Berner: Many Countries Support School Choice for Families. The U.S. Used to, Too. 3 Ways to Get Back to That Democratic Approach

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Do you want to enroll your children in a classical school that uses traditional pedagogy? Or do you value the hands-on learning approach of a Waldorf school instead? Is your family committed to an Islamic education that will teach Arabic and integrate faith practices into daily academic instruction, or do you prefer the global-citizenship focus of an International Baccalaureate program? What if the different temperaments and needs of your three children call for three different school settings — parochial, district and magnet? Should you move to the suburbs to access “better” schools?

Such are the decisions that well-off American families make routinely. Many are surprised to learn that in countries around the world, low-income families can make them too.

As I set out in my new report for The Manhattan Institute, The Case for Educational Pluralism in the U.S., nations such as England, Switzerland, Indonesia and Denmark, and provinces such as Alberta, Canada, empower parents from all walks of life to select schools — with government funding — that fit their children’s unique pedagogical needs. In plural systems, schools with distinctive cultures have different constraints and funding mechanisms and are subject to various regulations, such as adherence to subject-specific curricular frameworks, site visits and common exit exams. The resulting systems are nimble and often produce strong academic and civic results.

A plural structure does not inherently lead to equitable access and academic benefits, of course; the devil is in the policy details. Yet receiving financial support to enroll one’s child in a pedagogically or philosophically distinctive school of one’s choice — a school that also accepts public accountability — is by far the democratic norm. It used to be the norm in the United States, too, until anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movements led 19th century legislators to de-fund sectarian schools in favor of the current district-school model.

Over the past 30 years, many states have taken small steps (back) toward pluralism. Legislatures across the country have diversified public education through charter schools, vouchers, tax credits and education savings accounts. Yet this is still far from full educational pluralism. Current models affect only a small percentage of students, do not necessarily ensure educational excellence and equity and gain legitimacy — if at all — only as exceptions to the cultural norm of the district school.

What concrete steps would take us closer to international democratic practice?

First, we can support political compromise. Bipartisanship has been necessary almost every time a state has raised charter school caps or instituted voucher programs. Some agreements have provided more money for district schools while expanding access to nondistrict schools. Most recently, in 2017, the Illinois legislature voted across party lines in what amounts to pluralism in practice: an increase in funding for districts, particularly Chicago Public Schools; the state’s first tax credit program to support student access to private schools; and rigorous accountability that includes requiring scholarship students to take the state’s academic assessments, while their classmates who do not receive the scholarships are exempt. Political compromise requires courage and the backing of constituents who value and reward good governance.

Second, we can collaborate to solve problems common to all schools. For instance, we can strive to provide adequate transportation systems for students in midsize cities, support first-generation parents navigating the K-12 system and incentivize the use of high-quality instructional materials and common professional development for teachers, whether district, charter or private. Such initiatives require support from government, philanthropy and the business community, and successful examples exist (e.g., Denver on transportation, Families Empowered for parental support and the Louisiana Department of Education on high-quality instruction). These types of initiatives could be deployed in other cities, towns and states as well.

Finally, we can stop using rhetoric that pits entire school sectors against one another. School-choice advocates can stop diminishing the value of district schools, and district school leaders can stop insisting that only the state can deliver democratic education. “Public education” takes many forms around the world. It does not have to be one thing. It can be many.

Ashley Berner is deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and associate professor at the School of Education. She is also the author of Pluralism and American Education: No One Way to School and delivered a TEDx talk on the topic in February 2018. 

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