Question: Are families that choose private schools and home education for their children more likely than families involved in public schools to be socially isolated and withdrawn from participation in civic life?

Answer: Absolutely not. In fact, to the contrary, recent survey data from the U.S. Department of Education show that Catholic, Protestant, and nonreligious private schooling and home schooling families are consistently more involved in a wide spectrum of civic activities than are families of public school children. From voting to volunteering to visiting the local library, private and home schooling families are very much out in their communities and involved in the affairs of public life. Private schooling, it turns out, is anything but privatizing.

These empirical findings have important implications for the increasingly hot debates over school choice, tuition vouchers, Christian schools, and home education. For in the last two decades, many Americans have grown increasingly concerned about our nation’s capacity to sustain a shared moral order and robust public life. In 1985, for example, Robert Bellah and his colleagues warned in Habits of the Heart that American individualism is eroding the republican and biblical commitments that sustain a vigorous civic life. Mary Ann Glendon’s 1991 book Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse argued that a rampant rights-discourse is now undermining our shared American values and the common good. And in the mid-1990s, Robert Putnam warned in his noted articles, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” and “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,” that Americans are increasingly withdrawing from public participation into their own narrow, self-interested, private worlds. Many others, including Richard John Neuhaus, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Christopher Lasch, Alan Wolfe, Richard Sennett, Amitai Etzioni, Robert Wuthnow, and James Hunter, have sounded similar concerns. America is in real danger, many able cultural observers warn, of losing its shared cultural order and common civic life to the corrosive forces of individualism, privatization, fragmentation, and cultural polarization.

It is against this backdrop that champions of the old public school system decry our society’s current move toward school choice, tuition vouchers, home schooling, and the like. With all of the cultural and institutional forces that are pulling America apart, they implore, how can we contemplate dismantling one of the last public institutions that historically have held America together? Public schools, it is argued, have not only always provided for all American children the opportunity for a genuinely liberal education; they have also served to integrate America’s racial, ethnic, and religious diversity, and to teach common American cultural and political values. How can we-now, of all times-start undermining the foundations of what may be our last institutional dike against a future of social fragmentation, privatized isolation, and civic indifference?

It is important to be clear here about what counts as “civic” and “public.” Critics of private schooling often equate “civic” with a narrow range of liberal and “neutral” activities, and “public” with governmental ones. Within this framework, these critics might say, sure, Christian and home schoolers are activists, but their (presumed) narrow kind of activism fragments society and undermines democracy. Our approach here relies instead on a more Tocquevillian view of civic engagement, which suggests that American democracy thrives on the widespread participation of its citizens in a host of different kinds of associations that mediate between the individual and the state, often even when those associations are not manifestly political or liberal; that the experience of association and participation itself tends to socialize, empower, and incorporate citizens in ways that stimulate democratic self-government, even if they involve some particularity and conflict in the process.

Be that as it may, many popular stereotypes about private schools and home education directly feed into concerns about the social consequences of private schooling. The popular imagination easily conjures up images of severe, anti-intellectual, Bible-thumping fundamentalist Christian schools that indoctrinate rather than educate their students; of Volvo-driving parents emerging from their affluent, gated “communities” to drop their children off at exclusive private academies the central purpose of which is to reproduce class privilege; of born-again parents, fearful of alleged secular humanism, pulling their kids out of public schools to give them amateur educations in the small worlds of their own private homes. How, one might wonder, will these kids ever learn to understand and share a society with other people very different from themselves? How can these families ever pull themselves out of what seem to be narrow worlds of religious purity, financial affluence, and family reclusivity in order to participate in a shared American public life?

Certain scholarly studies of Christian schools seem to validate these popular images, raising similarly troubling questions about private education. For example, Alan Peshkin’s 1986 book God’s Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School portrays one Christian academy as enveloping its members in a “total world” of exclusivistic religious meaning, isolated and withdrawn from the pluralism of mainstream American life. And Susan Rose’s 1988 book Keeping Them Out of the Hands of Satan: Evangelical Schooling in America suggests that evangelicals are seeking through their Christian schools to establish religious enclaves within which to exercise control and enjoy autonomy from secular institutions and cultures. Once again, one might easily surmise that private schooling is indeed privatizing in ways that erode a civil, pluralistic public sphere.

