Private-school choice upholds our civic values
May 2, 2022
Byron Schlomach, Ph.D.
Public education has an aura or mystique about it for many people. The vast majority of Americans received their education in public schools. We remember the yearly shopping trips for pencils, crayons, writing tablets, safety scissors, and then pens and ruled notebooks, as well as new clothes. We fondly recall pep rallies, school plays, bands, football and basketball games, and other events like the prom. We remember teachers, some of them quite special to us. Most of all, we remember friends, some of them lifelong, and shared experiences. Public schools have shaped who we are and have formed the foundation of knowledge that has made our lives what they are.
Thus, it’s not surprising that many people, especially those who work in public schools, regard school choice proposals, such as charter schools and vouchers, to be some sort of conspiracy against the American way of life. After all, it was in the public schools that we were socialized, we were taught American history, we learned respect for authority, and we learned how to work with and cooperate with others. School choice, in the minds of some, would tear all this down.
Despite these romanticized memories and judging by history, a government-run system of schools is not necessary to form a social glue to develop and ultimately hold together the United States. Few realize that if you go back to the earliest days of European settlement in what is now the United States, public education (government-run and -funded schools) is a recent development. A high literacy rate was achieved and the values of the American Revolution were fomented without a public education system. The United States developed during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries—expanding, fighting wars (including a civil war), and growing into a great power—without a public education system like we have today. It was only in the middle of the 19th century that Horace Mann developed a mission to emulate the Prussian education system and the first state public education systems were begun. (And even then, Mann had his own children homeschooled.)
In response to school choice critics’ claims that school choice would undermine civic values, various studies have been conducted to see how the civic values and practices of individuals who choose alternatives to traditional public schools are impacted. Civic values include tolerance for the rights of others, civic knowledge, skills and participation, voting behavior, volunteerism, and patriotism.
None of the eleven high-quality studies looking at various civic values show that school choice results in negative impacts. Six, a bare majority, indicate positive impacts on civic values from school choice. The other five show neutral impacts; that is, school choice didn’t impact the issues researched one way or the other. These are studies identified by EdChoice, a school choice advocacy organization that searches for and posts all high-quality school choice research, regardless of the results.
Milwaukee’s school choice program, being the oldest, is also the most studied and provides several examples of civic-values studies. One study of former Milwaukee school-choice participants showed large reductions in drug-related and property-crime convictions as well as a reduction in paternity suits compared to public school counterparts. In a separate study, the same researchers looking at voting participation found no impact related to school choice. A different study of Milwaukee school-choice participants indicated increased political activity on the part of their parents. Another study of Milwaukee showed positive results in most aspects of civic values and participation on the part of participants.
Civic-values studies have been conducted looking at programs not only in Milwaukee but also in New York, Ohio, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and the nation as a whole. Again, none show negative impacts on civic values and practices of individuals or families who chose to attend private schools. Given that most of the studies show positive impacts, the evidence calls into question whether public schools are doing a particularly good job inculcating the values necessary for American citizens to lead their best lives and to carry on the American way of life.
Once again, competition with minimal interference from governments can help us to find the right way to instill the right values in our children. This cannot be done in the context of a monopolistic education system where the same curriculum and methods are imposed on everyone at the same time. Instead, by allowing for other curricula and methods, it is possible for the best to rise to the top to be emulated by everyone else, adjusting more precisely to regional and even individual differences. With school choice, we are all likely to benefit from its impact on our children’s values and our society.