Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Just about everyone agrees that one reason religious belief and practice have flourished in the United States, in comparison with Western Europe, is that one state after another in the early republic ended the “establishment” of a preferred denomination and allowed all religious groups to compete for adherents on equal terms. Contrary to current mythology, this had nothing to do with the First Amendment to the national Constitution, nor was it inspired by religious indifference, but it reflected the dynamic religious crosscurrents arising from the Great Awakening.

As legal scholar Michael McConnell wrote in the Harvard Law Review, “It is anachronistic to assume, based on modern patterns, that governmental aid to religion and suppression of heterodoxy were opposed by the more rationalistic and supported by the more intense religious believers of that era. The most intense religious sects opposed establishment on the ground that it injured religion and subjected it to the control of civil authorities. Guaranteed state support was thought to stifle religious enthusiasm and initiative.”

The arguments for the maintenance of church establishments were based on the need for the promotion of “public virtue” through institutions in alliance with government and on a concern that free churches would not fill this role adequately. For Horace Mann and other political leaders in the 1830s, the public “common school” would replace church establishments as the chosen instruments of government to promote public virtue. The teacher at his desk, he insisted, exercised a more sacred calling than the minister in his pulpit.

As McConnell notes, one side “employed essentially secular arguments based on the needs of civil society for the support of religion, while the other side employed essentially religious arguments based on the primacy of duties to God over duties to the state in support of disestablishment and free exercise.”

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, schools were exclusively responsive to local concerns and demands, including the religious concerns of parents. Just as church congregations sprang up across the expanding country through local initiatives and voluntary associations, so almost all of the schooling available in the early republic was the result of such initiatives. As a nineteenth-century educational leader wrote:

Thus were planted thousands of schools along the valleys and among the hills of Pennsylvania. There were no laws to regulate, no officers to guide, no system to conform to”all that was done was accomplished by the voluntary efforts of the people, directed solely by their own notions of what was best under the circumstances . . . . It taught the great lesson of self-dependence, and prepared the people for that efficient local management which has done so much already for the Public School System of the State, and which in the end is to be its crown of glory.

Unfortunately, the rich diversity and energy that has been the glory of American religious life was, by the early twentieth century, largely suppressed in American K–12 schooling, though it continued at the collegiate level. This was not primarily through the regulatory efforts of state governments—that would come later—but through an emerging consensus among a class of professional educational administrators, part of the Progressive movement, who sought to create what historian David Tyack has called “the one best system.”

Accompanying this development over the course of the later nineteenth century was a growing popular concern about what was seen as the divisive and even subversive effects of Roman Catholicism, associated with immigrants and with contemporary conflicts in Western Europe. The efforts of Catholics to provide their own schools, as was the norm in most of the countries from which the immigrants came, was seen as a refusal to allow their children to become absorbed into American life, and rejection of Catholic demands for public funding of those schools became a winning formula in many elections.

As a result, while most Western democracies—Germany, France, Sweden, England, Belgium, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and others—now provide public funding to accommodate the desire of families for schools that reflect their religious convictions or their desire (not always religious) for a distinctive pedagogy, the United States effectively has what the French call a pedagogie d’État , a common, state-imposed education monopoly that teaches not only reading, writing, and arithmetic but also a definite, nonneutral set of values. It is true that American parents are free to choose a nonpublic school for their children, but they must do so at their own expense at a time when spending in public schools nationwide is more than ten thousand dollars per pupil.

This is fundamentally unjust as well as a denial of the rights of conscience. As scholar of religious liberty Carl Esbeck wrote in the Journal of Law and Religion, “When the government elects to affirmatively extend welfare or educational services to a general class of beneficiaries, then the government should not exclude an individual from the class because she makes a religious choice over a secular choice. To take note of religion only in order to exclude it from modern civil society is not only not required by the Establishment Clause, but runs counter to the clause’s predisposition to enlarge religious freedom.”

Most Americans are products of the public school’s 140-year near-monopoly on education, and have an understandable residual loyalty to our current educational settlement; many believe, as advocates of the “myth of the common school” have been arguing since Horace Mann, that only the public school can form citizens. But low test scores and concern over the moral vacuousness of both curriculum and school life dominated by peer culture have shaken faith in the public system. Parents are seeking alternatives, not only in private schools but in charter schools (legally “public” but functionally private), homeschooling, and cyberschools. Even those parents who do not want religion taught in the schools their children attend usually see no problem with other children attending schools whose religious character is preferred by their parents.

We have reason to hope that America may achieve a degree of pluralism in its schools, but important changes are needed. American public education should be disestablished and demythologized, liberated to provide a true education and not simply instruction, to be as concerned about the character of its students as it is about their academic accomplishments. Government should play a significant role, setting standards for essential outcomes on which there is a societal consensus and ensuring that family circumstances never prevent a child from receiving an adequate education, but public education should be no more synonymous with government-operated schools than public health is with government-operated hospitals. Parents should be free to choose the school their children attend without financial penalty.