These apparently antiliberal tendencies of private schooling are very troubling to some academics. In fact, Illinois Institute of Technology law professor James Dwyer has recently published what private schoolers can only view as an ominous book, Religious Schools v. Children’s Rights (Cornell University Press, 1998), which argues for heavy state regulation of religious schools to counter pedagogical practices that Dwyer deems “damaging to children.” The book “presents evidence of excessive restriction of children’s basic liberties, stifling of intellectual development, the instilling of dogmatic and intolerant attitudes, as well as the infliction of psychological and emotional harm, including excessive guilt and repression and . . . diminished self-esteem.” Dwyer argues that “the focus [should] always be on what is best, from a secular perspective , for the affected children . . . . States are obligated to ensure that such schools do not engage in harmful practices and that they provide their students with the training necessary for pursuit of a broad range of careers and for full citizenship in a pluralistic, democratic society.” We see, then, that an activist (and, from some perspectives, imperialistic and paternalistic) state is thought necessary, not only because religious schools allegedly damage children, but also because they purportedly undermine the kind of broad public education and civic involvement necessary for “full citizenship in a pluralistic, democratic society.” In short, Dwyer claims, private religious schooling is perniciously privatizing.

But the empirical question remains: Is private schooling really privatizing? Here we present evidence from a reliable national education survey which shows that-contrary to these popular stereotypes and academic critiques-private and home schooling are definitely not privatizing. Indeed, the data show clearly that the most privatized American families are consistently those whose children attend public schools.

Our evidence comes from the 1996 National Household Education Survey (NHES), conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. This study surveyed a large, nationally representative sample of 9,393 parents of school-age children. The survey used carefully constructed questions to differentiate the public schoolers from Catholic schoolers, non-Catholic church-related schoolers, nonreligious private schoolers, and home schoolers.

In addition to questions about schooling, the survey asked parents questions about the extent of family involvements in a variety of civic activities. Parents reported whether they were members of a community organization; participated in an ongoing community service activity; went to the public library for books, tapes, lectures, story hours, or to use library equipment; voted in a national or state election in the previous five years; wrote or telephoned an editor or public official or signed a petition in the previous twelve months; attended a public meeting in the previous twelve months; contributed money to a political candidate, party, or cause in the previous twelve months; worked for a political cause in the previous twelve months; or participated in a protest or boycott in the previous twelve months. By comparing differences in family participation in these nine forms of civic involvement, we are able to determine empirically whether private schooling actually is or is not privatizing.

The results reveal a consistent pattern: Catholic schooling families, other Christian schooling families, nonreligious private schooling families, and home schooling families are consistently more involved in all of the civic activities examined than are families with children in public schools. The only two exceptions are that home schoolers are equally likely as public schoolers to attend public meetings, and that 2 percent fewer non-Catholic church-related schoolers than public schooling families have volunteered for a political cause. Otherwise, private and home schooling families are, by an average margin of 9.3 percent, more likely than public schooling families to engage in all of these forms of civic participation. Some of the larger observed differences in civic participation deserve particular mention. Up to 10 percent more private schooling than public schooling families have attended a public meeting or rally. Up to 13 percent more private schoolers have given money to political causes. Up to 15 percent more have voted in recent elections and have telephoned elected officials to express their views. And up to 26 percent more private schooling families than public schooling families are members of community groups and volunteer at local organizations. (All statistics are published at the authors’ web site: www.unc.edu/~cssmith/firstthings/index.htm.)

These findings definitively answer the question at hand: private schooling is absolutely not privatizing. Private schoolers and home schoolers are definitely not the isolated recluses that critics suggest they might be. It is, rather, the public schooling families that are clearly the least civically involved of all the schooling types.

But the evidence that private schooling is not privatizing is even stronger than this. Most people know that participation in civic activities is strongly correlated with certain other social factors, such as people’s years of education and income. We also know that, on average, private schooling families are likely to possess more education and to earn higher incomes than public schooling families. Could it be that the private schooling families’ greater participation in civic activities is simply the result of their higher education and income, and has nothing to do with schooling per se?

In order to test for precisely this possibility, we used the NHES survey data to create a civic participation scale, and ran a multiple-variable regression analysis, controlling for differences in education, income, age, race, family structure, region, and the number of hours per week that parents work. The results, using even this conservative statistical test, confirm the findings presented above. Namely, Catholic schoolers, other Christian schoolers, and home schoolers (but not nonreligious private schoolers) are significantly more likely than public schoolers to participate in public life through a broad array of civic activities-even when we statistically remove the possible effects of seven other potentially related social factors. In other words, there appears to be something particular about religious private schooling and home schooling in and of themselves that increases families’ participation in mostly non-school-related civic activities in the public square.

