Would You Rather Have Academic or Religious Instruction? Yes, Please.

Do parents have to choose between academic and religious instruction? And do parents actually prioritize religious instruction at the expense of academic rigor when choosing a school? Or do they want both?

In our new study, recently published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, we sought to address these questions by employing a “conjoint experiment” (more on what that means in a moment) to understand how specific factors such as spiritual formation affected parents’ choices while they considered other factors such as academic quality.

Our work confirms what prior research has documented—that parents who prefer a particular moral framework in which to educate their children do not do so at the expense of a preference for academic quality.

Furthermore, it provides a hint as to the reason for the recent and rapid rise of choice across many states and strengthens the case that voluntary civic associations organized around the convictions of sincerely held beliefs will not undermine our education system. Parents want their children to have both the human capital and strength of character necessary for their flourishing. Indeed, as a recent meta-analysis of the civic outcomes of private schools bears out, empowering families to organize teleologically distinct schools can strengthen rather than divide our civil society.

We are not the first researchers to tackle these questions.

One literature review of parental reasons for exercising school choice by Heidi Holmes Erickson concluded that academics was invariably a strong consideration, though not always a determining factor. Oftentimes, parents of children in faith-based schools cite religious or moral instruction as the top reason, as EdChoice’s Schooling in America Survey regularly bears out.

The challenge with these studies is that they cannot parse out the strength of parents’ commitment to spiritual formation from other factors that may influence their choice. Parents might claim that academic rigor is important when asked. Then, when separately asked about religious instruction, they might also say that it is important. But would their responses change if we asked them to consider simultaneously the quality of academic and religious instruction?

That is where conjoint experiments come in.

We surveyed parents of children enrolled in private Christian schools about the school characteristics they prefer. They considered four aspects of a school: the quality of spiritual formation, academics, and extracurricular offerings (whether better, worse, or the same as their current school), as well as the level of tuition (whether 10% more, 10% less, or the same as their current school). Parents were presented with sets of three hypothetical schools with randomly assigned characteristics and asked to choose their favored school within each set.

We found that parents were most sensitive to the quality of spiritual formation offered by schools. They were 8 percentage points more likely to prefer a school where the quality of spiritual formation was better than the quality at their current school and 32 percentage points less likely to prefer a school where the quality of spiritual formation was worse than the quality at the current school. Parents considered academic quality nearly as strongly, which produced effect sizes nearly 90% in magnitude relative to quality of spiritual formation. Tuition and extracurricular opportunities were distal secondary concerns, producing effect sizes about a third of the size of the quality of academics or spiritual formation.

It is also worth noting that our results revealed a generally high level of parental satisfaction with their current school of choice. Parents were much less likely to choose a school they deemed worse than their current school, but they weren’t much more likely to choose a school they deemed better than their current school. They also were much less willing to choose a school with higher tuition than to choose a school with lower tuition.

Note. Asterisks indicate statistical significance, * p < 0.001.

Accountability hawks have long contended that strict regulations of private schools, particularly faith-based private schools, are necessary to ensure parents choose schools of sufficient academic quality. Implicit in these claims are the assumptions that faith and academics are at odds with each other, that parents cannot be trusted to choose good schools for their children, and that regulations can be effective at guaranteeing academic quality.

The popular media’s coverage of Hasidic Jewish private schools in New York provides an instructive example. According to the New York Times, these schools provide an education rich in “Jewish law, prayer and tradition” but with “little English and math, and virtually no science or history.” The state department of education has repeatedly tried to pass regulations seemingly intended to target only the yeshivas by imposing a curricular regime that would substantially hamper the Jewish community’s preservation of their culture and history.

But as we demonstrate, the choice between academic instruction and religious instruction is a false dichotomy. School choice programs can help provide a way for parents who desire both to access schools committed to providing both for their children.