Study Shows Private School Students More Knowledgeable in Civics

In April, the journal Educational Psychology Review published the results of a new study showing that private schools, and especially religious private schools, are more likely to turn out students better educated in civics.

University of Arkansas Professor Patrick Wolf and M. Danish Shakeel, a professor at the University of Buckingham in the U.K., along with several graduate student assistants, conducted the statistical meta-analysis. According to the researchers, such analyses have seldom been done to verify [or refute] claims that “government-operated schools are more effective than private schools at promoting such civic values as political tolerance, political participation, civic knowledge and skills, and voluntarism and social capital (i.e., community engagement).”

Private school proponents have consistently rejected these claims, pointing out that their schools are “voluntaristic community institutions responsive to parents,” and as such do better than government-run public schools in promoting positive civic outcomes. This study effectively refutes the claims of government school proponents and affirms those of private school supporters.

Encouraging evidence

The meta-analysis identified “the average association between private schooling and measures of four central civic outcomes: political tolerance, political participation, civic knowledge and skills, and voluntarism and social capital.”

The researchers explained that they identified 13,301 initial target studies, ultimately yielding 531 effects from 57 qualified studies drawing from 40 different databases. “Using Robust Variance Estimation,” they wrote, “we determine that, on average, private schooling boosts any civic outcome by 0.055 standard deviations over public schooling,” which is “statistically significant” with a “greater than 99 percent confidence.”

The study concluded that “religious private schooling is strongly associated with positive civic outcomes. Claims that private schooling imperils democracy are inconsistent with this empirical evidence.”

In an April email commenting on the study’s findings, the Foundation for Economic Education’s (FEE) Kerry McDonald wrote: “This study is particularly timely, given the continued expansion of private school-choice programs across the U.S. ....” She singled out Iowa’s 2023 approval of a universal school choice program as a shining example of what states can do in response to parents’ demands for alternative learning opportunities for their children. “That [program] provides each student with an education savings account (ESA) of about $7,500 per year,” she explained.

McDonald observed that educational entrepreneurship is already ramping up in Iowa, using as example the Empigo Academy, “a faith-based high school focused on career technical education (CTE)” which will open in Des Moines in fall 2024. Supporters of the Iowa choice program posit that more options will follow which otherwise may not have been feasible prior to passage of the Education Savings Account (ESA) program.

Empigo’s website states that it is “an independently accredited high school that prioritizes Career and Technical Education (CTE),” emphasizing that the school will use technology, build with a framework of entrepreneurship, all of which will be “rooted in biblical truth within a Christ-centered environment.” The school is partnering with the Iowa Association of Christian Schools and Christian Schools International. Parents may fill out an enrollment request form online.

Champions of civics

One organization that is championing the cause of sound K-12 social studies standards in U.S. schools is the Civics Alliance, “a coalition of individuals dedicated to reforming civics education.” The organization’s mission is to “preserve and improve America’s civics education.”

Convened by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the Alliance brings together education reformers, policymakers, and ordinary citizens interested in preserving a civics curriculum that teaches students to take pride in their exceptional heritage of freedom. They believe a proper civics education should include “all of America’s foundational ideals,” starting with “how our constitutional order was framed to secure Americans’ liberty within the framework of an enduring republic.”

The Alliance acknowledges that the teaching of American civics today faces a grave risk, which is the subordination of traditional civics education to the progressive left to be turned into “a recruitment tool.”

In facing this threat, the Alliance works to influence and help formulate civics education policy at the federal, state, and local levels, and they periodically issue updates on their progress.

Civics Alliance updates

The Alliance’s current update reports that Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds recently signed into law House File 2545 (HF 2545), which directs the Iowa State Board of Education to review and revise the state’s social studies standards. The revisions will “focus on United States history, government, founding philosophies and principles, important historical figures, western civilization, and civics.” The Alliance further notes: “HF 2545 details at length what Iowa social studies standards should look like. In doing so, it sketches a necessary and wonderful strengthening of Iowa’s public K-12 social studies education.”

Both the Civics Alliance and the NAS provided model legislation that helped in the formulation of the new Iowa standards, including the Social Studies Curriculum Act, the Civics Course Act, the Western Civilization Act, and the United States History Act, which Iowa policymakers adapted to suit their state.

The Iowa State Board of Education is now tasked with putting the law into effect, which the Alliance urges not be delegated to Department of Education administrators. “Entrusting the Department of Education with this revision is an invitation to bureaucratic noncompliance with the spirit of HF 2545,” they cautioned.

Additionally, the Alliance has submitted public comment on new social studies standards in Oregon and Idaho. As may be expected, the Oregon standards are “terribly radical,” while Idaho’s are “reasonable — not too politicized, could be more rigorous, but like night and day compared with Oregon’s.” The Alliance advised its supporters to “look at Oregon’s social studies standards to get a sense of what the radical template is; they should look at Idaho’s to get a sense of what’s okay, even if it could be improved.”

Conservative parents and activists may find comfort in the fact that an organization like the Civics Alliance is working at various levels of government to reform civics and social studies standards and curricula, including providing “Constitution Week” lesson plans, model legislation, and toolkits for federal, state, and local policymakers.

The Alliance now has affiliates in ten states: Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas, and invites interested persons who would like to form such an organization in their states to contact David Randall by email at

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