Private Schools Better Promote Civic Values

Published November 1, 1998

“Do you think private or church-related schools that accept government tuition payments should or should not be required to accept students from a wider range of backgrounds and academic ability than is now generally the case?”
Question asked in the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll

The 30th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll assumes what many people imagine to be true of private schools–that, unlike public schools, they are elite and separatist institutions populated by predominantly white students.

A common objection to taxpayer funded school choice programs is that–whatever other merits they might have–such programs would undermine civic values by allowing more children to choose education in environments that do not advance racial integration, tolerance, and commitment to community.

But a new study of US Department of Education data shows that private schools are not what most people imagine them to be. In fact, private schools are more racially integrated than public schools, and they do a better job promoting racial tolerance and fostering public spiritedness.

“While the surveys did not focus on questions of civic values, information was collected that showed how wrong common impressions of values in public and private schools really are,” said Jay P. Greene, assistant professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. Greene’s findings are reported in “Civic Values in Public and Private Schools,” one chapter in a new book from the Brookings Institution, Learning from School Choice. Greene evaluated data from the Department of Education’s 1992 National Education Longitudinal Study, which is based on a sample of twelfth-grade students, their teachers, parents, and school administrators.

Racial Integration

Private schools are more integrated than public schools. While 41 percent of private school students are in segregated classrooms–those with more than 90 percent or less than 10 percent minority students–over half (55 percent) of public school students are in such classrooms.

Also, if a well-integrated classroom is defined as one that has within 10 percent of the national average of minority students in the public schools (26 percent), then 37 percent of private school students are in well-integrated classrooms, compared to only 18 percent of public school students.

Racial Tolerance

Private schools produce more racial tolerance than do public schools. When asked whether students at their schools made friends with students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds, 31 percent of respondents at private schools strongly agreed. Only 18 percent of public school students strongly agreed with that statement.

When asked about fights between racial groups at their school, 64 percent of private schools students strongly disagreed that such fights occur often in their school, while only 29 percent of public school students strongly disagreed. Responses from teachers and school administrators at both public and private schools support the conclusion that private schools produce more positive race relations.


Compared to students in public schools, students in private schools are more likely to report that it is important to help others in the community and that it is very important to volunteer. Private schools students are more likely to volunteer often and to report that they have actually volunteered in the past two years.

Teaching Democratic Values

Greene notes that the people who actually run the schools agree that private schools offer an education in democratic values superior to that provided in public schools. For example, when asked to rate how well their schools promoted certain goals compared to other schools, 29 percent of administrators in private schools rated their schools as outstanding in promoting citizenship, compared to only 17 percent of public school administrators.

Similarly, 26 percent of private school administrators rated their schools as outstanding in promoting awareness of contemporary and social issues, compared to only 17 percent of public school administrators. Most striking, nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of private school administrators rated their school outstanding in teaching values and morals, compared to only 11 percent of public school administrators.

“Advancing public goals, like integration, tolerance, and a commitment to community, does not require the direct operation of schools by the government,” concludes Greene. “In fact, the evidence suggests that private individuals, left to their own devices, are more successful at achieving these public goals than is the government.”