Conversations: Ashley Berner

berner2015_3_pyramidAshley Berner (left) is an assistant professor and Deputy Director of the Institute for Education Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, and a past guest blogger here at the Law and Religion Forum. Last month, Palgrave Macmillan released her new book, Pluralism and American Education: No One Way to School, in which she advocates a new approach to education in America. It’s a great book, readable and thoughtful. She agreed to answer a few questions about the book, and about her approach, “educational pluralism,” as part of our Conversations series. Our interview covers topics like the costs of state-sponsored uniformity in education, the proper place of religious schools in a pluralist system, and why Ashley thinks of her approach as a middle way. Thanks, Ashley!

L&R Forum: You argue that American education took a wrong turn in the 19th Century, when it moved from a pluralist model to one of state-sponsored uniformity. What’s the history? Why is it particularly relevant for people who study law and religion in America?

Berner: Until the end of the 19th century, school systems in the United States funded a variety of schools – from Jewish and Congregationalist to Catholic and Presbyterian. This was the norm amongst democratic nations, and continues to be. The Netherlands currently funds 36 different types of schools on equal footing; the UK, most Canadian provinces, Sweden, and Singapore (to name a few) support diverse schools as a matter of principle.

In our country, the vast number of 19th century Catholic immigrants threatened the majority Protestant culture and sparked nativist activism at elite and grassroots levels. The Ku Klux Klan and post-Civil War Republicans shared a common resistance to Catholic education. Nativists influenced both Congressional and also legislative agenda. Perhaps the most concrete consequence was the creation of so-called Blaine amendments, named for the U.S. Speaker of the House who tried, and failed, to pass an amendment to the federal constitution that barred funding to religious schools. Thirty-six states passed their own constitutional amendments to this effect. Depending upon how they are constructed, the Blaine amendments seriously impede educational pluralism today. A Blaine amendment case is up before the Court this term; it will be interesting to see what the Court decides.

L&R Forum: You argue for “educational pluralism,” which you say is a “middle path” between state-sponsored uniformity and a libertarian, privatized model. Could you explain what you mean? How would educational pluralism work in practice?

Berner: Educational pluralism asks us to de-couple funding schools and operating schools. Thus in the Netherlands, only 30% of students attend state-funded, state-operated schools, while the rest attend schools that are funded and regulated by the state but operated by non-state institutions. Educational pluralism also requires regulatory guardrails that apply to all schools, thus ensuring some level of coherence across (for instance) content and assessments and sometimes admissions.

That’s why I think of it as a middle path: education is a public good (hence state-mandated requirements) that may be provided by a variety of civic organizations (religious or otherwise).

L&R Forum: Most Americans think that uniform public education is necessary to promote good citizenship. Yet civic knowledge among public school students is appallingly low. Why the mismatch between theory and practice? What benefits would educational pluralism offer in this respect?

Berner: Citizenship formation includes specific knowledge (How does the government work?), specific skills (How do I write my Congressperson?), attachment and participation (Why is this country/state/city worth participating in?), and tolerance (How can we respectfully disagree?). Cultivating the above requires a robust academic program and the possibility of classroom debate. Yet many of our schools – public and private – undervalue the content and skills required to engage in the democratic process. Do schools insist that all students know the basic tenets of the Constitution? Or understand the separation of powers? Or can name the capital of every state? What about actually learning a foreign language and knowing world geography inside out? Our public schools don’t even come close, and plenty of non-public schools undervalue rigorous content.

A second reason may be that many schools struggle to articulate the why’s for students, a point that James Davison Hunter’s book, The Death of Character (2000) drives home. Citizenship requires duty to something greater than oneself. In schools with strong normative cultures, the “greater than” is simply more readily available than it in a supposedly neutral school. Scott Seider’s Character Compass (2012) takes us inside three Boston charter schools whose core commitments draw upon Aristotelian, Pacific Rim, and performance ethics, each of which shapes their respective traditions and rituals.

Educational pluralism simply foregrounds the role that values and commitments play in school culture. The structure of educational pluralism does not solve the problem of citizenship formation by itself. It does, however, create space for schools that are organized around explicit normative claims. And in general, non-public schools provide richer academic content than do district schools. Put these two factors together, and the odds are that pluralizing the school system will yield better civic outcomes.

L&R Forum: I found your discussion of America’s education culture quite interesting. Culture consists of the things we take for granted, the assumptions that shape our collective imagination. Americans take for granted that uniformity is the normal way to do things; we are, you say, “habituated” to see things this way. If your model is to be adopted, that culture will have to change. How would you hope to change America’s education culture to make it more accepting of educational pluralism?

Berner: The most important change is already well underway: states and districts that enable meaningful school choice and that support parents in the process. High-performing charter schools and well-crafted school choice programs have an outsized effect on Americans’ sense of what is possible. Washington, DC, is but one example: there is nearly a fifty-fifty split between charter and district schools, and a small but persistent choice program gives low-income students access to private schools. My own work simply provides a coherent framework that defends these efforts and places them within the norms of democratic societies. My book says, in other words, “Uniformity doesn’t have to be the benchmark.”

L&R Forum: I enjoyed the comparative character of your book, your survey of other Western democracies that, unlike the US, favor educational pluralism—the Netherlands, Britain, and so on. These countries are more secular than the US, and yet they directly fund religious schools with state money! What explains this?

Berner: Good question! Many countries support religious schools for non-religious reasons. They assume that education is an inherently normative enterprise and carry it to its logical conclusion, which is a diversity of institutions. That is, if schools are meaning-making institutions, then why should one institution determine orthodoxy?

In the United States, we sometimes confuse secularism with neutrality. I was struck by an educational debate that occurred in the British Parliament in 2004. At issue was whether the central government should increase its regulations on the admissions criteria of faith-based schools. Labour MP Kevin McNamara spoke against heavier regulations, stating that the role of government was to create a pluralist, not a secularist, society. Secularism has its own distinctive claims and its own adherents, he said; it should not, however, be given the pride of place in a democratic school system. It is difficult to imagine this level of discourse among our country’s elected officials. I hope one day we will.

L&R Forum: You acknowledge that educational pluralism has boundaries; public support would not (and should not) go to a school teaching sedition or institutional racism, regardless of its success in educating students. Could you say more about this? What other limits would you consider?

Berner: A school that urges sedition or that practices institutional racism is operating outside of federal law – whether or not it receives public funds. Educational pluralism wouldn’t would mean supporting white-supremacist or jihadist schools. It would, however, mean that some schools would be funded that any of us might dislike. Convinced secularists would probably not send their children to a fundamentalist school; parents who preferred progressive pedagogy would probably not opt for a classical model; religious Jews might want a Hebrew day school that reflected the values they taught at home. In this respect, education would be no different from other areas of democratic life.

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