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What effect does school choice have on civic values?

Research shows private schools and school choice programs promote and advance good citizenship and democratic values. Students at private schools tend to be more tolerant of the rights of others, more likely to vote, and more likely to volunteer than students at public schools.

Private schools benefit from being legally permitted to have a point of view, which allows their educators to handle controversial topics and issues in a straightforward manner. That pedagogical flexibility may help convey a tangible sense of what tolerance and civic duty require in practice.

MYTH: Private schools are hostile to tolerance and democratic values.

Many people say private schools, especially those operated by religious groups, fail to teach values like tolerance for others or the importance of civic duties. Opponents of school choice claim voucher programs therefore undermine the values of a democratic society and could even threaten social stability. One critic even told a state legislature that “voucher programs could end up resembling the ethnic cleansing…in Kosovo.”1

Public schools, on the other hand, are perceived as institutions where children learn good civic values. Because public schools are government-run, many people assume they must be more devoted to teaching the values of the community. As one social theorist put it, “Public schools are not merely schools for the public, but schools of publicness: institutions where we learn what it means to be a public.”2

Often, public schools are described as the “foundation of democracy,” even though there were no public schools until the 19th century.

FACT: Private schools do a better job of instilling civic values.

In reality, students at private schools are statistically more tolerant of the rights of others, more likely to vote, and more likely to volunteer than students at public schools. There are several possible reasons why private schools may be better at promoting democratic values. Research shows private schools are simply better at teaching students than public schools; the same qualities that make them better at teaching subjects like math also could make them better at teaching values like tolerance.3

These schools also may provide a cultural base for students to develop and embrace their personal identities. Studies have shown that individuals who are secure with their cultural identities are more likely to tolerate those who belong to other cultures.4

Private schools also benefit from being legally permitted to have a point of view on controversial subjects, which isn’t permitted in public schools. This allows private schools to handle controversial issues in a more straightforward manner, and may help convey a tangible sense of what tolerance and civic duty require in practice. Although it may seem counterintuitive that private schools would provide stronger democratic values, the empirical evidence supports the conclusion that vouchers would benefit the teaching of civic values to America’s youth.

EVIDENCE: Research shows private school students are more tolerant and have a larger sense of civic duty.

Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas conducted a systematic review of all empirical studies comparing civic values in public and private schools. Among 23 findings based on random assignment (using lotteries to admit applicants to voucher programs) or other highly rigorous methods, Wolf reported that 12 studies found better civic values in private schools, 10 found no visible difference, and only one found better civic values in public schools. Among 36 other more basic findings, Wolf reported that 21 private schools had better civic values, 13 were neutral, and two found better values in public schools.5

The most frequently studied issue was social tolerance; students were asked to identify their “most disliked” group and then asked whether members of that group should be allowed to hold public rallies, have books in the library sympathetic to their views, etc. Wolf reported that among 21 analyses of the effects of private schooling on tolerance, 11 showed benefits to private education, nine were inconclusive, and one showed benefits to public schools.

Regarding political participation, Wolf identified six findings, five of which found a significant increase in political activity as a result of private schooling, whereas the other study was inconclusive. Wolf also reports on 14 analyses of volunteerism between public and private schools. Eight of these showed benefits from private schools, five showed no visible effect, and one found a benefit from public schools. A similar pattern emerges across findings on other subjects.

Wolf concluded:

“At a minimum, the results of the empirical studies fail to confirm the fears of many opponents of choice who claim that private schooling inherently and inevitably undermines the fostering of civic values in a democracy. The statistical record thus far suggests that private schooling and school choice rarely harms and often enhances the realization of the civic values that are central to a well-functioning democracy. This seems to be the case particularly among ethnic minorities (such as Latinos), in places with great ethnic diversity (such as New York City and Texas), and when Catholic schools are the schools of choice. Choice programs targeted to such constituencies seem to hold the greatest promise of enhancing the civic values of the next generation of American citizens.”

David Fleming of Furman University conducted two empirical studies on families using Milwaukee vouchers and found that voucher parents were more likely than public school parents to be actively involved in their children’s schools, parent-teacher organizations, and other education groups.6 He also found these parents were more likely to be involved in civic activities, see a connection between education and the civic institutions of society, and say their children were learning how government works.7

Fleming also, along with William Mitchell and Michael McNally, examined the results of a 2008–09 Milwaukee student survey for those in grades 4–10. They found that, compared to their public school counterparts, vouchers students: were more likely to be politically tolerant; were more likely to say that they will vote in the future, while also demonstrating higher levels of civic skills that would also indicate high levels of future political participation; volunteered more; and were more likely to place greater importance on volunteering.8


Studies Comparing Civic Values in Public and Private Schools

Studies Finding a Private School Advantage
Studies Finding No Difference
Studies Finding a Public School Advantage
Political Knowledge
Political Participation


Empirical Studies Analyzing Civic Values

Studies Finding Better Civic Values in Private Schools and Voucher Programs
Studies Finding No Visible Difference
Studies Finding Better Civic Values in Public Schools
HIgh Quality Studies
All Empirical Studies



1. David Berliner, speech before the New Mexico legislature, as quoted in Educational Intelligence Agency communiqué, May 10, 1999.

2. Benjamin R. Barber, “Education for Democracy,” The Good Society 7, no. 2 (Spring 1997), p.1.

3. See Greg Forster, A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 2013),–The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Choice.aspx for more information.

4. John L. Sullivan, James Pierson, and George E. Marcus, Political Tolerance and American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

5. Patrick Wolf, “Civics Exam: Schools of Choice Boost Civic Values,” Education Next 7, no. 3 (Summer 2007), pp. 67-72.

6. David Fleming, “Choice, Voice & Exit: School Vouchers in Milwaukee” (paper presented at the annual national conference for the American Political Science Association, Sept. 1-4, 2011).

7. Fleming, “Privatization, Political Learning, and Policy Feedback” (paper presented at the annual national conference for the American Political Science Association, Sept. 1-4, 2012).

8. Fleming, William Mitchell, and Michael McNally, “Can Markets Make Citizens? School Vouchers, Political Tolerance, and Civic Engagement,” Journal of School Choice 8, no. 2 (June 2014), pp. 213-36, doi:10.1080/15582159.2014.905397.


Suggested Citation
“What Impact Does School Choice Have on Civic Values?,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, last modified July 31, 2015,

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