Schools play a key role in democracies, but that does not justify the current arrangement in which tax dollars are allocated exclusively to public schools while parents who choose religious or secular private schools for their children are financially penalized. Indeed, the urgent need to do a better job teaching civics and other democratic values favors school choice.
Many Public Schools Fail to Teach Civics
Many public schools today do a poor job teaching civics and democratic values. According to a 2006 assessment conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 27 percent of fourth-grade students, 30 percent of eighth graders, and 34 percent of 12th graders ranked below “basic” in their civic knowledge and understanding, meaning they were unable to answer correctly even simple questions about the U.S. Constitution and the role of citizens (NAEP 2007). These results were essentially unchanged since the prior assessment in 1998.
Students perform poorly on the NAEP assessments because civics isn’t being taught in the country’s public schools. Writing in 2004, Stephen Macedo observed that “until the 1960s, it was common for high-school students to take as many as three courses in civics, democracy, and government. Today, however, most students take only one government-related course” (Macedo 2004). He also noted that NAEP tests for civics knowledge only every ten years, which “sends the signal that civic education matters very little.”
Government-run schools are unlikely to give parents an affirmative experience with self-government. By taking from them any authority to choose the schools their children attend, and then rejecting their input on curricula, staffing, and other operational matters, government schools are more likely to diminish than promote the civic and democratic impulses of parents. What civics lessons do students learn when they observe their parents being systematically excluded from meaningful participation in their schools?
Democratic Values and Capitalism
Critics of private schools assert there is a fundamental conflict or tension between the promotion of democratic values and reliance on civil institutions such as churches and markets to operate schools. This is surely untrue, since America’s educational system relied on competition, choice, and privately paid tuition for some two centuries before the arrival of the modern public school, and it successfully educated generations of Americans.
Economic historians contend the institutions of capitalism – private property rights, freedom of exchange, and the Rule of Law – are necessary for creating the peace and prosperity that enable democracies to succeed (Pipes 1999; Bethell 1998). The institutions of democracy – open elections, political equality, and majority rule – divide and check political power, an essential condition for the preservation of individual liberty and capitalism (Olson 2000). Historically, capitalism and democracy emerged side by side, each the guarantor of the other. They promote and protect rather than contradict one another.
The claim that private schools cannot prepare citizens for democracy also overlooks an opposite concern: How wise is it to allow a government to control the schooling of its own citizens? Such control undermines the independence of its citizens and weakens the mediating institutions such as the family and voluntary private organizations that help create and protect democracy (Mill 1859, repr. 1947, 108).
Recommended reading: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), The Nation’s Report Card: Civics 2006, U.S. Department of Education, 2008; J.P. Greene, “Civic Values in Public and Private Schools,” in P.E. Peterson and B.C. Hassel, eds., Learning From School Choice, Chapter 4 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998), pp. 83-106.