Ep. 193: Big Ideas – Religion and School Choice with Charles Glenn

July 14, 2020

We chat with Charles Glenn about his essay, “Religion and the Adoption of School Choice Policies,” published in the fall 2018 edition of the Journal of School Choice.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice. And this is another edition of our Big Ideas series today. I’m thrilled to be joined by Dr. Charles Glenn, famous historian and professor emeritus from Boston University. Charles, welcome to the podcast.

Charles Glenn: Thank you.

Jason Bedrick: The subject of our discussion today is your essay, “Religion and the Adoption of School Choice Policies,” which was in the fall 2018 edition of the Journal of School Choice. In the essay, you describe how outside of the United States, school choice is common in most of the developed world. And most of these policies emerged not out of ideas about the power of markets to improve quality or about parental rights, but rather they emerged from specific political struggles and social developments related to religion. So how and why did religion play such a central role in the adoption of school choice policies internationally?

Charles Glenn: Well, I think in most other countries, and we’ll get to the U.S. later I’m sure, but in most other countries, during the 19th century, governments increasingly tried to use schooling as a way to create common loyalties and eliminate regional differences. And different religious groups began to push back against that. In a number of cases, there was an established church, often the Catholic church or the Anglican church, or the Lutheran churches and so forth. And again, groups would push back against that and say, “No, we want our own way of defining what it is that is most central in living a flourishing human life.” And so political compromises in country after country, the government would adopt laws that not only allowed groups to have their own schools with a distinctive religious character, but also provided full funding for those schools. The most notable example of course, is the Netherlands, where about 70 percent of the kids to this day are attending schools that we would not call public schools. That is not operated by government, but by a variety of other groups.

So that became the norm. And really there are very few advanced democracies that don’t now provide public funding for schools. And the priority being for schools that have a distinctive religious character, which is exactly the opposite of the situation in the United States, where we came to finally, after World War II, promote school choice, mostly as a way to deal with the desegregation issues and the minority kids being stuck in bad schools to give them other choices. And in that case, usually the limitation was that those choices not be religious. So the exact opposite of the pattern in other countries. That, of course, has now been changing as well.

Jason Bedrick: I want to get into some patterns that you detect. But first, just a point about why it is that so many schools that are serving the poor tend to be religious. You described this in your essay, that there’s always been schools that are for the elite. Even in the Soviet Union, you describe how there were government schools for everybody, but there were certain government schools that elite members of the communist party can send their kids to that they knew they were going to get a better education. But in most cases around the world, the schools that are private and serving the poor, have a religious character. Why is that?

Charles Glenn: Well, let’s stick with the United States just for the moment, if you don’t mind, because it gets confusing to try to generalize about many different countries with different arrangements. But in the United States, of course, most of the religious schools began mostly Catholic, but also a Dutch Calvinist and Lutheran, and others began as the schools for immigrant groups. And so these were schools that were serving to, by definition, only had, you might call, a beginning foothold in American society. As the Catholic and other groups have moved into the middle class and out of the cities, into the suburbs, often their schools were left behind that have been used increasingly by non-Catholic black and other students. Again, because poor parents were trying to find some way to get their children into schools that were more adequate in terms of their ability to focus on the interests of the child.

Jason Bedrick: And now you describe two different patterns of school formation. One generally with an immigrant group or a minority group with its own distinctive religious and cultural traditions, creating schools for its own children. And then another pattern of establishing alternative schools that you describe as “more conflictual,” where there are changes in the common public school that makes them no longer acceptable to some parents. So how has that played out, both in the United States and around the world?

Charles Glenn: Yeah, that’s a more recent phenomenon, at least in the United States. Really after World War II and after the ‘60s, as the American public schools became less and less confident in their ability to represent some kind of clear set of moral values and standards, which used to be very much part of the public schools, as, they grew more and more shy about doing that, many parents began to feel that their children were not, in those schools, going to be given the kind of grounding they needed for a decent human life.

And so, you had the phenomenon beginning of the seventies, founding of what was eventually thousands of alternative Christian schools and other kinds of alternative schools, as well as home schooling. All of those, I think less about test scores and getting into college and much more about wanting to have an alternative to a culture that seemed to have lost its way. And to schools that no longer had the ability to offer any kind of a sheet anchor against what I call the great downward suck of the culture of what’s in the media and all the rest. And so we had that happening and that’s been occurring in other countries as well. Even in, let’s say Western Europe, where the rate of church attendance is much lower than the United States, there’s still remains very strong support for Catholic and Protestant schools because they’re seen as presenting an alternative vision of the good life, which isn’t available anymore in the public schools, and that parents very much want for their children.

Jason Bedrick: So that’s essentially the second of the two patterns, right? And that’s the one you described in the post-World War II era, where the public schools are secularizing, there are Protestants that are upset by this. And so they move to either homeschooling or open their own Christian schools. But the first pattern, which is one that we’ve discussed many times in this podcast, is even earlier than that, right? We’re talking more of the post-Civil War era into the early 20th century with a large Catholic immigration. Is that right?

