What’s Missing from the School Choice Debate

Erik EllefsenThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Teacher helping two young students.

Should Christian parents send their kids to public school? This topic has received considerable attention on Twitter in light of The Gospel Coalition (TGC) debate between Jonathan Pennington and Jen Wilkin. The debate was refreshingly respectful—like a vigorous conversation between friends—with wisdom voiced from each guest. However, argument-wise, both parties came up short, and we’d love to add both evidence and the voices of K-12 educators to this conversation.

Dr. Pennington argued from the perspective that education is formation. Of course, he’s right. But what is this formation for? Rather than look outwards, he limited the scope to what’s best for his own family. Conversely, Wilkin argued that education is for the common good. This point motivated her and her husband to enroll their children in their boundary school: to be a faithful Christian presence and grow in love for neighbor. In this respect, she is right: education “is necessary for human flourishing [and] good for society.” However, she mistakenly correlates this model exclusively with, what she calls, her belief in “the public school ideal.”

In truth, “public” schools are not the only ones that contribute to society. If we care about our neighbors’ flourishing and society’s good, the evidence suggests we need more families enrolling in Christian schools, not fewer. We need a greater variety of schools—certainly, not less.

Pluralism is personal

Before jumping into the empirical data, let’s start with a personal anecdote. I (Erik) come from a family of professional educators who have taught primarily in public schools but in other settings as well. It’s intriguing that public school teachers, like my siblings, are more likely than the average American parent to send their own children to private schools. As my sisters moved into new communities, they made school choices for their children based on a variety of factors.

“Simply put, each child, family, and community are unique—as are school sectors.”

The oldest two nephews spent their early years in a Christian independent school before transferring to public schools, while their two younger brothers received most of their education at either an independent Christian school or a Lutheran school connected to the church they attend. My younger sister moved from an urban area (where her kids went to a church-run Christian school) to a more rural state that was an early adopter of school choice, allowing for open enrollment in public schools and a small statewide voucher program. The eldest enrolled at a public community college offering a high school program where he could get his pilot’s license, and his younger sisters chose a local charter school: one pursued agricultural science, and the youngest chose a hybrid experience that allowed for playing sports and extensive travel.

In a sense, my family’s story reflects what we want to suggest in this article: the need for a more complete conversation, to move beyond a narrow “either/or” (public school vs. Christian school) perspective. Simply put, each child, family, and community are unique—as are school sectors.

The evidence on school sectors

Everyone has their own anecdotes. Until a little over a decade ago, anecdotes were all we had. But in 2010, the Cardus Education Survey (CES) began collecting representative, reliable data on the graduate outcomes from the public, secular private, Catholic, Protestant, and homeschool sectors. As of 2020, CES’s sampling included 18,001 high school graduates across the United States, Canada, and Australia. Each sector exists for different reasons and thus has different strengths and weaknesses. A deeper dive is available here, but let’s quickly survey the diverse landscape, using the most recent US data.

In all CES studies, state or district “public” schools are used as the benchmark. Let’s start with the positive: public school grads are almost as likely as non-religious private (NRP) schools to report taking AP/IB classes in high school, and they are on par with Catholic private schools (slightly behind NRPs) on the number of math and science courses taken in high school. However, public school grads report the lowest evaluations of their high school experience and education quality. They are considerably least likely to report that their teachers cared. But perhaps most interestingly, given the civic nature of public schools and their founding purpose, it is concerning that public school grads report the least preparedness for interacting with culture and society—with the fewest close ties to those of a different race.

“Each sector exists for different reasons and thus has different strengths and weaknesses.”

Along with homeschoolers, the NRP school effect is strongest for preparing grads to interact with culture and society. With few exceptions, NPR grads stand out academically and also on most conventional measures of achievement, such as total education, career success, income, and “high status” connections. They are also the most likely to reflect positively on their overall high school experience, and interestingly, they are the most likely to volunteer for a political cause.