Why should this be? Fully answering that question will require much more research, but we may already know enough about the matter to venture at least a preliminary explanation.

Scholars such as James Coleman, Pierre Bourdieu, Robert Putnam, and Pamela Paxton tell us that people’s civic participation tends to increase when their lives are tied into networks of relationships characterized by trust and solidarity. These kinds of associational ties form among people the “social capital”-the reciprocal, cooperative, bonding social relations-that helps to foster greater involvement in public life. This may not be the conscious goal of these networks and associations. But they tend to produce this effect nonetheless. This helps to explain at least some of the differences in civic participation among different types of schooling families. For the associations and practices of private schooling often create denser relational networks of greater solidarity and shared moral culture than those of public schooling.

Take home schooling, for example. Of all types of nonpublic education, home schooling as a practice-by so closely uniting home, family, education, and (usually) religious faith-might seem the most privatized and isolated from the concerns of the public sphere. But in fact, most home schoolers are not at all isolated. Indeed, most are embedded in dense relational networks of home schooling families; participate in local, state, regional, and national home schooling organizations; and engage in a variety of community activities and programs that serve the education of their children. Home schooling families meet together at playgrounds; frequent local libraries, museums, and zoos; organize drama productions, science projects, and art workshops; enroll their kids in YMCA soccer and swimming classes; organize home school association picnics and cookouts; and much more. Home schooling families also frequent home education conferences and seminars; pay close attention to education-related legislative issues; share political information with each other; and educate themselves about relevant legal concerns. Far from being privatized and isolated, home schooling families are typically very well networked and quite civically active.

Of course, some people do not like the purpose of home schoolers’ networking and activism. But that objection is an altogether different matter than the one at hand. Presumably a broader array of involvements in public life are of civic value for democracy than those that support a liberal or pro-public school agenda. The relevant fact here is that social capital generates the civic participation that strengthens public life, whether or not this is the primary intentional goal of the association-social capital simply has this unintended effect.

Private schoolers do more than network, though. They also frequently generate and sustain shared moral cultures that facilitate social solidarity and trust. This too generates social capital.

Compare this situation with the reality of contemporary public schooling. Years ago, public schools served as institutional expressions of local community identities and cultures. But public schools and the experiences of families that use them have been radically transformed by decades of increased geographical mobility and social transience; educational centralization, standardization, and professionalization; federal government intervention; economic integration and globalization; and the imperialism of the market.

No longer principally centers of local community identity and moral order, public schools have increasingly become impersonal state bureaucracies supplying standardized schooling services to potentially anonymous taxpaying consumers. Public school parents need not know one another to receive the services public schools offer. Nor do they need to share a common moral culture. Indeed, contemporary public schools are by law intentionally “neutral” spaces that, in keeping with liberal political theory, exclude the particularities of distinct moral and religious traditions in favor of a standardized secular perspective. Shared particularistic moral cultures are not only awkward and potentially contentious in public schools, they are by definition prohibited. Yet we know that associations which lack the collective solidarity and trust that shared moral cultures engender fail to form for their participants the social capital that fosters participation in civic life. And partly for this reason public schooling families are consistently the least civically active of all of our schooling types.

By contrast, private Catholic schools, other Christian schools, home schools, and even nonreligious private schools are much more likely to be based upon particularistic religious, moral, and other normatively committed traditions that embed their participating families in shared moral cultures that foster social solidarity and trust. Despite contemporary society’s widespread transience and market penetration of social life, private schools manage nevertheless to draw groups of families together around shared, fundamental, normative worldviews. And this, as we have seen, in turn fosters among private schoolers levels of broad civic participation significantly greater than those of public schooling families. In this way, committed religious and moral particularity appears more capable of sustaining a vibrant common American public life than secular liberalism’s purported neutrality regarding visions of the good life and society.

All of this has implications for broader debates among liberals, communitarians, and others about just what kind of society we ought to be working to form. Liberal political theorists contend that a just society is one in which the particularistic moral perspectives of the diverse communities that comprise it are excluded from debate in the public square. Instead, people should only employ justifications in their arguments in public life that all participants in the debate will find acceptable-which for liberals inevitably means secular justifications. Thus, people should be obliged to restrain themselves from bringing into the public square arguments grounded in the authorities of their own particularistic traditions, religious or otherwise. In a liberal society, the public square must be secular and “neutral” as to particular visions of “the good,” and its citizens must leave behind the particularistic commitments and traditions that form their identities and viewpoints (or at least must be ready to reformulate them into secular language).

