School Choice

School Choice Can Heal the Division in Charlottesville

Studies show students in schools of choice have more respect for the rights of people they don't like.


After last weekend's deadly 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, school choice has taken some of the blame.

Jennifer Steele, an associate professor of education at American University, interviewed by The Hill, argued Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' school choice advocacy could fuel the social tensions behind the clashes.

"The purpose of schooling is to expose people to diverse ideas and experiences," Steele said. "By allowing people to opt out of public schooling, we risk having a more fragmented society and in the wake of the events in Charlottesville, that's really an increasing concern."

I share Steele's concerns about the state of our civic culture. A bedrock of our democracy and a societal norm we've established is respect for the rights of people with whom we disagree. James Alex Fields violated this core American value when he ran his car over dozens of protestors last week. Preventing that kind of heinous violence in the future means teaching our kids to disagree peacefully rather than using force.

Evidence makes clear Steele's concerns about school choice are misplaced. In eight of 11 empirically rigorous studies, comparing children in schools of choice and traditional public schools, students in schools of choice were more likely to support the civic rights of their most hated opponents. Three find no visible effects. None indicate school choice has a negative impact on tolerance.

These studies don't sugar-coat tolerance, they go straight to the hardest cases. Researchers asked students to list the groups they detest most in society (think hate groups like the KKK, opponents on divisive issues like abortion, disfavored religious minorities like the Westboro Baptist Church). Students were then asked whether these groups should be granted civic rights like voting, protesting, or be allowed to check out library books sympathetic to their views.

The studies also go beyond tolerating people you dislike. The balance of evidence shows schools of choice having positive effects on students volunteerism, political participation, civics knowledge, and even willingness to donate to those in need. Even counting studies with lower methodological standards, evidence is overwhelmingly positive or at the least mixed. Only three of 63 studies of student civic values suggest traditional public schools do a better job.

If we want to limit the influence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in our society, we need to teach our children the value of pluralism. If we want to stop political violence from getting out of control, students need to learn the value of civil disagreement.

On balance, schools of choice offer a better civics education than traditional public schools. If we're serious about healing the wounds of Charlottesville, we can't forget that.