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 Continue reading

Thanks to Ashley Berner

We at CLR Forum want to thank Ashley Berner for absolutely superb, thoughtful, and deeply interesting commentary.  She has enriched our reflections and discussions immensely.  Her posts may be accessed here.  She may stay on for a bit to wrap up a few thoughts.  And hopefully she will agree to come back sometime soon.

Welcome to Ashley Berner!

CLR Forum is delighted to welcome Ashley Berner as our very first guest for the month of February.  Ashley is a faculty fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, directed by James Davison Hunter.   She is the Co-Director, with Hunter, of the Institute’s Moral Foundations of Education Project, which explores modern American educational philosophy and practice.  Ashley holds a D. Phil. degree from Oxford in Modern History and her areas of research include nineteenth-century intellectual history, educational philosophy, and comparative educational systems.  Her current book project explores educational pluralism in the American context.

Please join us in welcoming Ashley to CLR Forum!

Berner, “Pluralism and American Public Education”

Ashley Berner, the Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and a past guest blogger here at the Law and Religion Forum, has just written an important and readable book on educational pluralism, Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School (Palgrave Macmillan). I highly recommend it for anyone interested in public education in America, including the place of religious and other non-state schools.

I’ll be doing an interview with Ashley later this month. For now, here’s Palgrave Macmillan’s description of the book:

51qs7fvxql-_sx328_bo1204203200_This book argues that the structure of public education is a key factor in the failure of America’s public education system to fulfill the intellectual, civic, and moral aims for which it was created. The book challenges the philosophical basis for the traditional common school model and defends the educational pluralism that most liberal democracies enjoy. Berner provides a unique theoretical pathway that is neither libertarian nor state-focused and a pragmatic pathway that avoids the winner-takes-all approach of many contemporary debates about education. For the first time in nearly one hundred fifty years, changing the underlying structure of America’s public education system is both plausible and possible, and this book attempts to set out why and how.

 

Berner on Educational Pluralism

First Things has just posted an important and thoughtful essay by Ashley Berner, “The Case for  Educational Pluralism.” Berner (left), co-director of the Moral Foundations of Education Project at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture — and an occasional guest blogger at CLR Forum — argues that pluralism can offer great benefits and help resolve tensions in public education.

Unlike the American model, which relies on government to deliver education, the pluralist model involves government funding of private schools. These schools may reflect a variety of beliefs and perspectives, both religious and non-religious; public oversight is limited to ensuring that general educational requirements are met. Berner points out that many Western democracies have such systems, which allow greater educational diversity than the American model. Moreover,  pluralism avoids a central problem of American public education: a false neutrality that masks a secularist philosophy many parents reject.

Berner concedes that educational pluralism comes with problems of its own and may face constitutional difficulties under current law. But, she writes, pluralism “offers an honest acknowledgement of the myriad value judgments inherent in any education and generously accommodates a variety of beliefs and opinions in a way more congruous with the United States’ democratic political philosophy than does the current system. While some people fear that such pluralism would produce division and harm the students educationally, evidence suggests that, in fact, pluralism often yields superior civic and academic results.” Read the whole thing.

Event at Hunter College: “American Education and the Separation of Church and State: Fact vs. Fiction”

The CUNY Institute for Educational Policy is hosting a discussion entitled “American Education and the Separation of Church and State: Fact vs. Fiction,” on December 4th at Hunter College. The discussants include Philip Hamburger (Columbia), Ashley Berner (CUNY), and Matthew Yellin (Hillside Arts and Letters Academy):

Most Americans know the term “separation of church and state,” but few understand it. Howhas the phrase influenced education policy and practice? How has the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment evolved? Are tax credits and vouchers that enable funding for religious schools Constitutional? Are public school teachers allowed to talk about religion in the classroom? If so, how can they do so without violating the Establishment clause of the Constitution?

These are timely questions for New Yorkers: Albany is considering a tax credit bill that would provide support for Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim, and other non-public schools; international leaders are calling for better religious literacy in K-12 classrooms, so that young citizens are prepared to negotiate our diverse and increasingly interconnected world. For many Americans, however, public funding for religious schools, and open discussions about religious beliefs in public school classrooms, raise important concerns.

On December 4, the nation’s leading scholar of First Amendment jurisprudence will set out the history and current interpretation of separation, and a master teacher will discuss some challenges and solutions to navigating religious literacy in New York’s public school system.

Get details and register here.

Panel on Tax Reform and Education (Feb 25)

On February 25, the CUNY Institute for Education Policy in New York will host what looks to be a fascinating discussion on tax credits for primary and secondary education–including education in religious schools. Past CLR Forum Guest Ashley Berner (left), the Institute’s Deputy Director, will be one of the panelists. Here’s a description:

For most Americans, “public education” has meant the traditional neighborhood school. That once-unassailable image is changing, however, as states and districts have begun to sanction a wider array of schools such as magnets and charters, and new school funding mechanisms such as tax credits and vouchers – stirring up controversy in the process.

There are important arguments on each side. To its defenders, the dominant model reflects democratic governance structures, advances citizenship formation, is ideologically neutral, and should be preserved with minor adjustments. Innovators, for their side, believe that the expansion of educational options yields better academic outcomes and more diverse classrooms, extends choice to more families, advances pluralism, and aligns the United States’ school system with those of other democratic nations.

New York is now considering a bill that creates an Education Investment Tax Credit to stimulate up to $300 million in charitable donations for public classrooms and for K-12 scholarships for students to attend Catholic, Jewish and other private schools. Please join us for a lively discussion of the bill’s benefits and limitations in light of international education systems.