Communitarian theorists argue by contrast that liberalism’s unencumbered selves are nothing but theoretical fictions; that stripping certain citizens and communities of their moral particularities fundamentally violates their identities and moral reasoning; that not all participants in public debate in fact find secular justifications for arguments acceptable, so that this requirement simply functions imperialistically to privilege secular moral reasoning over others; and, finally, that no society can avoid specifying and embracing substantive public notions of virtue and goodness. These are compelling critiques. Yet communitarianism-as Michael Walzer and others have noted-often ends up then characterizing society as if it were or should be one whole community of citizens whose shared virtues undergird a strong civic republic (see, for example, Walzer’s “A Community of Communities,” in Anita Allen and Milton Ragan’s Debating Democracy’s Discontent , Oxford University Press, 1998). And this communitarian vision itself tends to gloss over the very real and very distinctive identities, traditions, and communities that communitarians claim liberal theory fails adequately to acknowledge and embrace.

An alternative to both liberalism’s secular “neutrality” and communitarianism’s holistic civic republicanism is the structural pluralist conception of society as, in Walzer’s words, “a community of communities, a nation of nationalities, a social union of social unions.” This vision fully acknowledges and accepts in public life the many real and distinctive social communities of people whose lives are fundamentally formed by particularistic moral traditions that mold unique social identities. Particularistic communities and their members are, in this approach, recognized and allowed to live out their social lives and to contribute to the common good in terms of who they actually are -instead of being required either to strip themselves of their basic identities and commitments before entering the public square, or to affirm as ultimate the substantive virtues that all members of the one civic republic share.

In the field of education, structural pluralism would affirm the necessity of public funding of education, but would allow for institutional pluralism in the provision of education. Communities of parents would be allowed to form distinctively Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, secular humanist, or other schools (or home education associations) whose curricula and practices would respect and reflect the fundamental worldviews and intellectual and moral traditions of the families involved. At the same time, all students in all schools and associations would engage a common core curriculum, established by the state in consultation with the relevant communities, ensuring a common baseline education for all citizens. This, many Americans might be surprised to know, is precisely the way public education has been structured for most of this century in the Netherlands, and very successfully at that.

Rather than fostering social conflict, this structural pluralist approach actually tends to allay social conflict by allowing communities and their people legitimately to live out in public life their distinctive beliefs and practices. By contrast, it is in fact our own current winner-take-all situation of a uniform public educational “neutrality” that represents, in the words of University of Massachusetts-Amherst legal scholar Stephen Arons, a “short route to chaos.” Furthermore, our empirical evidence on the civic involvement of different kinds of schooling families affords no reason to think that loosening the secular state’s monopoly on the provision of public education will privatize and isolate Americans or diminish their participation in civic life. If anything, such changes promise the opposite effect.

The American public, state legislatures, major metropolitan school districts, and state and federal courts are becoming every year more friendly to the ideas of school choice, tuition vouchers, home schooling, and other innovative educational initiatives that challenge the monopoly of government-provided public schooling. Increasingly, we as a society see that it is not only possible but also perhaps more just and effective to separate in our thinking and policy making the state’s essential public funding of education from an exclusive state provision of education. This fundamental shift in thinking raises a number of very important questions about equity and integration that require careful public deliberation and decision making.

One of these critical questions concerns the practical effects on our common public life of changing the rules of the education game to allow the public funding of private and home schooling. Will moves in this direction erode America’s shared civic culture? Will this undermine civic participation by encouraging further social fragmentation along religious and other ideological fault lines? Will private schooling and home education foster the kind of privatization that so many cultural critics now warn so strongly against?

Whatever else can be said for and against private schooling and home education, the one thing our empirical findings make clear is that neither of them foster the kind of social privatization and isolation that diminish people’s participation in civic affairs. The empirical evidence is clear and decisive: private schoolers and home schoolers are considerably more civically involved in the public square than are public schoolers-even when the effects of differences in education, income, and other related factors are removed from the equation. Indeed, we have reason to believe that the organizations and practices involved in private and home schooling in themselves tend to foster public participation in civic affairs. If so, then we have nothing to fear, at least on this score, about embracing school choice, tuition vouchers, home schooling, and related educational innovations. These things will not encourage privatization and widespread withdrawal from public life. Rather, if anything, the challenges, responsibilities, and practices that private schooling and home education normally entail for their participants may actually help reinvigorate America’s civic culture and the participation of her citizens in the public square.


Christian Smith and David Sikkink teach in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Moberg Lectureship Series, Bethel College, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Articles by Christian Smith and David Sikkink

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