Public Education in the United States – and Everywhere Else

On May 4th, the American Federation for Children will host a conversation entitled, “What Can America Learn from School Choice Globally?” This panel discussion will draw upon the expertise of education policymakers who operate in quite different contexts – from Sweden and France to England and Canada. Such conversations immediately make clear that the United States is an outlier among democracies for not funding diverse schools as a matter of principle.

When Americans talk about public education, we usually mean a district school.

When families in Switzerland, Australia, Hong Kong, and Ireland, talk about public education, they usually mean something else entirely. They envision a wide variety of schools that are funded and regulated, but not necessarily operated, by the State.

In the Netherlands, public education means 36 different kinds of schools; Denmark covers 85% of the costs of non-public schools; Alberta, Canada, even funds home schooling. When we look around the world, we find that the majority of democracies have such pluralistic school systems. Policymakers in such systems don’t necessarily talk about “school choice.” Rather, they assume that providing a mosaic of educational options is built into the design.

Some such systems were set up long ago (in England, since 1834); others developed recently (Sweden, in 1992). But whether two hundred or only twenty years old, most democratic systems support and honor distinctive schools, whether Islamic, Jewish, secular, or Montessori.

The United States used to fund diverse schools, too, until the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant nativism of the late-19thcentury pushed back against this pluralism and put “uniform” school systems in their place. The uniform structure for public education became the norm and still controls our political debates. Charters, tax credits, vouchers, and ESAs, have to argue for legitimacy over and against the district school. Research is used to diminish or elevate entire school sectors, and advocates of all stripes participate in zero-sum games: private-school-scholarship groups demean district schools, and district-school champions undermine charters and education tax credits.

Pluralism offers a better way to think about, talk about, and enact, public education. This isn’t about “privatization,” nor is it about giving up on the common good. When done well, this model creates the conditions for collaboration, high performance, and social cohesion.

This is not to say that school systems in Germany, Australia, or Hyderabad, India, are flawless; they are not. The AFC panel on May 4th will explore both positive aspects and also current difficulties that arise in such school systems around the world.