Schools Between State and Civil Society in Germany and the United
States: A Historical Perspective
At the end of the 20th century, school choice has become a hotly debated subject in both Germany and the United States. The term refers to the efforts of public officials, educators, intellectuals, parents, and other laypersons and laywomen to create for children freely available alternatives to the education provided in public or officially sanctioned private schools. Spurred on by parental dissatisfaction with government- sponsored public schools, the school choice movement today is part of the present rediscovery of civil society as a driving force of public policy. As an educational initiative it is linked to German Reformpädagogik and American progressive education of the 1920s. Like them, it is the dialectical counterpart to monopolistic school practices and acts like the yin to the yang of our public common schools. One would not exist without the other. Fearing that the individuality of children was threatened by the impersonality and overpowering force of the public school system and greatly dissatisfied with the results of public schooling, parents, educators, and others created school communities of their own removed from the direct and complete supervision of government. As constituent parts of civil society, many of these communities flourished. Others were and are threatened by politically and ideologically motivated groups and individuals. When a political party writes school choice upon its banner and the term becomes a fashionable cause of rational-choice philosophers or free market economists, school choice proponents find themselves hard pressed to maintain their concern for educational reform. They are caught between the pressures of public school advocates and radical libertarians, between the demands of government on the one hand and the siren song of markets on the other.