Choice Schools Teach Civic Values Better than Traditional Public Schools

Published September 1, 2007

Many Americans believe public schooling is essential not only for teaching core subjects such as reading and math, but also for imparting civic values such as patriotism and respect for the rights of others. According to a recent report, that belief is unfounded.

In the Summer 2007 issue of the journal Education Next, University of Arkansas professor Patrick J. Wolf analyzed 21 studies comparing how effectively traditional public schools and schools of choice inculcate civic values and knowledge.

Wolf found private and charter schools more effectively impart civic knowledge and values than traditional public schools, with the latter coming out ahead only in non-rigorous assessments of patriotism. In all other areas, most studies showed either no difference or an advantage for schools of choice.

At a minimum, to be included in Wolf’s analysis, studies had to be quantitative and adjust for “observable” differences in student populations. To classify as “rigorous,” studies also had to adjust for “selection bias,” or people’s tendency to sort themselves into schools according to unobservable factors.

Consistent Results

In addition to conducting the analysis using all schools of choice, Wolf repeated it without including Roman Catholic institutions.

“Several prominent scholars have claimed that Catholic schooling may be largely responsible for the generally positive school choice effects on civic values,” Wolf explained.

After removing Catholic schools, Wolf found schools of choice did not do as well on political tolerance and voluntarism as when they were included, but a strong choice advantage remained.

Wolf noted several possible explanations for the choice advantage, including that chosen schools might have stronger communities than traditional public schools, and that private school teachers might be freer to teach values than their public school counterparts. The causal factors have yet to be studied.

“No direct evidence yet exists regarding the specific conditions or practices of choice schools relative to traditional public schools that would explain this pattern of results,” Wolf wrote.

Myth Dispelled

Dan Lips, an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a free-market research group in Washington, DC, said the findings undermine the notion that public schools are essential to democracy and provide another reason policymakers should support school choice.

“Dispelling this myth that the current public school system is the bedrock of our democracy should help more policymakers recognize why they should support expanding parental choice,” Lips said.

Ed Schwartz, president of the Philadelphia-based Institute for the Study of Civic Values, was not as positive, asserting the report set up a “straw man.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone argue that a non-public school couldn’t teach democratic values,” Schwartz said. He added, though, that “the arena for change is the public school system.”

Regardless of how people use his report, Wolf said he plans to continue his civic values research.

“The really interesting question is the why and how,” Wolf said. “We can only speculate about that at this point, but I’m hoping eventually to be able to identify civic training best practices that schools of choice are using to enhance the citizenship training of their students.”

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

For more information …

“Schools of Choice Boost Civic Values,” by Patrick Wolf, Education Next, May 14, 2007: