Can School Choice Improve Civil Society? New Study Shows It Can

Allen: Think of the ripple effect when students attend schools where they can thrive & parents go from feeling ignored to having a seat at the table.

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Looking at our country in 2024, it seems like Americans can barely talk to each other anymore, much less understand and navigate differences to come up with solutions that benefit us all. Heading into another election cycle, everyone from talking heads on television to community leaders are worrying about bringing American adults together. But it’s just as important to bring young people together, and K-12 education can help do this. I have dedicated my career to school choice because it changed my life and helped me and countless others succeed academically and break cycles of poverty. But new evidence suggests this educational freedom can also help build stronger social bonds and cohesive communities.

The idea is simple: Civil engagement requires, well, engagement. When parents get to choose their children’s schools, they become more engaged and invested in their communities. That is why Black school founders are launching schools — pastors in churches, former public school teachers in pods. For the Black school founders and education entrepreneurs I work with at Black Minds Matter, this experience can be transformational for everyone involved. School leaders change and lift their communities, parents become empowered to make positive changes for their families and connect with others doing the same, and students experience and appreciate vastly new experiences and peers.

A new study finds strong evidence that private schooling is associated with better civic outcomes than public education. The authors show there’s a statistically significant association between attending private school and having more political tolerance, political participation, civic knowledge and skills, and volunteerism and social capital than students who attended public school. 

As the authors note, it’s clear there is a problem with the status quo, as studies show both public school students and adults are woefully behind on civics education. The trickle-down effects are clear, and public schools are just one of many areas of American life where hostility and lack of trust are common. Private schools can offer a different experience, where parents are encouraged to be involved and schools must work to earn their trust.

When parents go from a hostile to a cooperative relationship, they can recognize their power to become engaged to make change in their communities; when that option is threatened, they realize they can make a difference and use their voices to maintain their rights.

Not long ago, I participated in a march and rally for school choice alongside over 10,000 people in Florida. Martin Luther King III said at the event, “This is about justice; this is about righteousness; this is about freedom — the freedom to choose for your family and your child.” Disenfranchised parents have become powerful leaders in this cause.

Students are transformed, too. This latest study follows others in showing the potential. For example, research published in 2014 shows that Milwaukee voucher recipients showed modestly higher levels of political tolerance, civic skills, future political participation and volunteering than public school students did — notable for a program limited to at-risk communities. And that’s not the only positive life outcome. A 2016 study found that participating in a voucher program throughout high school reduced a student’s likelihood of being accused of a crime between 21% and 50% — with statistically significant reductions for all types of crimes.

Society does not have to consist of adults at odds and children on the wrong path. There is a better way. Improving civil society is a big task, but school choice offers one pathway for making change. Policymakers should take it for the sake of the present — and the future.

Think of the ripple effect that can occur when just one student gets to attend a school to a place where he or she can thrive; when just one parent goes from feeling ignored to having a seat at the table. Multiply this effect by many students and families, and the potential is clear. It’s time to empower every family and every student to reach their potential so our society can truly thrive.

Denisha Allen is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children and founder of Black Minds Matter.

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