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Educational Pluralism Can Raise Academic Achievement, Berner Says

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Berner with John Witte, Jr.

05/05/14

The United States is an outlier among democratic nations in its resistance to providing public funds to religious schools. At the same time, the United States spends more per student on education than other nations, yet American high school students are ranked 32nd in math and 21st in reading.

In a lecture to Emory law students on April 2, Ashley Berner, a CSLR Senior Fellow and Deputy Director at the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, drew a connection between educational pluralism and academic achievement.

“Intentional schools with distinctive missions often do a better job of closing the achievement gap,” she said. “This is true whether one speaks of religious schools or charters such as Pacific Rim in Boston.”

Catholic schools, for example, consistently produce more students who go to college than public schools, even when controlling for the primary indicators of student performance: parental education and income.

Most other liberal democracies, including the UK, the Netherlands and some provinces of Canada, have long made provision for diverse school types. The Netherlands, for example, funds 36 types of schools. Other countries, such as Sweden and Australia, are expanding options. In most cases, schools must adhere to the same rigorous national curriculum. In some countries, students must then pass a national standardized exam.

In contrast to other countries, American education moved away from pluralism. Until the mid-19th century, states funded a variety of religious and non-religious schools. However, 19th-century nativism, sparked by suspicion of Catholic immigrants, prompted states to support only state-run, purportedly neutral, schools. Catholics had to form their own networks of private schools that did not receive public funding.

Preference for state-run schools intensified with the so-called Blaine amendments, post-Civil war restrictions on state spending for sectarian schools. Today, these amendments are invoked to prevent voucher programs.

In the United States, the quest for better academic performance and parental flexibility is leading some states to consider vouchers, tax credits and other programs that allow public money to flow to religious and other non-state schools. “Our achievement gap is not closing,” Berner said. “Educational funding has tripled to little effect.”

Research like Berner’s is guiding a robust conversation over the case for educational pluralism as a means to excellence and equity. “It’s an exciting time to be concerned about education,” Berner said. “There is a lot at play.”

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