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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

School Choice and the Ecology of Institutions

School Choice and the Ecology of Institutions
Conference Abstracts
Saturday, March 10th, 2001


Charles Glenn, Boston University
"Protecting and Limiting School Distinctiveness: How Much of Each?"

One of the charges commonly brought against policies that would provide public funding to support parent choice of schools is that it could lead to a proliferation of schools of poor quality or harmful influence upon children. The appropriate response, of course, is that government would have a continuing responsibility to ensure that no school failed its pupils in either respect. But this leads to a second charge: that government oversight would have a blighting effect upon the distinctiveness and integrity of nongovernment schools.

Can policymakers find the right balance between protecting the distinctiveness of schools and at the same time keeping that distinctiveness within appropriate limits? Fortunately, we don't have to deal in hypothetical scenarios; we have plenty of examples available of government regulation of schools which government does not directly operate.

On the basis of a study of 24 countries, in collaboration with the European Association for Education Law and Policy, the paper offers evidence on how government oversight of school educational and of school compliance with human rights is balanced with protections for the autonomy and distinctiveness of individual schools. In 21 of these countries, the government funds all or most of the cost of independent schools to ensure that parent choice is not limited by lack of resources; the countries differ considerably in the constraints placed upon the schools.

Richard Mouw, Fuller Theological Seminary
"Vouchers and Pillarization: Some Lessons for Americans from the Dutch Experiment in 'Affirmative Impartiality'"

The present day voucher debate in the United States is characterized by a variety of arguments for and against voucher plans. Some of the considerations presented on both sides are superficial ones, as when vouchers are defended by broadsides against a bureaucratic educational system that is bent on brainwashing children into secular or ìoccultî thoughts and practices, and when they are opposed on the grounds that they will encourage ìoutdatedî religious teachings. At their best, however, the discussions are healthy ones that assess the challenges of contemporary pluralism, with one side insisting that we ought to encourage a plurality of educational philosophies and programs, the other worrying about the fragmenting impact of such a plan.

My purpose in this presentation is to explore some of the underlying issues relating to pluralism in these debates. I will do so in three main stages. First, I will discuss the "school settlement" that was established by law in the Netherlands in 1917, and the way in which it influenced some patterns of thought on the subject in North America (specifically, in the view set forth by Nicholas Wolterstorff in a pamphlet that he published in the mid-1960s, Religion and the Schools). Second, I will look briefly at the cultural circumstances that gave rise to the Dutch settlement, as well as to the context of Wolterstorffís application to the North American scene. Third, I will assess the relevance of these two "affirmative impartiality" programs--the actual system in the Netherlands and the system proposed by Wolterstorff for North America--for our contemporary debate over vouchers.

Joseph O'Keefe, S.J., Boston College
"Catholic Schools and Vouchers: How the Empirical Reality Should Govern the Debate"

First, this paper examines the role of Catholic schools in the voucher debates as they have been articulated in legislation and scholarly literature. Next, it presents relevant recent research findings about Catholic schools generally and in particular about those that exist in the inner cities and which have been the beneficiaries of most voucher plans. It concludes with recommendations for framing the debate in light of these findings.

Discussant:  John McGreevy, University of Notre Dame