Ashley 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 Continue reading