Funding for school choices based on faith?

THE AMBIGUOUS EMBRACE: GOVERNMENT AND FAITH-BASED SCHOOLS AND SOCIAL AGENCIES By Charles Glenn Princeton University Press 310 pp., $35

When it comes to finding solutions to intractable human problems like addiction, illiteracy, and crime, the successes of faith-based service agencies and schools are winning policymakers' affection. But is it really love if the government squeezes religion right out of such groups by throwing its arms around them?

That's the danger of the "Ambiguous Embrace" described in a forthcoming book by Charles Glenn, a professor at Boston University's School of Education. His exploration of the subject grew out of his involvement in the school-choice movement as a longtime urban-education and civil rights official in Massachusetts.

Detailed cross-cultural comparisons show how most European countries routinely fund faith-based schools without the controversy that arises in America, with its constitutional separation of church and state. Although the US Supreme Court's attitude may be starting to shift, it currently regards funding of religious schools as an unlawful entanglement with religion. (The next opportunity for the court to rule on the issue may be the case of Cleveland's voucher program, which allows children to use state funds for tuition at parochial and other nonpublic schools.)

But it needn't be so, Glenn argues. Indeed, he hopes to dispel the "myth that secularism is a neutral position between belief and unbelief." As long as government doesn't favor one religion's institutions over another's, he says, it can support the diverse contributions they make (which often particularly benefit minorities).

Accountability, he stresses, does not have to come through constrictive bureaucracies. Vouchers, for example, let parents vote with their feet about school quality.

Glenn sees ambiguities on both sides of the embrace. On one side, government tends to pressure an organization to conform to secular standards. A compelling example is that of a Christian ministry focused on curing drug addiction. Despite its great success, state regulators wanted the group to conform to a medical model that contradicted its religious approach. At the same time, faith-based groups often water down their potency, he says - either by adopting secular "professional" norms or simply losing sight of their mission.

For school choice to reach its full potential, "the supply of schools among which to choose [needs to be] opened up more radically...." And doing that will require a much more solid embrace.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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