Has Public Schooling Failed America?
Clearly, widespread public schooling has not prevented the decay of social cohesion and democratic norms.
Freedom wards off divisive conflict and enables private schools to teach rigorous curricula. It also enables them to have distinctive identities and cultures that render them better able to build bridges among diverse people. A school’s distinctive ethos, whether it be Christian values, high academics, an arts focus, or more, immediately gives students who may be from, say, different racial backgrounds, foundations to build new, shared identities.
Research supporting this is limited, but private schools overall have been found to have more peaceful, racially harmonious climates than public schools, while more focused studies have found greater voluntary mixing of students and intergroup friendships at private than public schools.
Of course, while superior to public schooling, even universal school choice would be no panacea for polarization or disintegrating democratic norms. If large shares of people have highly divergent political views, or strong desires to separate, neither school choice nor public schooling can make them change. Again, education is much more likely to reflect widespread beliefs than to alter them. Which is why the failure to create unified, small‐d democrats nationwide cannot be laid at the feet of the public schools. But that failure also puts the lie to the assertion that public schooling is a guarantor of a unified, democratic society, and therefore sacrosanct. Indeed, the evidence points to school choice as the best means within education to foster a unified, civically healthy country.
This article first appeared at the Cato Institute.