Why we should examine what 'public' means in US schooling

Why we should examine what 'public' means in US schooling
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The U.S. Supreme Court just agreed to hear Espinoza v. Montana, a case that gets at the heart of what public schooling means in the United States. It involves Montana’s Supreme Court, which struck down an education tax credit program on the grounds that it violated the state’s restriction on indirect aid to religious institutions. The petitioners are hoping for a broad decision undermining that restriction entirely — as well as similar provisions in 36 state constitutions. 

The discussion about religious schools often focuses on higher education’s Pell grants and Title I dollars, which flow to low-income students wherever they attend school, and K-12’s vouchers, which, unlike tax credits, are public funds. What is often lost in our debates about aid to religious schools, however, is the comparative piece: our country’s restrictions on aid to non-public — and explicitly religious — schools makes us an outlier among our democratic peers. 

As I explain in “The Case for Educational Pluralism in the U.S.,” released today by the Manhattan Institute, most democracies embrace a broader view of public education. They fund a wide array of schools, including religious schools. For example, the Netherlands supports 36 different types of schools — including Catholic, Islamic, Montessori and socialist — on equal footing. State funding in England, Belgium, Hong Kong, Slovenia, Indonesia and Switzerland enables students of all income levels to attend philosophically and pedagogically diverse schools. 

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Alberta, Canada, provides funding for students to attend First Nations, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and secular schools, and even supports home schoolers, all of whom take provincial exams. The Australian central government is the largest funder of that country’s independent schools, recognizing these schools’ ability to narrow socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps. The list of educationally plural systems goes on and on, often to the surprise of district-school-only advocates in the United States. 

At the same time, and to the consternation of libertarians in the United States, plural systems do not operate by laissez-faire principles. They aim to ensure academic quality via regulations that sometimes require common curricular frameworks and exit exams that all students have to undertake. Most OECD countries field site visits to all schools and engage in incremental interventions for academic underperformance. Such measures rest upon the notion that education is a public good, rather than merely an individual good. And research suggests that positive academic and civic outcomes often result when educational systems promote distinctive school cultures and robust academic accountability. 

Meanwhile, in the United States, equitable access to diverse schools is slowly expanding, but not without agonizing debates about which schools are truly legitimate and what counts as “public education.” This leads to a competitive morass that features voucher advocates belittling district schools, district-school advocates condemning charters, and a winner-take-all application of educational research. Educational pluralism, which makes space for a variety of schools that comply with academic-quality standards, stands at odds with those on both poles of our political debates. 

But most Americans actually live in the middle. For us, and for politicians who can navigate political compromise — see Illinois’s 2017 law  that increased funding for district schools and enabled the state’s tax credit program — educational pluralism offers an appealing, more centrist, path forward. 

A plural structure will not solve all our educational challenges; indeed, it introduces challenges of its own. But educational pluralism does constitute a philosophically, constitutionally and empirically defensible way of doing public education — and one that many democratic citizens around the world enjoy.

Ashley Berner is deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and associate professor at the School of Education. She is the author of the new Manhattan Institute report, “The Case for Educational Pluralism in the U.S.,” and “Pluralism and American Education: No One Way to School” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017), and delivered a TEDx talk on the topic in February 2018.