Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Can We Talk Rationally about Educational Freedom?

Charles L. Glenn, Jr.


October 28, 2011
by Charles L. Glenn, Jr.

In 1876, as Colorado prepared to adopt language in its new Constitution forbidding support for “sectarian” schools, the territory’s Catholic Vicar Apostolic wistfully wrote “we look forward hopefully to the future. A day shall at last dawn – surely it shall – when the passions of this hour will have subsided; when the exigencies of partisan politics will no longer stand in the way of right and justice, and political and religious equality shall again seem the heritage of the American citizen.”[i] 

Why has the American political system found it so difficult to accommodate the desire of many families for schools that reflect their religious convictions? Other western democracies have done so; why does America fail to live up to the commitment of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), “to have respect for the liberty of parents . . . to choose for their children schools, other than those established by public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions” (article 13, 3)?

In The American Model of State and Schools (to be published by Continuum, Spring 2012) I show how a set of ideas about the unique role of the public school in American life, especially in relation to immigration, has made it difficult to imagine a system that would be pluralistic, like those in Canada and Australia, England and Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands. 

The local nature of decisions about what would occur in each public school made it possible in the nineteenth century to accommodate religious preferences of parents locally without political compromises that might, as in other countries, have produced a pluralistic system.

The great exception was conflict over Catholic schooling; on this, the Protestant majority, believing that non-negotiable principles were at stake that could not be entrusted to the ordinary process of democratic deliberation, would admit no possibility of compromise and enshrined provisions forbidding public funds for “sectarian” schools in most state constitutions,.

A number of factors may now make possible rational discussion about promoting educational freedom.  The Catholic Church itself has changed radically in its stance toward modernity and democracy, and has become, in popular perception, thoroughly mainstream.  “Private” schooling is no longer essentially equivalent to Catholic schools; of five million pupils in private elementary and secondary schools, about 38 percent are in Catholic, 20 percent in evangelical Protestant, 2 percent in Jewish, and 0.2 percent in Muslim schools, with the balance in a scattering of schools of varied identity and mission.

And Americans have come to have a different attitude toward cultural diversity, which for most is no longer seen as threatening national identity.  Respect for each other’s deepest convictions finds expression in support for diversity, even in public education. It seems likely that most Americans who do not want religious elements in the schools that their children attend do not see any problem with other children attending schools whose religious character is preferred by their parents.

Another factor may be a loss of faith in one-size-fits-all public schools, with disappointing results on cross-national comparisons of academic outcomes, and the weakening of the rootedness of public schools in local communities as a result of consolidation of school districts, professionalization of educational administration, unresponsiveness of teacher unions to the concerns of parents, and the growing role of state regulation and federal program requirements.

On the basis of structural pluralism—for which the Center for Public Justice has been such a consistent and thoughtful advocate—there is reason to hope that Americans can stop fighting over religion and schools and agree to a diversity of schooling alternatives appropriate in a free society.

—Charles L. Glenn, Jr. is a Professor of Education at Boston University in Massachusetts and a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice.



[i]Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention Held in Denver, December 20, 1875, to Frame a Constitution for the State of Colorado. 1907. Denver: Smith-Brooks Press,  330-1.

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