Experts Mull School Choice

Experts Mull School Choice

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

School choice and the various moral, political, legal and social issues surrounding it were the focus of a major conference at Boston College last Friday and Saturday in Fulton 511.


Boston Public School teacher and researcher Meira Levinson (center) and Amy Gutmann of Princeton University (right), who both took part in a panel discussion during the Boisi Center conference on school choice, talk during a break with Levinson's mother, Cynthia, who is also an education researcher. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Sponsored by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, "A Conference on the Moral and Normative Aspects of School Choice" brought together educators and scholars from across academic and professional disciplines.

In the course of four panel discussions and numerous informal conversations during the two days, participants touched on the role of diversity in education, President Bush's views on school vouchers, church-state separation, economic polarization and other aspects of the school choice debate.

In his welcoming remarks, University Chancellor J. Donald Monan, SJ, noted that BC had hosted many forums on pressing issues facing American society, but none with more importance for the future than the "quality of education provided to the nation's children, and the role school choice might play in assuring that quality."

Fr. Monan praised the Boisi Center - whose director, Prof. Alan Wolfe (Political Science), also spoke during the introduction - for bringing a moral dimension to the discussion on school choice.

"Moral norms give voice to our most basic human aspirations," said Fr. Monan, "to the claims of rights and obligations, deeper than shared legalities, that we and our civil societies hold upon each other."
The four panels each dealt with a specific theme regarding school choice and its moral aspects. Flatley Professor of Catholic Theology David Hollenbach, SJ, moderated and served as discussant for the first, which focused on pluralism.

Princeton University Rockefeller Professor of Politics Amy Gutmann assessed the most common arguments used to support school choice, which along with pluralism she identified as parental rights and educational results. Choice proponents believe that public funding for schools should be tied to minimal public standards, she said, because to do so otherwise would defeat the concept of a pluralistic education.

But to achieve a truly democratic ideal, Gutmann said, schools should hold "publicly defensible standards of non-discrimination and non-repression in education." Such standards would guard against discrimination in admission policies, for example, while fostering critical thinking among students, she said.

"This is not a comprehensive set of standards, but it is more than what most voucher proponents would call minimal," said Gutmann.

"Yet it still leaves a lot of discretion in different educational realms, to parents and the family, to principals, teachers and classrooms and to democratically accountable representatives in structuring the school systems," she said, "while leaving room for a private school sector that can teach religious and other points of view that are too divisive and that sometimes do require profession of belief within schools not publicly funded."

Sanford Levinson, McCormick Professor of Law at the University of Texas-Austin, and his daughter Meira Levinson, an eighth-grade teacher in the Boston Public Schools, spoke on the role of, and emphasis on, diversity in American education. Diversity offers the possibility of tolerance for others, they said, and also can promote autonomy among schoolchildren by exposure to, and even acceptance of, views and beliefs different than theirs.


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The question "is what kinds of diversity matter," said Sanford Levinson, noting that most public discussion has centered on gender, cultural and ethnic, but not religious, diversity.

"In order to promote the development of a mutually tolerant and respectful civil society," he said, "it would seem that schools should have a student body that is religiously diverse." Encouraging continual interaction between persons of different religious backgrounds will ultimately help students realize "that people holding even exceedingly odd religious views are nonetheless members of the same over-arching community."

The Levinsons also addressed the question of whether public funding for religious schools might be a tacit endorsement of segregation or discrimination based strictly on faith. Meira Levinson warned that a diverse student population in and of itself does not determine whether a school can promote tolerance and autonomy: A school with a homogenous student body may achieve that goal with excellent teachers, a well-planned curriculum and an atmosphere that fosters intellectual curiosity.

She also noted that some religious schools, such as those run by Quakers and Episcopalians, rarely hold religion as a condition of entry or educational goal.

"Diversity is only a means of promoting tolerance and autonomy, not an end in itself," Levinson said. "We need to consider the full dimensions of diversity."

Nancy Rosenblum, Henry Merritt Wriston Professor and Professor of Political Science at Brown University, pointing to Americans' decreasing interest in civic participation, expressed concern that vouchers for private schools represented another potential weakening of a societal bond: the support for a common, public education.

"Once you separate the idea of 'choice' from 'pluralism' in this debate," she said, "it is choice, rather than pluralism of distinctive communities, that is more likely to survive."

Fr. Hollenbach, in his response, drew a distinction between the panelists' views on diversity. In contrast to a "live-and-let-live" form of tolerance as emphasized by Gutmann, the Levinsons, he said, "see engagement with those who are different as the key to civic democracy."

The panelists, in Fr. Hollenbach's reckoning, all "reject the idea that vouchers lead to a shared good life simply through establishing a competitive market for education." Their policy stances "differ according to fear or hope based on diversity."

Other panel discussions examined equality, constitutional law and the ecology of institutions in regard to school choice. Law School Dean John Garvey served as discussant for the constitutional law panel, while Assoc. Prof. Joseph O'Keefe, SJ (LSOE), presented excerpts from his paper "Catholic Schools and Vouchers: How the Empirical Reality Should Ground the Debate."

 

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