Love Your Neighbor: Who Teaches it Best?

It's almost Valentine's Day, so let's talk about loving each other. This year, movies like Wonder highlighted the problem, and celebrities discussed it on social media. Conversations about it were everywhere. Bullying was a major theme in education this year; a sad reality when one of the original intentions for a common school system was teaching civic duty and good citizenship. But when kids throw rocks at a child with a genetic condition, we must ask ourselves whether schools are still in the practice of enhancing civic values.

Or maybe a better question is do we really believe that only state schools can teach tolerance? It sure seems like Hogwarts is doing a good job these days. But all jokes aside, what does research tell us about a uniform-school system delivered by the state vs. other non-traditional, more distinctive schools?

Erika Christakis argues in the Atlantic that the role of public education is teaching personal achievement and civic duty but notes, “Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole.”

But is that true? Do opportunities that are centered around "students first" or parent choice produce less tolerant and more self-centered citizens? Does sending children to schools not funded by the state mean those kids are not learning to be good citizens? Research shows the answer is NO. Parents do not have to send kids to public school to teach them to be good citizens. Children are learning civic duty and tolerance in non-state schools as well. And right now, research shows private institutions are scoring higher in teaching tolerance according to the School Bullying Report Card.

Ashley Berner, Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University and deputy director of its Institute for Education Policy describes the problem with believing “that only state schools can create good citizens” in her book. She explains,“Domestic and international research suggest that schools with positive, distinctive cultures, whether religious, philosophical, or pedagogical, have a greater chance of cultivating civic behaviors and sensibilities.” Need more evidence? This article summarizes several studies on education options and civic outcomes.

It’s important to say that public school teachers are not the problem. Cultural divisions, prejudices, and bullying behaviors come into schools from the broader society. Non-traditional-public-schools have more at stake in promoting a tolerant environment. For example, if a charter school or a private school ignores a bully in a class, they are likely to lose the students being bullied. Truancy laws can’t be used to keep children coming to a school with an unpleasant culture. Building civic virtues builds enrollment.

Parents who choose non-district schools don’t threaten society’s civic virtue, and fortunately, the virtues that children learn while they are in school are then carried into the broader community where they live and play (where we actually spend 97% of our lives). This Valentine’s Day, let’s love our neighborhoods and our neighbors. Let’s tolerate their school choices, and celebrate our schools’ role in promoting a sense of community.


Image via Paul Sableman