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Parents Fleeing Public Schools Know There’s No Such Thing As A Values-Neutral Education

Recent school choice policy adoptions reflect the apprehension many parents feel about the public school system.

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This month marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Abington School District v. Schempp decision that ruled state-sponsored Bible reading was unconstitutional. In recent research, we show that when public schools lost the religious instruction some parents valued, parents took on the added cost of sending their children to private school.

At the time of Schempp, 11 states required the Bible to be read at school, 12 states made it optional, and 11 states outlawed mandatory Bible reading. The remaining states were silent on the question. In Abington School District, 10 Bible verses were read over the school’s announcement system each morning. In Schempp, the Supreme Court ruled this practice unconstitutional. 

Our research documents how private school enrollment changed between 1960 and 1970. In states with mandatory Bible reading in public schools, Schempp led to large reductions in Bible reading. We find that these states saw a 12 percentage point increase in private school enrollment between 1960 and 1970.

In contrast, the Schempp decision did not change Bible reading policy in states that already had outlawed mandatory Bible reading; we find these states saw no change in private school enrollment between those dates. These results are after we control for factors such as racial animus that may have led to flight from public schools after desegregation.

State-Sponsored School Prayer Banned in 1962

The year before Schempp, the case Engel v. Vitale appeared before the Supreme Court. Parents argued that a nondenominational prayer crafted by the New York Board of Regents, and recited daily in the classroom, violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents, declaring state-sponsored prayer in schools unconstitutional. The public backlash was substantial, and many felt God was outlawed from school.

For evangelical Christians, both the Engel and Schempp cases represented a strong shift away from public schools teaching their preferred religious values. At first, many evangelical Christians sought to change the law or its interpretation. When that didn’t work, there was a large exit from public schools. In our research, we observe that counties with more evangelicals and fewer Catholics saw larger increases in private school enrollment between 1960 and 1970.

In places that experienced a loss of a religious amenity, parents flocked to private schools; in places where parents experienced no loss, there was no change in enrollment patterns. Setting aside constitutional questions, this shows that parents care about the values their children adopt and incur additional costs to influence those values through their choice of school. Across the United States, parents spend on average more than $12,000 in tuition each year for their child to attend private school. 

Schools Transmit Values

A growing social science literature documents the role that schools have played in transmitting cultural values ranging from religion to assimilating immigrants to majority culture. While people can argue about specific cases, it seems plain that parents care about the values their children adopt and want more control over that.

Parents are right to think values matter. In the 1960s, some children in Ypsilanti, Michigan, were randomly assigned to an early childhood intervention at the Perry Preschool program. Because the program was implemented decades ago, researchers such as Nobel Laureate James Heckman have been able to follow these individuals. The program was shown to have a positive effect on educational attainment, employment, income, and more. It also reduced crime. Importantly, there were no long-run gains in IQ, but these positive outcomes were the enduring effects of building “character skills.” Moreover, research finds benefits also accrued to the children of those children.

But while values do matter, there are important questions about which values and who decides on those. In 2004, China reformed its curriculum with new textbooks and rolled that curriculum out incrementally across its provinces. Research shows that even at Peking University — a university known for being critical of the Chinese state — the new curriculum moved beliefs about democracy by 25 percent of a standard deviation toward the position favored by the Chinese state.

In a recent randomized controlled trial at Chicago Heights Early Childhood Center, researchers found children aged 3 to 4 randomly assigned into either a preschool program or a parenting program had different tastes as 6- to 8-year-olds. Those children attending preschool favored fairness over efficiency significantly more than those children assigned to the parenting program. What and how children are taught matters.

The truth is there is no such thing as a value-neutral education. For some, the values taught in public schools may be the right match for their family. For other parents, private schools and other educational options such as homeschooling provide a way for parents to inculcate their values in their children.

School Choice

It is no wonder that five states this year have passed universal voucher laws that will allow more parents to have more choices on what school their children attend. Values will likely motivate their decisions. In 2016, the Friedman Foundation surveyed parents in Indiana, finding that almost 60 percent cited moral or religious instruction as their top priority. In the Supreme Court case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, it was noted that 96 percent of the vouchers were used for religious schools. While parents’ choice to prioritize values may be discomfiting to some, recent school choice policy adoptions reflect the apprehension many parents feel about the current public school system.

The anniversary of the Schempp decision provides an opportunity to reflect on what parents care about, what animates school choice decisions, and how we live life together in a public education system with mutually acceptable values.


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