Charles Glenn: Well, yes. And not only Catholic, but also Lutheran, the Swedish and German Lutherans, the Dutch Calvinist and all the rest. I mean, it was a phenomenon of many immigrant groups wanting to preserve elements not only of religion and language, but also again, elements of an understanding of what the good life consists of, which they did not think was being reflected. Often the parents, when they were interviewed, would say, “I want my children to be American, but I don’t want them to be like the American kids.” Meaning, the kids they saw around them who did not have the kind of strong moral formation which the immigrant family typically possessed. I might mention that this is not a phenomenon that has stopped. My most recent book is based on a study of seven Islamic schools in which we interviewed Muslim immigrant families, their teenage children, and the staff in seven Islamic high schools around the country.

We found the same phenomenon of religious concerns, but also very much concerns about the ways in which American culture was seen as weakening the kinds of moral standards, which the families believed in. By the way, these kids we interviewed, were strongly committed to being American. They didn’t see any problem about that. They wanted to become doctors and lawyers and all the rest, even journalists. But they saw that their school is helping them to understand an alternative way of being an American—that is, being an American while still holding onto some core values that are not simply the values of consumerism and what’s on television and on the web. And that, I think, echoes with what was happening in 150 years ago with Catholic immigrants and Dutch immigrants and others.

Jason Bedrick: So this is something that is an immigrant story. We think of it very often in terms of the massive wave of Catholic immigration. But as you point out, there were also other religious groups that were coming over at the time and it’s still playing out to this day, and it’s played out to some extent around the world. So for some context, can you give our listeners some specific international examples and the differences between, let’s say, how these education policies developed in countries where the Catholic church was dominant versus in countries where there is a greater mix of Catholics and Protestants?

Charles Glenn: Yes, got it. It’s tricky to generalize because it played out somewhat differently in each case. But characteristically, what was occurring in the 19th century was that the Catholic church was for, much of the century, quite opposed of new movements of a republican governance, as in France and Belgium and Italy and other countries. The Catholic church was in fact, in many ways, an opponent of many of the things the Catholic church is now one of the strongest supporters of, like religious liberty and all the rest. And so often the schools became the battleground over who would shape the minds of the rising generation of children. And in France, for example, the government mostly shut down Catholic schools, which were educating half the children in the country in the late 19th century. Gradually though, through the demands of parents, increasingly by the 1960s, France was actually funding Catholic schools because it’s saw that in fact Catholics, now were committed to living within a pluralistic society.

And that’s the point that I think I would want to emphasize most strongly. Anytime a religious group seeks to have a monopoly in a society, it causes conflict, which is actually harmful to the religious group as well. But a commitment to pluralism, as in the case of the Catholic church, particularly since Vatican II and of the Protestant churches as well, and I hope beginning to be the case with Muslims, although that is still a battle, it’s not altogether resolved, is the way in which in country after country religious freedom flourishes. As everyone can begin to see that there’s no danger to the country if children are educated in faith based schools. That it’s not that child attending a Catholic school is going to be less patriotic than a child attending a public school. Although 150 years ago, many French leaders strongly believed that those attending Catholic schools would not become good Frenchmen. But now it’s very evident that if anything, those who attend Catholic schools are even more devoted to what you could call a civic virtues, that are those who attend wishy-washy public schools.

Jason Bedrick: Now, a little closer to home. I think the example of Canada is quite fascinating because we’re both on this side of the pond, both relatively new countries compared to Europe at least. And they had a wave of Catholic immigration as well, in some sense, actually much earlier to Quebec than in the United States. Their system developed very differently than the United States. So you described this in your essay. How did it work in Canada? What was the particular role of the Catholic church, especially in Quebec and how did the law treat Catholics outside of Quebec?

Charles Glenn: Well, it’s the other way round. What you had in Canada was a Protestant immigration to a largely Catholic country, initially, because of course Canada was under French control originally. And when the immigrants came to what was called upper Canada, which is Ontario and lower Canada, which is now Quebec, in each case, they established systems of schooling which made accommodation for religious schools. In Quebec, most of the schools in fact were Catholic, until after World War II, and government funded. It was just assumed that they would be that way. But on the other hand, the English speaking schools were mostly Protestant or vice versa. The Protestant schools are mostly English speaking. So the religious divide was also a language divide.

More recently, unfortunately Quebec has in fact turned against that, the settlement, in a way that Ontario has not. And in Quebec now, the Catholic schools are no longer Catholic schools. They have French language schools, but they have lost their Catholic character. In Ontario, you still have a public Catholic school system in addition to a public non-religious school system which was originally Protestant, which operates side-by-side, under the same laws, both government funded and so forth. And every other province of Canada is distinct. So when we wrote our four volumes on 65 different countries, the Canada chapter was the longest chapter in the form of books because we had to write about each province distinctly.

