As Americans celebrate our independence this Fourth of July, we should reflect on the institutions that sustain a free society. Chief among these is an education system that instills the civic knowledge and values necessary for self‐government. While our freedom was won on the battlefield, it must be nourished in the classroom.
The Founders cherished education as the surest means to preserve liberty. James Madison, considered the father of the U.S. Constitution, proclaimed that:
Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. […] What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?
Likewise, Thomas Jefferson declared in a letter to a friend that a proper education was the best safeguard against abuse of power:
I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.
For over a century, the “common school” has been hailed as the cornerstone of democracy. Where else will students learn what it means to be an American citizen but at a government school? What other institution is better suited to inculcate the civic values of our constitutional republic?
Of course, this is an empirically testable question, and it has been tested. A literature review from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice published earlier this year finds that private schools outperform government schools in teaching civics:
Seven empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of these, five find that school choice improves civic values and practices. Two find no visible impact from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative impact on civic values and practices.
The largest and most comprehensive of these studies, Dr. Patrick Wolf’s “Civics Exam,” found that private school students are, on average, more politically tolerant, more knowledgeable about our system of government, more likely to volunteer in their community, and more politically active than their government school peers.
Unfortunately, over the last few decades, civic education in government schools has significantly declined:
When asked whether they are “very confident” that students have mastered important content and skills, only 24% of teachers indicate that their students can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights when they graduate high school, 15% think that their students understand concepts such as federalism and the separation of powers, and 11% believe their pupils understand the basic precepts of the free market.
Indeed, earlier this year, Washington D.C. education officials considered a proposal to drop the requirement that high schools students in our nation’s seat of government learn anything about that government.
On average, schools of choice outperform government schools at instilling the civic knowledge and values necessary to preserve a free society. The Founders’ vision depends on an educated populace, but it does not depend on the government to educate them.