change America’s definition of ‘public education?’

Editor’s note: This interview, conducted by Robert Pondiscio, a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, with Ashley Berner, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, appeared last week on the institute’s website.

Last week, two more states—Iowa and Utah—joined Arizona and West Virginia in adopting universal education savings accounts. Several more states, including Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, might soon follow suit.

The disruptive power of putting parents in control of the lion’s share of state education dollars brought to mind the work of Ashley Berner, who is the director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

Her eye-opening 2016 bookPluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, debunked several arguments frequently made by traditional, district-school-only advocates: that only state-run schools can create good citizens or offer equal opportunities to all children, and that exceptions to the American model of government-funded and government-run schools are constitutionally suspect.

“Our imaginations and our public debates remain captive to the existing paradigm in which only district schools are considered truly public,” she has observed. But while universal ESA legislation expands the number of service providers paid for with public dollars, Berner warns that it doesn’t necessarily bring us closer to the plural education systems that are common to most other democracies, or their more capacious ideas about what is – and what is not – “public education.”

Here are highlights of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

You’ve written that, in more plural systems, “many types of schools are considered to be part of the public education system.” How likely is it that Americans can adopt that vision of public education?

The honest answer is, I don’t know. Changing cultural expectations—the taken-for-granted backdrop of a given society—takes time and concerted effort. Social movements, to succeed, require a clear idea that’s adopted and shared by people with different types of capital—financial capital, political capital, moral capital—who can articulate the new idea and translate it into new institutions.

For instance, when William Wilberforce argued in Parliament that slavery was an abomination to the British Empire, he had zero support. Slavery was embedded in the British mercantile system, in their wealth system. But Wilberforce didn’t act alone. He held prestige as a member of Parliament; he recruited merchants to his cause; he worked alongside a network of religious abolitionists.

It took decades, but by the time he died, the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire. It became unthinkable to own another human being. Our country took much longer, sadly, to get there.

I’m embarrassed to admit how little I knew about the education systems of other countries. Until I read No One Way to School, I assumed other countries were just like the U.S., with public schools funded and run by the government.

Me too! I didn’t know this until I lived in England with children and realized that they could attend very different school types that were funded as part of the government’s commitment to the next generation. I had had no idea. I started researching other democracies and realized, my gosh, the U.S. has been stuck in this very narrow, very belligerent paradigm of public versus private, where only one type of school is considered legitimately public education.

I’m not saying that every kind of school is considered a “public school” in plural systems. I am saying that “public education” is, for them, a broad term for the government’s funded commitment to educate the next generation. That commitment holds, no matter how education is actually delivered.

As but one example, the Netherlands funds thirty-six different kinds of schools on equal footing—Montessori, Catholic, Islamic, secular, among others. And yet 30 percent of students still attend what we would consider “district schools.” It’s all part of the public education system.

But even if we are the outlier, I’m not sure Americans are persuaded by international examples.

That’s an astute comment, and I’m sure you’re right in general. However, highlighting the international experience may prove persuasive to progressives who perhaps agree with Democrats for Education Reform but are uncomfortable with the libertarianism of the school choice movement.

If they knew that traditionally left-of-center countries like the Netherlands and Sweden and Denmark take educational pluralism for granted, they might find it more persuasive. The broader school choice movement, with which I largely affiliate, tends to be less interested in international examples, except insofar as they bolster the case for school choice.

Is the argument for ESAs the same as the argument for pluralism?

Not necessarily. It depends on which assurances of quality are written into the laws. Educational pluralism doesn’t just support diverse school types—it also requires all of them to reach a specific academic quality. As such, tax credits and vouchers that are tied to, for instance, nationally normed assessments or site visits by school inspectors fit more readily into pluralistic models. If ESAs jettison all public assurance of quality, I would be pessimistic about their long-term success.

I think the best path is a posture of school-sector agnosticism that asks, “How can we help all schools or programs improve?” That’s what public policymakers in pluralistic countries tend to ask. They don’t compare entire sectors and pit them against each other.

Legitimacy should not reside in one model; we should care about all the models. The best thing that people in public policy can do is put our weapons down and quit demeaning entire sectors.

Bottom line: Do ESA’s move us closer to educational pluralism?

Again, it depends on how they are designed. Educational pluralism rests on civil society, which is distinct from the individual family and from the state. These systems strike a balance between the wishes of parents and the civic imperatives of the state.

Putting all the eggs in either basket can be democratically justified, don’t get me wrong. But I find pluralism arresting because it generates this middle path between the individual and the state. It doesn’t valorize parents, and it doesn’t valorize the state. It creates space for both. I’m interested in creative ways to get us there in a system like ours that’s not used to those concepts.

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BY Special to NextSteps