This is only possible if we give up the fruitless effort to make public education “neutral,” as though anything so intimately associated with the shaping of human beings could ever avoid choices among alternative views of human flourishing. The sort of lowest common denominator schooling into which public schools have been forced, the “defensive teaching” in which their teachers engage to avoid controversy, can never provide a rich educational environment. Indeed, the false belief in neutrality has fostered an idea of teachers as a kind of secular clergy.

Educational reform and professionalization of teachers requires viewing them as no different from members of any other profession, under the discipline of commonly understood norms of ethical and effective practice, and with a responsibility to the client. This client is not simply the student (as John Dewey maintained) but also the family.

America did not always have a rigid educational establishment that claimed religious neutrality. Its rise was propelled by anti-Catholic sentiment, leading to a unified educational system that displaced the patchwork of local arrangements that prevailed in the early republic and that provided a degree of religious pluralism surprising to those raised with the contemporary idea of the separation of church and state. It was common in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for public funding to be provided to schools that we would now consider “private” and religious, the great majority of them Protestant but some of them Catholic. These denominational arrangements were actually the norm in federally funded schooling for children on Indian reservations until the late nineteenth century.

After the Civil War, however, the growing political strength of Catholics in Northern cities led to polarization over the religious mission of schooling. Protestant political leaders and the voters who supported them through the first half of the twentieth century found no conflict between insisting that religion and the Bible should continue to play a vital role in public schools and being equally adamant that “sectarian” schooling was un-American and to be opposed. Catholics retorted that the manner in which religion was infused into the public schools was offensive to the faith of Catholic pupils. The battles over religion and schooling in France, Germany, and other countries, and the response of the papacy to contemporary ideas in the Syllabus of Errors of 1864 (quoted in congressional debates in the United States as evidence of the dangers of Catholicism) made it seem, to participants in these debates about American schooling, as though they were taking part in a worldwide struggle over fundamental issues.

The conviction that schooling with a religious character was profoundly dangerous to national unity and to social peace persisted over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and continues to this day. What William Cavanaugh has called “the myth of religious violence” was trotted out by Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissent from the Supreme Court’s “profoundly misguided” approval of school vouchers in Cleveland: “Admittedly, in reaching that conclusion I have been influenced by my understanding of the impact of religious strife on the decisions of our forebears to migrate to this continent, and on the decisions of neighbors in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East to mistrust one another. Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy.”

His colleague David Souter’s dissent made similar reference to “sectarian religion’s capacity for discord,” while that of Stephen Breyer stressed the urgency of “avoiding religiously based social conflict.” None of the dissenting justices cited any examples of such conflict in the United States more recent than the mid-nineteenth century.

The point is not, however, the cogency of their arguments, but the evidence they provide of the persistent conviction that there is something very dangerous about allowing schools to present to children different ways of understanding the nature of the good life and the purposes of education. In fact, social and political conflict based on religion subsided in Belgium, the Netherlands, and other countries only when they adopted laws giving equal access to public and private (mostly faith-based) schools through funding the latter based on the choices made by parents.

Laws that bar funds from flowing to private schools were once aimed against Catholic schools, in favor of the effectively Protestant public schools; today they divide thoroughly secularized public schools from a growing array of private religious schools. “Private school” is no longer essentially equivalent to “Catholic school.” The latest figures from the federal government suggest that, of five million pupils in private elementary and secondary schools, about 38 percent are in Catholic, 20 percent in evangelical Protestant, 2 percent in Jewish, and 0.2 percent in Muslim schools, with the balance in a scattering of schools of very varied identity and mission. “The religious wars in the United States in the early twenty-first century,” as Ira Lupu and Robert Tuttle have observed, “are not Protestant vs. Catholic, or Christian vs. Jew, or even the more plausible Islam vs. all others. They are instead the wars of the deeply religious against the forces of a relentlessly secular commercial culture.”

Our nation needs to confront the loss of faith in public education, a loss fueled both by disappointing international comparisons of test results and by a severing of the rootedness of schools in local communities. Consolidation of school districts, professionalization of educational administration, the unresponsiveness of teachers’ unions to the concerns of parents, and ballooning state and federal requirements, all have led to a loss of confidence in America’s schools.

What has developed in recent decades is a substantial emptying out of the content of democratic localism in education, without a corresponding increase in real control from society as a whole. Professional educational administrators and the teachers’ unions have, between them, come to shape educational practice in countless ways that are beyond the reach of the democratic process, whether at the local, state, or national level. Seldom are real issues of how, much less why, to educate put before parents and other citizens.

Most parents have little appetite to debate these questions, but they are eager to choose among schools with distinctive missions when the alternatives are explained clearly. I saw that in Massachusetts in the 1980s when I had responsibility for promoting educational equity and worked with a dozen cities to create choice-based desegregation plans based on clear differentiation of schools. Parents were much more interested in choice than in “voice.” This in turn made it possible for the teachers in each school to work together to fashion a distinctive approach or mission that would be attractive to parents.