For details, please click here.

NY Post on the Fight Over Equal Access for Religious Groups

The New York Post had a brief piece a couple of days ago on the story that we posted about here involving the fight over equal access for religious groups to New York City public school buildings. The Post article contains a few additional details about the City Council’s vote (it was 38-11) as well as some political speculation and other odds and ends about the controversy.  I am not sure what the piece means when it says that the Department of Education’s policy is “based on” New York State law.  At least a substantial part of the legal defense is grounded in the First Amendment.  It did come as news to me that the board’s policy “makes New York the exception among the nation’s 50 largest school districts.”  (h/t our former guest, Ashley Berner).

Muslim Parents Sue Greek Orthodox School for Banning Head Scarves

Here’s an unusual case. Muslim parents are suing a public school in south London for refusing to allow their nine-year old daughter to wear a head scarf to class. That’s not so unusual in itself. Law school casebooks are full of cases in which parents sue public schools for failing to accommodate their children’s religious practices. What makes this case unusual is that the public school in question, St. Cyprian’s in Croydon, is an Orthodox Christian school.

To Americans, faith-based public schools are unfamiliar. As Ashley Berner explains here, however, such schools are common in England. According to the official government website, roughly 7000 “maintained,” as in publicly maintained, “faith schools” exist, the large majority of which are affiliated with the Church of England. St. Cyprian’s is affiliated with the Greek Orthodox Church — it is the only Greek Orthodox school in England, in fact. As a faith-based school, St. Cyprian’s may give priority in admission to Greek Orthodox students, though by law it must admit students of other faiths if places remain unfilled. As far as I can tell, like other public schools, St. Cyprian’s may adopt its own school uniform policy, subject to very broad guidelines.

I’m not sure how the English courts will resolve this dispute. But the whole situation is puzzling and it’s a shame things have come so far. It’s odd, in the circumstances, that the parents would insist on a Greek Orthodox school for their daughter. If it’s so important to them that she maintain Muslim practices, why put her in a school in which a different religion is pervasive? Isn’t that a bit unreasonable, and unfair to her? The school says the parents petitioned to send their daughter to St. Cyprian’s, and that the school’s rule against head scarves was explained to them before she matriculated. St. Cyprian’s has very high academic ratings; perhaps that explains why the parents are so eager to have their daughter attend. Still, it’s all rather odd.

On the other hand, the school’s position is puzzling as well. There’s nothing in Orthodoxy that forbids the wearing of head scarves; in fact, some Orthodox women wear head scarves in church. Perhaps St. Cyprian’s is concerned that a visible non-Orthodox presence would dilute the school’s identity. That’s a valid concern, in my opinion. And I can understand how school officials might think they’ve been sandbagged by the parents in this case. If the parents knew about the rule against head scarves before their daughter matriculated, why are they complaining now? But the law requires St. Cyprian’s to admit non-Orthodox students if it has places for them, and it doesn’t seem tenable to admit such students and then forbid them from wearing their religious attire. Anyway, mightn’t it be better, in the circumstances, to allow this student to wear her head scarf? What would demonstrate more effectively the essential nature of Christianity — its willingness, even joy, in serving everyone and anyone?

Rosen on the Liberal Case for Educational Accommodation of Religious Groups

Apropos of Erwin Chemerinsky’s illiberal proposal to close down all private and religious schools, here is a liberal argument for accommodation of the educational preferences of (some) religious and other “perfectionist” groups: The Educational Autonomy of Perfectionist Religious Groups in a Liberal State, by Mark Rosen.  The influence of Rawls on Rosen’s work is very substantial, but Rosen departs from Rawls in several interesting ways.  Arguments like Rosen’s are not the only way to think about issues of educational pluralism (and it seems to me that Rosen’s piece has nothing to say about the educational autonomy of non-perfectionist groups, such as one might find at your typical secular private school).  For a different approach, see this earlier post on Ashley Berner’s essay.  But, like Berner’s essay, Rosen’s is a serious and thoughtful attempt to grapple with these problems.  Here’s the abstract.

This Article draws upon, but reworks, John Rawls’ framework from Political Liberalism to determine the degree of educational autonomy that illiberal perfectionist religious groups ought to enjoy in a liberal state. I start by arguing that Rawls mistakenly concludes that political liberalism flatly cannot accommodate Perfectionists, and that his misstep is attributable to two errors: (1) Rawls utilizes an overly restrictive “political conception of the person” in determining who participates in the original position, and (2) Rawls overlooks the possibility of a “federalist” basic political structure that can afford significant political autonomy to different groups within a single country. With these insights, I argue that some, though not all, religious Perfectionists are consistent with a stable liberal polity, and explain why foundational Rawlsian premises require that Perfectionists be accommodated to the extent possible.

My ultimate conclusions are that liberal polities ought to grant significant autonomy to those illiberal groups that satisfy specified conditions, and that the autonomy of such “eligible” illiberal groups is subject to two further constraints, which I call “well-orderedness” and “opt-out.” The autonomy to which eligible Perfections are entitled includes the authority to educate their children in a way that provides a fair opportunity for the groups to perpetuate themselves. The constraint of well-orderedness, however, permits the State to impose educational requirements that facilitate peace and political stability. Accommodating eligible illiberal groups, subject to these constraints, is an instantiation of liberal commitments, not a compromise of liberal values.

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