Private Schools Equally Good at Fostering Civic Participation


The nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education guarantees that school choice will remain a key component of the education policy agenda in 2017, as public charter schools continue to expand and state and federal policymakers implement or consider policies to expand access to private schools. Among the most prominent efforts will be Congressional attempts to reauthorize the Washington, DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides private school scholarships to low-income students in the nation’s capital.

Debates about school choice policies often focus on their impacts on student achievement, typically as measured by standardized tests. But education has also been shown to affect a wide variety of outcomes across the economic, cultural, social, and political realms. One concern raised by skeptics of policies that allow public money to support children at private schools is that public schools may be superior at cultivating citizenship compared than private schools, which may focus less on cultivating social benefits.

We provide new evidence on this question by following more than 2,000 children from low-income families who applied for private school scholarships in New York City in the 1990s. Most students who won the scholarship lottery attended a private school for one or more years, whereas most students who did not stayed in the public sector. The sorting of children to public and private schools based in large part on random chance provides a unique opportunity to learn about the effect of choice on a variety of outcomes.

In our new study, we track the voting behavior of students who participated in the voucher experiment. We find that the voucher intervention had no effect on registering to vote or voting in any of several elections. In other words, low-income students provided with scholarships to attend private schools were no less likely to register to vote or vote in the 2008, 2010, or 2012 elections than similar students who did not win a scholarship.

Policymakers should not put too much weight on any single study, and ours is no exception. A private school choice program with a different design or that operated in a different context could well produce different results. And given the uncertainty in our estimates—a concept most Americans now understand thanks to last week’s election results—we cannot rule out the possibility that private schools have a modest impact (positive or negative) on voter behavior.

But our results are consistent with a broader research literature finding that private schools have largely neutral or positive impacts on civic values such as political tolerance, voluntarism, political knowledge, and political participation. These prior studies are based largely on non-experimental comparisons of survey responses of similar students in public and private schools, whereas our study is the first to examine data on the actual voting behavior of students who participated in a choice lottery.

The bottom line is that while there are myriad reasons to support or oppose private school vouchers, the argument that one sector will generate citizens better prepared to participate in our democracy is not supported by the weight of the research evidence.

— Deven Carlson, Matthew Chingos, and David Campbell

Deven Carlson is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma; Matthew Chingos is Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute; and David Campbell is the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.

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