Jason Bedrick: Now, your article also explores the broader role of schools in society. So I’ll read you a quote. You write, “Schools with a distinctive religious character can provide an important benefit beyond the education they offer to children as an occasion for the development of the trust and cooperation among adults, essential to the formation and maintenance of social capital.” You also write, “This can, among other benefits, empower individuals and voluntary associations to prophetically challenge unjust or overweening state power.” So what do you mean by that? How does this help on the one hand, the formation of social capital and on the other, how does it go so far as to challenge overweening state power?

Charles Glenn: One of my books many years ago brought out, actually by the Cato Institute, after the U.S. Department of Ed tried to suppress it. It was a study I did for the U.S. Department of Ed on Eastern Europe. And what was occurring as a communist system collapsed in the late eighties, early ‘90s. And I wrote about the fact that for example, in Poland, that civil society, the ability of people to trust each other and work together, was being revived through groups of parents and teachers coming together to found hundreds of new schools once the communists clamped down at ended. In the process, they were learning how to be citizens together in a way that much more concrete, because in relation to specific groups of children, not to abstract issues of public policy and so forth, but in ways that I argued would over time translate into being able to operate more broadly in ways where we build society.

And I argued at that time in the Cato book, which is called Educational Freedom in Eastern Europe, I argued at that time that the same sort of thing I thought could happen if we would begin to trust inner city groups of parents, particularly in faith-based organization churches and so forth, trust them to work together with teachers to create schools, which then became charter schools, of course, more recently. I was anticipating that, that again, it would be a rebuilding kind of trust that is essential. And it is so missing, was so missing under communist societies, is so missing in inner-city communities and the schools who are perfect laboratory for the development of those civic virtues that are so important.

Jason Bedrick: You also mentioned during the movement for opposing racial injustice in the United States, that schools played a role. Could you speak a little bit to that?

Charles Glenn: Well, as you may know, I was the Massachusetts state official responsible for educational equity from 1970 to 1991. So I was in the middle of those battles. And in fact, before that, I was at Selma walking across that bridge, and I was in jail in North Carolina and the freedom movement. So this is very much a part of my life. And I sent all my seven children to the Boston public schools because of my deep conviction as the state official forcing those schools to operate justly toward black kids, that I could keep my own kids out of those schools. But what I found was missing in those schools was the quality that the Catholic schools often in Boston were providing. And in fact, recently I helped to found an evangelical inner city school in Boston with the same quality. That is again, schools that offer such a strong culture, such a strong vision of what is flourishing human life, that they help kids to overcome the things outside of the school that tend to drag them down.

And I saw that happening during the years of the freedom movement in the ‘70s. And ever since I became radicalized, you might say, toward the idea that we need to pursue our justice goals with a strong commitment to freedom. And in fact, I’m just writing a book now, which I’m calling When Justice and Freedom Meet, which is about how justice and freedom are not as so often portrayed by the teacher unions and others in opposition. But in fact, freedom is an essential element of achieving justice, that we can’t have one without the other, and that we need to be implementing policies that help brings us together. In recent years, I’ve been an advisor to Ukraine, for example, as they rebuild their educational system. And I’ve strongly emphasized to them, to the Ukrainian education officials, that they need to be using educational freedom, using parent choice as a way to seek their justice goals in an effective way.

Jason Bedrick: If you were advising policy makers in the United States about how they could better respect the religious pluralism of this country, and also harness the social capital that private schools and particularly religious schools provide, what would your advice be?

Charles Glenn: Well, I think it’s evident. My advice is whether you care about religion or not, it’s important to recognize the pluralism of a society. The fact that the last thing you want is children being educated in schools, which offer kind of lowest common denominator, kind of wishy-washy approach to what a flourishing human life consists of. That often schools that offer a clear vision of the kind of life you should live, are schools with a religious character. Now that’s not exclusive. There are many charter schools, for example, that don’t have a religious character. There are many regular public schools where because of strong leadership by principle, it is possible to have that kind of clear vision of how to live a decent human life. But it’s much more difficult in a bureaucratically operated public school system that it is when there is freedom to create distinctive schools and freedom to choose distinctive schools based on agreeing with the values which they are teaching.

And so I argue that we do need role for government still, of course, to ensure that every child gets an adequate education. But the government ought to ensure that through supporting the ways in which civil society, in which by the third sector, which private enterprise, in which groups of parents, in which religious groups, in which civic groups seek to meet the needs of children. Government should be supporting those, making sure that every child has an adequate schooling, but not seeking to monopolize, to provision schooling, or to impose a single state defined philosophy of life on every child. That we’ve got to move beyond that, otherwise we’re not a free society.

Jason Bedrick: I couldn’t agree more. Our guest today has been Dr. Charles Glenn, professor emeritus from Boston University. He is the author of “Religion and the Adoption of School Choice Policies,” an essay that you can find in the fall 2018 edition of the Journal of School Choice. And, as we learned on this podcast, the author of the forthcoming book, When Justice and Freedom Meet. Charles, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Charles Glenn: Good to talk to you.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas Series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you, we’ll catch you next time.