Commentary

Private Schools Promote Public Spirit

By Marie Gryphon
This article appeared in the Charlotte Post on May 30, 2002.

Hoping to parlay America’s recent surge of patriotism into a permanent cultural sea change, President Bush recently announced a new federal program to boost civics education among American school children. A demonstrated devotee of ambitious federal cures for all that ails local schools, the President now plans to create federal guidelines to teach love of country, tolerance and democracy. But research shows that such values are more effectively promoted through state programs that improve access to private schools.

Detractors often claim that private schools isolate and “Balkanize” school children, promoting segregation, intolerance, and non-participation in larger social and political processes. They could not be more wrong. The evidence shows that, in fact, private school children are more likely to demonstrate basic knowledge of American history and government, more likely to learn in racially integrated classrooms, and more likely to volunteer their time for charitable causes.

First and most simply, private schools that effectively teach reading and math are unsurprisingly more effective in teaching American history and government. To the extent that civic values spring from civics education, it is only logical that effective teaching institutions would teach civics effectively.

Commentators have expressed great despair at students’ widespread ignorance of basic American history demonstrated by recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP test. Less well reported was the fact that private school students outperformed their public school counterparts by a wide margin in history. Catholic schools, with the highest proportion of low-income private school attendees, performed best of all, demonstrating that good instruction, not socio-economic background, is key to a good education in American history and government.

More surprising to some, private school students are more likely than public school students to learn with a racially mixed class group. It has long been an article of faith among school choice opponents that public schools are more “diverse,” and accordingly better prepare students for interaction with Americans of different backgrounds. Several studies, including economist Jay P. Greene’s recent work, show that the opposite is true.

While the American public schools taken as a whole have a larger proportion of minority students than the private schools, individual schools and classrooms are more likely to be segregated in public institutions. Private institutions are more likely to have classrooms that resemble the nation in terms of ethnic diversity.

Greene found that more than half of all public school 12th graders are in “segregated” classrooms, defined as classrooms that are either less than 10 percent or more than 90 percent minority. By contrast, only two in five private school seniors were in similarly non-diverse classrooms. On the flip side, only 18 percent of public school classrooms were within 10 percent of the national average in terms of racial mix, while more than double that proportion of private school students learned in these “representative” classes.

In addition to more diverse classroom environments, private school students report fewer examples of racial conflict and tension and more cross-racial friendships, indicating a higher level of social tolerance at private schools.

Finally, far from eschewing participation in the larger community, private school children are more likely to volunteer their time to community organizations. Federal survey results show that almost two-thirds of private school students had engaged in unpaid volunteer activities in the previous two years, compared with fewer than half of public school students – a result that holds up when controlled for socioeconomic factors.

The “civic values” imbued by private schools do not disappear at the schoolhouse door. Private school alumni are more likely to vote, participate in community organizations, and express social and political tolerance for traditionally disfavored groups. Importantly, these results also apply even when controlled for factors such as race and income.

In short, private schools are likely to improve civics education and community spirit for just about any group with access to them. This in itself is a powerful argument for expanding nascent school choice programs in cities such as Milwaukee and Cleveland, and duplicating them elsewhere. The president should not attempt to regulate public spiritedness. Instead, he should use the bully pulpit to promote choices and opportunities for all American children.

Marie E. Gryphon is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.