American education now is undergoing a reinvention of localism, in the form of charter schools and other innovations that place significant decisions back in the hands of those engaged with shaping and maintaining an individual school: teachers and other school staff (and students as appropriate) in dialogue with parents and community institutions and supporters, as in the nineteenth century. Since the barriers of distance have been greatly reduced, such school communities can be formed on the basis of choice rather than of geography.

Some forward-looking school districts are promoting what in Massachusetts are called “innovation schools,” described as “unique schools [that] operate with increased autonomy and flexibility in six key areas: curriculum; budget; school schedule and calendar; staffing (including waivers from or exemptions to collective bargaining agreements); professional development; and school district policies.” The Douglas County, Colorado, public school system decided to provide scholarships for hundreds of its pupils to attend private—mostly faith-based—schools; a legal challenge to this policy is now under appeal, and I was pleased to testify in support of the school district. A bolder proposal calls for local school districts to stop operating schools altogether and become contracting bodies.

Ludger Woessmann and others have shown, based on international comparative data, that it is those educational systems combining strong external accountability with school-level autonomy and choice that produce the most impressive academic results.

The relationship of trust that existed between nineteenth-century teachers and the parents of the children in their classes can be rebuilt, but on a higher level, with more ambitious expectations on both sides, reflecting the fact that both parents and teachers are themselves far better educated. This appears to be occurring at many public schools that enroll their students on the basis of parental choice, whether magnet or charter schools or some variation.

In such cases, teachers see themselves as accountable to parents, not hiding behind a “sacred mission” that gives them a superior insight into the goals of human development. By spelling out clearly what they will seek to accomplish for the children entrusted to them, not in the windy generalities of “we believe that every child can learn” and “we foster creativity” but in the specifics of what students will come to know and be able to do, schools that are freely chosen by parents are in turn free to pursue those goals without apology and with the full support of families.

Critics of the present system, like their predecessors, are falsely accused of being enemies of education, or of wanting to destroy the public school. Unhealthy obsession with defending the status quo obscures the dysfunctional character of the present arrangements, particularly in urban districts where decisions that affect millions of students—and their teachers—are made through bureaucratic processes that have little to do with education and, all too often, are indeed antieducational.

As the political scientist Robert Booth Fowler has written, “The issue is one of human respect. In a multicultural society respect must necessarily be accorded to all groups. And if it is to mean anything, it must be evidenced not just by pleasant verbal affirmations such as ‘celebrate diversity.’ It must be instantiated in a society’s institutions and policies—and these must include government assistance to parochial” and other nonpublic schools.

This is thorny ground. Society needs to inculcate habits and attitudes that permit adults to live together. But for government to seek to shape the beliefs of young people threatens the fundamental right of free exercise of religion. The tasks of educational reform must start, then, with the process of educational disestablishment and real assistance to independent schools that enjoy the confidence of parents and give teachers the scope to function as professionals.

Most Americans grudgingly accept the inefficiencies of a heavily bureaucratized system as a cost associated with the mission of the public school. When parents do decide to pull their children out of school, it is often over objections to the religious and moral substance of the education and not over worries about its effectiveness. But the two goals of schooling surely overlap, and a measure that increases parents’ ability to choose religious schools will also increase the accountability of public schools. For this reason, education reform and the cause of educational disestablishment—the provision of public funds for effective schools without discrimination against those with a religious character—should advance in tandem. The former is far less likely to gain momentum without the aid of the latter.

It is also high time that the American legal system remove the relics of the anti-Catholic bias that placed such a strong mark on its provisions for education during just the same decades when racial bias was being formalized in the laws of many states and tolerated by the courts. Even a number of current Supreme Court justices have noted the religious bigotry lying behind the provisions in state constitutions prohibiting public support of “sectarian” schools. The racial provisions have rightly been purged through a series of judicial and legislative reforms, and it is high time that discrimination on the basis of religion be eliminated as well.

The point is not to favor or promote schooling on a religious basis but to ensure that those who act out of religious motivations are not thereby disadvantaged in comparison with others engaging in the same lawful activities from secular motivations. The issue is equal protection under the law and ensuring that government does not engage in what the Supreme Court has called “viewpoint discrimination.”

When the state of Colorado’s constitutional convention moved to ban any public support of religious education alternatives, the local Catholic Vicar Apostolic offered a plea for tolerance: “We look forward hopefully to the future. A day shall at last dawn—surely it shall—when the passions of this hour will have subsided; when the exigencies of partisan politics will no longer stand in the way of right and justice, and political and religious equality shall again seem the heritage of the American citizen.” Today as never before we can see signs of that promised dawn.

Charles L. Glenn is professor of Educational Administration and Policy at Boston University.