When Thomas Jefferson made the case for state-supported public schooling to Benjamin Franklin and other skeptics, he emphasized the necessity of turning young students into fully-fledged citizens. If our new form of government was to survive, Jefferson argued, it would need to be buttressed by an education system that taught the virtues of self-government. Public schooling was to become “the keystone in the arch” of our new constitutional republic.
Education was never meant to be values-neutral, and recent decades have shown that the public schools are indeed aggressively teaching a set of values to the almost 90 percent of American kids who travel through their halls. They’re just not the small-r republican values Jefferson had in mind.
Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute, along with several colleagues, conducted an informal survey of the mission statements of the 100 largest school districts in the U.S. It’s clear that school districts are advertising the preparation they offer for material success after K-12: the word “college” appears in 37 of those 100 statements, and “career” appears in 46. By contrast, the words “patriotic” or “patriotism,” and “America” appear in none, and a large majority make no mention even of citizenship.
Little wonder, then, that the graduates of our public schools know little about the system of government Jefferson’s contemporaries designed. Only a quarter of Americans can name the three branches of the federal government. Only one in three can pass the U.S. citizenship test administered to immigrants who apply for citizenship, but for graduates of a more recent vintage, under the age of 45, just 19 percent passed.
To the extent that civics is taught, it emphasizes grievance and activism, rather than core knowledge about the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. These days, just noting that the original purpose of the common schools (forerunners to today’s vast public system) was to instill a knowledge and love of country is deeply controversial.
But shaping character — moral and public — is an inextricable educational goal. In pretending that education should be value-neutral to appease a pluralistic society, we’ve actually ceded the institution most important in shaping hearts and minds to one side of the political spectrum.
Instead, the answer in a large and diverse nation should be to empower families to choose an education for their children that supports, not fights, the values they teach around their dinner tables. And when we evaluate schools and educational programs, we should be looking at whether graduates demonstrate qualities that make them good citizens over improvements in standardized test scores.
Parents already know this. It’s why they consistently rank standardized test scores at the bottom of reasons to choose a school, well below factors such as religious instruction, moral and character development, and a safe environment.
Policymakers and researchers are starting to catch up to families. A recent study on a Milwaukee school choice program found, for the second time, large decreases in criminal conviction rates between graduates of the program and meticulously-matched public school students. Even more shockingly, researchers found a 38 percent decrease in a student’s likelihood of being involved in a paternity suit as a young adult, indicating that school choice recipients are either having fewer children out of wedlock, or at minimum, not shirking the duties of parenthood when they are.
Raising intact families and following the law are both vastly more important to being a good citizen than math scores.
If we are facing a crisis of citizenship and patriotism today, it is because conservatives chose short-term political victories over slow-burn cultural institutions. In some states, education is so undervalued on the right that Republican leadership has to beg state elected officials to take education committee chairmanships. School choice has had some “wins” — the majority of states now boast at least one private choice program — but those successes are still a drop in the bucket compared to the larger system.
Conservatives must realize that their future political victories are contingent on breaking the public school ideological monopoly and re-educating America’s students about the greatness of the country they live in. By empowering parents with choice, we’re not just improving test scores of those worst served by the public system. Instead, we’re ensuring that future voters are prepared to shoulder the heavy burden of citizenship in the freest, most prosperous republic in human history.