Most conversations, especially on Capitol Hill, about public versus private education focus, unfortunately, on the relative merits of the two systems in terms of test scores and job preparation, according to a new joint study by the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
Not that doing well on the SAT or getting a leg-up on the latest technologies and procedures in the industry of your choice are bad things, but the authors of the study point to other factors that ought to be considered in the comparison because they are at least important, if not more so, in assessing the comparative societal value of public and private schools.
“For instance, there is the opportunity to be formed into a woman or man of good character, a good citizen, or a good partner and parent. The effects of schooling extend to these other important domains of life,” the study said.
“Civic and character formation are key educational priorities, not only for parents who send their children to religious private schools but also for the majority of Americans.
“According to the 2019 PDK Poll of the American public’s views on schools, nearly three-quarters of adults asserted that civics courses should be required for all students. The 2015 Education Next Poll found that an overwhelming majority of the American public agreed that character education should be emphasized ‘a lot’ in schools.
“We suspect that parents are also concerned about how well schools form their sons and daughters for a future family life. That is, parents hope that schools maximize their children’s chances of forming a strong family later in life and minimize their chances of forming their own family before they are married or ready to be a parent.”
Put another way, comparisons of public and private education should include character considerations about the kind of citizen they tend to produce, both as a public participant and as a private family member.
The IFS/AEI study points to compelling evidence that private, especially Christian, schools do a much better job on these character factors than secular public schools.
“One of the report’s most striking findings involves the powerful effects of religious schooling on students from lower-income backgrounds,” IFS explains in an October 1 review of the report by Allyasse ElHagge. “The authors explain, ‘religious schools, both Catholic and Protestant, have comparatively more positive influences on family stability for students who grew up in financially difficult circumstances.’”
As seen in the accompanying chart, fully 72 percent of children who came from financially unstable family backgrounds and attended Protestant private schools go on to stable marriages as adults. That compares to 53 percent of those in Catholic private schools and 41 percent in public schools.
A similar pattern is seen concerning divorce in adult life, with only 22 percent of those who came from financially unstable backgrounds and attended Protestant private schools reported have experienced divorce as adults, compared to 46 percent of those in public schools. The figure for Catholic school graduates is 36 percent.
The results are just as dramatic concerning having out-of-wedlock children as adults. For adults who attended private Protestant schools as children, only six percent reported having an illegitimate child, compared to 15 percent for Catholics and 28 percent for public school graduates.
These data are significant for anybody on Capitol Hill or the executive branch in a position to influence federal policy on education aid and standards.
As a summary of the study put it:
“Insofar as they constitute moral communities, all schools do their part to put kids on one kind of civic and family path or another, whether they intend to do so or not. They inculcate students to abide by specific values, norms, practices, and habits as well as situate them within specific peer influences and social networks.
“In the end, schools form each of their students into a particular kind of person—with one kind of character or another. Different types of schooling influence a variety of character-related outcomes, including the odds that students become enmeshed in the criminal justice system, their level of civic engagement, and the moral obligations they feel towards their neighbors.”