Introduction: School choice, civic values, and problems of policy comparison

Stephen Macedo, Patrick J. Wolf

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript

10 Scopus citations


Our mandate for contributors to this volume was, at least apparently, simple. The United States is in the midst of historic experiments with publicly funding school choice in K-12 education. Other nations have long experience with the funding and regulation of nonpublic schools (as we would call them), including religious schools. What, we wanted to know, can U.S. policymakers, public officials, and citizens learn from those experiences? In particular, we wanted to know how other countries have regulated or structured public funding of educational choice with an eye not just toward improving test scores and the like, but also toward instilling civic values in students-for example, tolerance, civic cohesion, and democratic values such as integration across lines of class, religion, and race. Do other countries take seriously the sorts of civic anxieties that are widely voiced by opponents of school choice in the United States? What is their experience with vouchers or other forms of publicly subsidized educational choice? Is publicly funding parental choice a source of civic conflict? Do public funds flow to separatist or just plain weird schools? How do other countries strike a balance between parental choice, educational pluralism, and school competition on the one hand and the publics concern with common citizenship, tolerance, and the integration of social, ethnic, and religious groups on the other? In posing these questions we did not expect contributors to produce simple policy "lessons" as if they were cases of French wine or boxes of Belgian chocolate to be packaged for export to the United States. Nevertheless, like untold other students of public policy, we wished this time to heed the admonitions of our colleagues who study education from a comparative perspective and learn from the experience of other democracies abroad. We were far from disappointed in what we learned from our international colleagues, and we hope readers agree. It cannot be said, however, that their response to our mandate was in any respect "simple": the long experience of other nations with publicly financed school choice does not yield simple or unambiguous lessons for makers of American education policy. Every nation surveyed in this volume permits or encourages the public funding of nonpublic educational options, though the degree and kind of educational pluralism vary a great deal. The Dutch and Belgians go so far as to regard public funding of choice in education as a fundamental constitutional right. The Dutch educational system is founded on the principal of educational pluralism and, as a few American scholars (such as Charles L. Glenn) have for years pointed out, in the Netherlands at least, this principle seems to promote peace and satisfaction. Nowhere among the countries we surveyed did we find dire consequences of publicly funding choice. That is not to say that all is well. All nations struggle with educational problems, and some of them are quite familiar to Americans. Everywhere, it seems, segregation by class and race in schools, because it is a consequence of residential segregation, is difficult to overcome. And nearly everywhere there is, to one degree or another, a growing concern with schools that are, or might be, run by illiberal religious minorities. All of the nations whose educational policies we discuss take a wide range of civic concerns seriously when they decide how to fund and regulate nonpublic schools. Indeed, these countries have decided to fund nonpublic schools partly because of civic concerns. As several of our authors note, nonstate schools are generally viewed in these countries as proxies for the state in performing many important civic functions. Such a vision of broadly shared responsibility for civic education is not entirely alien to the United States. For example, Abraham Lincoln, in one of his earliest published speeches, said of respect for the laws: "[L]et it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books, and in almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice." It is one thing to argue, as Lincoln did, that nongovernmental institutions should assist the state in promoting civic values, but quite another to assert that the government should pay for such assistance. In the countries that we review here, it is seen to a great extent not only as defensible but also as obligatory for the government to provide resources to private schools to help them produce educated and responsible citizens. With public dollars come a wide variety of government regulations. These include the outcome-focused accountability mechanisms of Alberta, Canada (and to a lesser extent Flemish Belgium), which, because they rely on tests, are relatively unobtrusive with respect to the operation of schools. Then there are the more intrusive inspection systems of Britain, Germany, and France, which focus to a much greater degree on teaching and the educational process itself. In one important respect the accounts presented here are largely consistent with the claims of scholars such as Charles L. Glenn and Terry M. Moe, who have long asserted that the principal lesson for Americans to take from the international experience with publicly funding school choice is that parental choice is not nearly as frightening a policy as many critics suggest. Glenn in particular has long argued that the fears of school choice opponents in the United States-fears of balkanization or social disintegration and conflictare exaggerated and at odds with the experience of virtually the entire civilized world. From the essays that follow, Glenn's claim would appear to be true enough-but we have not yet gotten to the whole story or even to the most interesting part. The fact that other advanced democracies embrace publicly funded parental choice without falling prey to civic disintegration is but one side of the coin. More striking still, we believe, are the astonishing systems of regulation, accountability, and control that accompany public funding in other nations. They do not provide public funds to nonpublic schools with just a few strings attached; rather, they include a host of requirements regarding curriculum, testing, teacher qualifications, and admissions. Indeed, from an American point of view, these publicly funded schools of choice hardly seem "private": government-funded schools abroad are regulated and controlled to an extent that makes them quasi-public, essentially part of one public educational system. In most of the countries we survey here, the distinction between public and private schools is not nearly as important as it is in the United States. One major difference between attitudes toward the issue of choice overseas and those in the United States is that we did not hear much in our conversations, nor do we read much in the chapters below, of the benefits of educational markets and competition among schools. Perhaps other societies simply take the fact of competition among schools for granted. As Charles L. Glenn argues in his commentary, claims about the relative effectiveness of private and public schools-so important in U.S. policy debates-are likely to be less salient where educational choice is a fundamental right. But it is important to understand the nature of the "right" to educational pluralism as it exists in the Netherlands and elsewhere. That right does not bring with it strong exemptions from generally applicable rules and conditions. In many European countries, the constitutional right to establish a private school coexists side by side with state authority to inspect and close down such schools. Moreover, in some societies the right to school choice is the result of historical struggles between the state and an established church, which gave rise not to a system of competing schools, with frequent entry and exit of providers, but rather to a stable division of educational responsibilities among public and religious corporate entities and pervasive public regulation of all schools. France is most striking in this regard: the only major nonpublic educational option is Catholic schooling, and the proportions of public and Catholic school pupils are kept stable by mutual agreement. The Catholic option thus serves not as an active competitor to the public sector but as a "safety valve," as Denis Meuret puts it. In the pluralist Netherlands, groups of parents who want their children to attend a school that has a distinctive educational philosophy have a constitutional right to have the government establish and fund such a school if one does not exist nearby or if the ones that do exist are full. This commitment to educational pluralism is qualified by an extensive system of public regulation and curricular mandates, as Charles Venegoni and David Ferrero emphasize in their commentary. Even the bold Dutch experience with school choice does not represent a strong commitment to private competition and market values as such, since parents have no right to form a school simply because it would be "better" or more efficient than available schools. In the Netherlands, when it comes to starting a new school with public funds, the question is not whether you can do it better but whether you want to do it differently. And educational differences are conditioned by common requirements that include uniform teacher training and student testing. The story that follows is in the main about a certain sort of publicly funded pluralism in education: pluralism justified by value differences but contained by significant regulation and tamed by systems that ensure accountability. This is not a story about wide-open market competition among minimally regulated schools.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEducating citizens
Subtitle of host publicationInternational perspectives on civic values and school choice
PublisherBrookings Institution Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Print)0815795165, 9780815795179
StatePublished - 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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