I’ve never been too keen on the various “National Day/Week/Month of” celebrations that dot the calendar. It’s not that I don’t like spaghetti or think it deserves to be highlighted each January 4, for example. It’s more that things like stroke awareness, military appreciation and even barbecue strike me as too important to be observed only in May.
Nevertheless, for several years now I’ve marked National School Choice Week, which took place this past week. This year, I even heard someone explain why we need to broaden the way we talk about the freedom of parents to choose the best schools for their children.
“When you think about it, the term ‘school choice’ itself indicates the request for an exemption from the norm,” argues Ashley Berner, deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.
“The norm of uniformity is operating in the background of all of our educational debates. When we’re asking for school choice, we’re saying, ‘Let me have an exception to the norm.’ But what if we need to question our norm from the very beginning?”
Berner, who spoke at a National School Choice Week event in Atlanta on Jan. 22, points out that, compared to other Western democracies, our American norm is far from normal. Berner calls their approach “educational pluralism,” and it’s an idea worth considering.
“Educational pluralism,” she explains, “Is just a different way to structure public education ... a system of schooling in which the government funds and regulates, but doesn’t necessarily deliver, public education.”
The Netherlands, she says, “funds 36 different kinds of schools on equal footing,” including Montessori, Catholic, Jewish and secular schools. About a third of Dutch children attend a government-run school.
Australia’s government pays the tuition for the low-income students who make up half of all students in what we’d call private schools. “Why?” Berner asks. “Because the central government looked at the results of the independent schools and saw that the schools were having an outsized, positive effect on low-income students. Much more than the state-delivered education.”
The vital role of civil society in America — the institutions that occupy the space between the government and the individual — has been clear since at least the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville published “Democracy in America.” But Berner says America’s state and local governments scrapped a pluralistic approach in the late 19th century, due in largest part to anti-Catholic sentiment amid waves of European immigration. Ironically, although opposition to Catholic schools at the time stemmed from a belief the “Papists” couldn’t become good citizens, such schools today tend to produce strong academic results as well as civic participation among their students.
Even today, advocates defend the uniform, district-school model as a tool for social cohesion. But our system isn’t accomplishing that; based on current evidence from the public sphere, Americans are as divided as we’ve been in decades. I would argue this is in part because of a misguided quest to provide, through uniformity, what Berner calls a “values-neutral” education.
As Berner notes, it’s impossible to create a truly values-neutral school: “the conversations we have, the disciplinary code, the materials we use, in fact the questions that we don’t ask” all influence students. Trying to strip certain values out of education simply means other, less overt values take their place.
Such a quest also makes people defensive about values that have gone missing from the schoolhouse. The implication is such values are not fit for the public square. We tend to think of this in terms of religious beliefs, but it applies equally to perspectives on economics, politics and other lenses through which we view the world.
A pluralistic approach to education offers space for all perspectives, which just might help us encounter those who think differently with confidence rather than fear. Our children need to learn that lesson much better than many of their elders did.