Civic Duty, a Positive Outcome

Today is Election Day, and we’re talking about civic duty. If you haven’t already voted, finish reading and rush out to the polls. Being “builders of citizens,” as we discussed last week, has been the goal of traditional public school from the beginning. But school choice programs may challenge this role, begging the question, “Can private schools provide a civic education of equal quality?”

Particularly in the aftermath of moments like the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, there are lots of swirling questions about how we teach future generations to engage with democracy and with ideas they may not agree with. Public school advocates claim that choice may lead to greater educational inequalities and higher levels of political intolerance, particularly along socio-economic lines. They argue even if low-income families are given private school scholarships, parents will sort their children along ideological lines.

Likewise, choice advocates seem to have a counter-argument for every criticism. As described in a recent study by Furman University: “Where the proponents of public schools see the potential for an ethnically integrated common school, choice advocates see public schools segregated by their politically constructed districts. Where proponents of public schools see a democratic institution developing curricula and policy, choice advocates see a bureaucracy that shuns change and is unresponsive to parents.”

To better understand this question about civic duty and tolerance, Dr. David Fleming and his students at Furman University used survey data from the Milwaukee voucher program to investigate the relative benefits in civic outcomes of attending a voucher-funded private school vs. a public school. Here’s what they found out:

Voucher-funded students were:

  • more likely to be politically tolerant than students who did not receive a voucher.

  • more likely to say that they will vote in the future, while also demonstrating higher levels of civic skills that would also indicate high levels of future political participation.

  • more likely than their counterparts in public schools to volunteer and also were more likely to place greater importance on volunteering.

  • as likely to volunteer in the future.

Researchers also used an important control in their findings - PARENTS. Generally, the positive effects of vouchers were not driven by observed parental factors (like socioeconomic characteristics and levels of education). However, it was clear from the surveys that students do model parental behaviors beyond their schooling.

“We saw that parents who participated more and had higher levels of education were more likely to have children that demonstrated more positive outcomes than parents who were less involved and less educated. Students are more likely to say they will vote if their parents discuss politics more often, and students are more likely to volunteer if their parents volunteer at their school.”

Looking at this data on parents, it is clear that what happens outside the home can be as or maybe even more powerful than a school environment. Still, overall, the researchers argued that there is no evidence that private school scholarships (like those awarded in the Milwaukee Voucher Program) promote intolerance or diminish citizenship. In fact, they found the opposite:

“Our results indicate that students in private schools exhibit higher levels of tolerance and participation than do public school students. Given the important role of schools in cultivating citizenship, we hope there will be a renewed interest by policymakers, interest groups, researchers, and the public on the effect of school reforms on political tolerance and civic engagement.”

Happy voting, and keep in mind that parental school choice is not an enemy of social civility; it is a potential powerful partner in building the citizens of tomorrow.