HOW SHOULD a liberal democratic state respond to parents who want their children to attend a religious school, preferably at public expense? What principles should govern public regulation and funding of religious schools? One cannot adequately answer these questions without inquiring into the proper goals of liberal education policy and, more generally, into the principles that underlie liberal democracy: in other words, to settle these important practical policy questions we must first engage in normative political philosophy. When the state makes education policy, what are its responsibilities to parents, children, religious communities, and the citizenry at large? What values may reasonably be invoked to justify and guide public policy in a pluralist state where few if any values are universally accepted among citizens? What are the limits of the state's legitimate authority over children's education? In the pages that follow, I seek both to identify the legitimate and proper goals of public education policy in liberal democratic states and to explore the implications of these goals for arguments about public funding and regulation of religious schools.
In most liberal democratic societies today, a significant minority of parents desire a religious school education for their children. But different states respond in very different ways to these desires. In the Netherlands, the state undertakes to provide a publicly funded school affiliated with almost any religious tradition as long as local parents support the project in sufficient numbers to make it economically and educationally viable. Families in Great Britain are increasingly likely to be able to access free education with their preferred religious orientation as the government continues its controversial policy of expanding both the number and the range of faith schools funded by the public purse. Since the Islamia Primary School opened in London in 1998, several Muslim schools have joined the list of Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Jewish, and Sikh schools that are funded by the British state. In France, all publicly managed schools are secular, but nonetheless, large amounts of public money flow to privately managed religious, predominantly Catholic, schools. In the United States, the established principle has long been that children go to religious schools only if their family (or some other private body) is willing and able to pay, but there is a powerful movement in favor of “voucher” schemes that would enable parents to send their children to private religious schools