The Civic Side of School Choice: An Empirical Analysis of Civic Education in Public and Private Schools

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Social scientists have long had an interest in the civic education of adolescents, although research on the subject has waxed and waned over the last three or four decades.1 After a flurry of research in the 1960s and early 1970s, studies of civic education slowed to a trickle, but have picked up again in recent years.2 In the words of one recent review article, "[a]fter decades of neglect, civic education is back on the agenda of political science in the United States."3 These decades of neglect, however, have meant that "the field [of civic education] as a whole provides disappointing theoretical and empirical bases for undertaking the educational reforms that might strengthen the role of schools in the making of citizens."4 At a time when education reform tops policy agendas, it is unfortunate that there is relatively little empirical evidence regarding possible civic consequences of various reform proposals. The relative lack of research on the subject of civic education is particularly lamentable as a national conversation-often, a heated argument-takes place over proposals to provide state-funded vouchers to pay private school tuition (with a few such programs already in existence).

With several voucher programs already in existence, and with the Supreme Court's decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris5-which held that a state funded voucher program in Cleveland passes constitutional muster-it is likely that voucher programs will proliferate. Thus, it has become increasingly important to explore the empirical effects of voucher programs on schools' abilities to provide civic instruction to students.

Given that public spending on elementary and secondary education is at least partly justified as a means to "impart the knowledge and skills of citizenship" and "inculcate a set of civic values,"6 it is imperative to ask how a major reform like the widespread availability of publicly-funded vouchers will affect those aims. Some opponents of vouchers raise alarms that private schools do not prepare their students for engagement in a pluralist democracy, and that school vouchers will therefore have adverse consequences for the civic development of those who move from public to private schools.7 For example, in his dissent in Zelman, Justice Stevens articulated these concerns by predicting that statefunded vouchers for private, specifically religious, schools will "weaken the foundation of our democracy."8 To date, however, little empirical evidence exists to test whether public and private schools differ in the civic education they provide their students. As Macedo laments: "The comparative success of different types of schools at teaching civic virtues is not much studied."9 This paper seeks to fill that void by comparing the civic attitudes and behavior of students in private and public schools, using data from a large national telephone survey of parents and their adolescent children.

Part II draws upon previous literature to define the specific purposes of civic education and to show how civic instruction contributes to civic involvement. Specifically, a civic education facilitates future participation in political activity by cultivating community service, civic skills, political knowledge, and political tolerance. Conventional wisdom advocates public schooling as a means of creating an informed and engaged electorate, and there is concern among scholars that private schooling will stray from the civic dimension of education and, instead, indoctrinate children to particular, less than democratic, ideals. Other scholars, however, argue that private schools foster civic values by cultivating communities where people actively participate in an ideal democracy.

Part III explores test results indicating that private schooling has either a neutral or positive impact on civic values. Using data from a large national survey of parents and adolescent children, this Part analyzes the civic effects-in particular, the effects of education on community service, civic skills, political knowledge, and political tolerance-of public versus private schooling. …