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Does school choice create more tolerant, engaged citizens?

Studies show school choice programs generally have a positive effect on a student’s character. Students in school choice programs are more tolerant than their public school peers, and they are more likely to vote, volunteer and engage in other civic activities.

To be exact: six of the available studies found school choice had a positive effect; five found no effect; none found a negative effect.

It’s important to note that those studies don’t compare all of the students in public schools to all of the students in private schools. They compare two groups of students whose families are demographically, academically and socioeconomically similar with one factor setting them apart from each other: school choice. How?

Some of the studies were conducted using a random-assignment method. So all of the kids being compared were applicants of a school choice program. Some got a voucher, some didn’t, based on a random selection or lottery process. The other studies were conducted using a matched method, where a random sample of voucher students was compared to a sample of area public school students of the same demographic, socioeconomic and academic proportions as the voucher student sample.

With both methods, researchers were able to more effectively rule out any potentially skewed factors, such as parents’ affluence or level of involvement.

One random-assignment study measured political tolerance by asking students to identify their least-liked group—such as the KKK, pro-life/choice supporters, people of different religions—and then asking them if they thought members of that group should be permitted to engage in civic activities, such as giving a speech or running for office. Voucher students were more likely to display political tolerance.

Another study looked at the effect of school choice on families rather than just students. It found that, because they got a voucher, parents “were more likely to be actively involved in their children’s schools, parent-teacher organizations and “other education groups” than parents of students at traditional district schools with a similar demographic profile. The study also found that parents empowered by choice became “more likely to see a connection between education and the civic institutions of society, to say that their children were learning how government works, and to be involved themselves in civic activities.”

The Founding Fathers’ vision of a free and democratic nation depends on having educated citizens, but that vision never required we depend only on government-run schools to educate them. Indeed, as Neal McCluskey wrote, “the only system of education that can effectively support a free society is one that is itself grounded in freedom.”

To dive deeper into the complexities of school choice research, flip through this slide show.

For a fully cited list of studies, visit our school choice research bibliography page.