Educating Citizens: International Perspectives on Civic Values and School Choice
reviewed by Christine Wolfe - 2006
Title: Educating Citizens: International Perspectives on Civic Values and School Choice
Author(s): Patrick J. Wolf and Stephen Macedo (Editors)
Publisher: Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.
ISBN: 0815795173, Pages: 397, Year: 2004
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In Educating Citizens: International Perspectives on Civic Values and School Choice, Patrick J. Wolf and Stephen Macedo challenge the no need to worry sentiment put forth by those in other countries where public funding of some sort of school choice is the norm. Having gathered a group of scholars to consider what the U.S. could learn about other countries regarding school choice, the editors bring to print national case studies on Western European countries (The Netherlands, England, Belgium, Italy, Germany, and France) and Canada in Part I of the book. In Part II, analysis and commentary on those case studies, along with their direct links to the American school system, make the edited volume read like a well-planned conference panel.
In Part I, the authors offer detailed analysis of a variety of educational systems in Western Europe. A major focus in each section is the role that public funding plays education. Many of the authors describe educational systems where schools with different philosophies co-exist within the regulatory schemes of their respective countries. A more recent phenomenon noted by almost every author is the attempts by the examined countries to address religious and racial stratification. Luisa Ribolzi acknowledges that Italy is at a real cultural turning point that could either support cultural openness toward school choice or doom it (p. 268). Ben P. Vermeulen, writing on the constitutional and political issues in the Netherlands, recognizes that the public funding of private [primarily religious] schools is true school choice: without such support these schools would be forced to charge considerable tuition fees, with the result that in general they would be available only to the well-to-do (p. 38). Public funding of religious schools is at the heart of school choice in the Netherlands.
Some of the programs cannot be equated to the U.S. educational system. In Italy: The Impossible Choice (Ch. 10), Luisa Ribolzi writes that studying Italian schools by juxtaposing the situation in Italy with the school choice situation in the U.S. should be done cautiously. He notes the strong role Catholic schools have had in Italy and the schools connection to the national identity of the country. While many of the countries examined are struggling to promote diversity in the schools to better reflect a changing population beyond the schools, much of the diversity is rooted in religious differences. Private, non-religious schools are still the domain of the affluent in many countries. For instance, in the United States, charter schools, school voucher programs, and even open enrollment programs have paved the way for conversations about segregation by neighborhood, religion, race, and class.
In the chapter titled School Choice as a Question of Design (Ch. 14), Charles L. Glenn notes that school choice, while not a disaster in any of the countries examined, is not a magic solution to problems that are deeply embedded in the nature of the educational system (p. 352). School choice does offer the fundamental right of parents to make decisions about the education of their children, within a framework of public accountability for the quality and the civic effects of the various school options (p. 352), all of which brings us back, one last time, to the need for laws, policies, procedures, and interventions that have been thought through carefully (p. 352).
Many of the chapters note that Western European governments rely on regulations and oversight of school choice programs in order to make them work. One consistent point of contention that the authors have about the U.S. school choice programs is the lack of regulatory standards, as evidenced in the fact that charter schools and voucher regulations vary from state to state and even from municipality to municipality. Attempts to create academic standards in the U.S. for K-12 education have met resistance for a variety of reasons, although recent legislation (like the No Child Left Behind Act) has put teeth behind the standards movement.
In Educating Citizens, the authors fail to address the business model of regulation in a capitalist society like the U.S. The Netherlands, France, and Canada are known for providing social servicesincluding child careto their citizenry that benefit and embrace the family model and the rights of the family. Because all can and do apply for social services in these countries, the stigma of taking advantage of resources is nullified. In the United States, however, school choice is often income-related: the wealthy can choose private schools; the entrepreneur can create and nurture a private, for-profit educational program; the financially disadvantaged can get access to vouchers. The rich can make choices, and the poor might find a choice, but regulating those choices conflicts with what Americans see as their right to make educational decisions for their children, regardless of income.
The Western European bent of the book begs the questions: What about Asia, Africa, and South America? What about developing countries? What about highly-technological societies like Japan? What about schools rising up in areas of conflict: can schools and school choice affect relationships between Shiites and Muslims, Israelites and Palestinians? Can civic values run through schools in communities struggling with civility? Although religious friction is a part of the school-choice programs in many countriesincluding the United Statesthere are numerous cultural and income-based conflicts in the U.S. and other countries that need to be better addressed.
Educating Citizens gives a good overview of the school choice philosophies in other countries but is weak on the actual practice and procedures that make those philosophies real. That weakness aside, Wolf and Macedos edited volume is a nice companion piece to U.S.-focused examinations of school choice, such as R. Kenneth Godwin and Frank R. Kemerers (2002) School Choice Tradeoffs: Liberty, Equity, and Diversity or Alan Wolfes (2003) School Choice: The Moral Debate, both of which take on purely Americentric views of school choice.
Wolfe, A. (Ed.). (2003). School choice: The moral debate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Godwin, R.K., & Kemerer, F.R. (2002). School choice tradeoff: Liberty, equity, and diversity. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.