Research & Commentary: Benefits of Catholic Schools Show the Need for More Education Choice Options

Published June 25, 2018

A new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argues that Catholic school students exhibit more self-discipline than their peers in both private and public schools, and that this remains true across demographic groups.

In Self-Discipline and Catholic Schools: Evidence from Two National Cohorts, researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara “analyzed two waves of nationally representative data that were collected by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), starting in 1998–99 and 2010–11” to determine whether Catholic school elementary students were more self-disciplined than their peers “as measured by their likelihood of arguing and fighting and ability to control their temper, among other things,” and whether or not this self-discipline was stronger among certain students.

They found Catholic school students are less likely than their peers to argue, fight, act impulsively, or disrupt class than their peers in public or other private schools. Catholic school students are also more likely to control their temper, handle peer pressure, respect the property of their classmates, and be accepting of their classmates’ ideas. Further, these traits manifest themselves “with no systematic differences” across race, sex, socioeconomic, and immigrant status.

The benefits of a Catholic education, to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, go beyond the fostering of self-discipline. Studies of Catholic schools have shown that their students achieve subject mastery at higher levels than their public school peers, are more likely to graduate high school, score higher on college entrance exams, and enroll in college.

The latest of these, a peer-reviewed study by researchers from Furman University, The Ohio State University, and Duke University published in June 2018 in the Journal of Catholic Education concludes students graduating from Catholic high schools had higher college GPAs, were more likely to graduate, and were more likely to graduate with a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) degree than their public school and private school peers. Again, these benefits were “wide-ranging, benefitting many subgroups of students, including non-white, low-income, urban, and low-achieving students.”

The evidence available shows the need to increase the availability of school choice programs so that more families can take advantage of the benefits of Catholic schools should they wish their children to attend them. Unfortunately, 38 states currently have “Blaine Amendments,” nineteenth century, anti-Catholic state constitutional amendments designed to prevent public money from being sent to Catholic schools.

To circumvent these provisions, lawmakers should create and enact education savings account (ESA) programs in their states, which would allow parents to craft a unique educational program for their children, and even allow them to attend private religious schools, without having states directly fund those schools. The overwhelming majority of the available empirical evidence on school choice programs like ESAs makes it clear they offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their widely diverse needs and desires and that they do so at a lower cost while simultaneously benefitting public school students and taxpayers, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices.

The goal of public education in the United States today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents, no matter their income level, to choose which schools their children attend, require every single school to compete for every single student who walks through its doors.

The following documents provide more information on Catholic schools and education choice.

Self-Discipline and Catholic Schools: Evidence from Two National Cohorts
This report from the Fordham Institute finds Catholic school students are less likely to act out or be disruptive than those in other private schools or in public schools. They also exhibit more self-control than those in other private schools or public schools. This remains true regardless of demographics. These results suggest schools that value and focus on self-discipline will likely do a better job of fostering it in children, that other schools have something to learn from Catholic schools when it comes to fostering self-discipline, and that we should not underestimate the power of religion to positively influence a child’s behavior—and shouldn’t restrict families’ choices on the basis of religion.

High School Options and Post-Secondary Student Success: The Catholic School Advantage
This peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Catholic Education finds that students who attended Catholic high schools had higher college GPAs, were more likely to graduate, and were more likely to graduate with a STEM degree. This Catholic school advantage is wide-ranging, benefiting many subgroups of students, including non-white, low-income, urban, and low-achieving students.

Why Nineteenth Century Bans on ‘Sectarian’ Aid Are Facially Unconstitutional: New Evidence on Plain Meaning
This 2018 article from the Federalist Society Review by Rob G. Natelson, a Heartland senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence, argues bans on sectarian aid in state constitutions—often called Blaine Amendments—are likely unconstitutional on their face because they discriminate among religions and present original research on the nineteenth century meaning of the word “sectarian.”

School Choice: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About State Constitutions’ Religion Clauses
This resource, authored by Richard D. Komer of the Institute for Justice, serves as an excellent primer on Blaine amendments, compelled support clauses, and other state constitutional religious clauses.

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

Is Public Schooling a Public Good? An Analysis of School Externalities
This study from Corey A. DeAngelis of the Cato Institute finds public schooling fails both conditions specified in the standard economic definition of a “public good.” It finds that public schooling in the United States has had a net negative externality of at least $1.3 trillion relative to publicly funded universal school vouchers over the lifetime of the current cohort of children in government schools. DeAngelis concludes the federal government should not operate schools at the local, state, or federal levels on the basis of schooling being considered a public good, nor should taxpayers fund government schooling indirectly through the tax system on the basis of schooling being a merit good. He recommends instead that education should be funded directly to students, not to schools, through a universal education savings account program.

2017 Schooling in America: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent Experiences, School Choice, and the Role of the Federal Government
This annual EdChoice survey, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.

Ten State Solutions to Emerging Issues
This Heartland Institute booklet explores solutions to the top public policy issues facing the states in 2018 and beyond in the areas of budget and taxes, education, energy and environment, health care, and constitutional reform. The solutions identified are proven reform ideas that have garnered significant support among the states and with legislators.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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