Homeschool graduates tend to be the most unique. In university, homeschoolers are the most likely to get good grades, especially after controlling for family background to isolate the “school sector” effect. However, as a cohort, they average the fewest years of education and are the least likely to attend university. In another twist, homeschoolers, along with NRP grads, are considerably more likely to be executives or managers. However, homeschool grads are (by far!) the lowest income earners, while NRPs make (by far!) the most of all grads. (Here’s a clue to the possible income difference: Homeschool grads are the most likely to have a stay-at-home spouse, and they are far and away the most generous with volunteering their time—factors that may explain the lower average income.) Along with Catholic independent school grads, homeschoolers are the most likely to be self-employed. Lastly, the homeschool effect is strongest for close adult friendships across racial lines.

“Public school grads report the lowest evaluations of their high school experience and education quality.”

Cardus Education Survey (CES)

But in terms of the number of close friends, Catholic school grads stand out. In fact, a data-driven argument could be made that Catholic independent schools in America produce the most well-rounded graduates: on most measures they perform well but are rarely “best” (or “worst”). They are the most likely to be employed full-time, have an advanced degree, and volunteer to help the poor/elderly.  However, on questions of faith formation, morality, and spiritual strength, it appears reasonable to conclude that Catholic schools are not producing the Catholic faithful any better than public schools.

This outcome–faith formation–is what differentiates Protestant independent schools.

Why do Christian schools exist?

Each community will articulate it a little differently, but generally speaking, the spiritual emphasis is where most Protestant Christian schools excel. Survey results from their grads suggest that these schools are being successful. Whether we look at church involvement (attendance, volunteering, and giving), humanitarian and evangelistic outreach, private devotion (frequency of prayer and reading the Bible and other faith-forming literature), orthodoxy (views of God and Scripture), acceptance of their church leadership’s authority, or the likelihood of remaining faithful to the religious tradition of their upbringing, Protestant Christian school graduates (and religious homeschoolers) stand out. Even after controlling for family and background, Protestant-sector graduates are the most likely to report favorably on these metrics—and, with the exception of religious homeschoolers, often by a very considerable margin.

In other words, there is a statistically significant Christian school effect. Which grads are most likely to “find spiritual peace within” when experiencing problems? And who reflects on the best relationship with teachers and reports that their teachers cared? Protestant independent grads.

Christian schools are good for society

What about other crucial measures of human flourishing? Let’s look at marriage and community engagement. Protestant school grads are the most likely to be married, and they are by far the most likely to report having a spouse or partner that they can confide in. (However, after controlling for family and background, the homeschool effect is the strongest by a slight margin.) Similarly, Protestant school grads are much more likely than public school grads to have a spouse that shares the same religious beliefs and/or attends the same religious services. These spouses are also much more likely to be a member of a congregation, and the couple is much more likely to talk about religion together as a married couple.

“In other words, there is a statistically significant Christian school effect.”

Who is the most likely to report an obligation to take action against wrong and injustice? Protestant school grads. They also, quite literally, “put their money where their mouth is,” and are some of the most generous in their giving to and volunteering with various causes and organizations, particularly religious ones.

What about civic outcomes and “good citizenship”? Again, on most measures, the Christian school sector effect outperforms the public benchmark, or at a minimum, is on par. This outcome is confirmed beyond the CES. A 2021 Cardus paper, Good Schools, Good Citizens, by Cardus Senior Fellow Ashley Berner reports on Patrick Wolf’s analysis of all 34 empirical studies that examine the effects of private and public schools on civic outcomes. Combined, they yielded 86 separate statistically significant findings: 50 showed a clear independent-school advantage, 33 found neutral effects, and only three showed a state-school advantage.

How good is a good fit?

If the reason for public education is civic formation, why do non-government schools so strongly outperform the “public” sector? We now have evidence that points to why.

Our colleague, Harvard-trained economist and Cardus Senior Fellow Catherine Pakaluk, recently explored the measurable academic effect religious schools have on religious students. Using US data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, after controlling for other variables, the study A Good Fit found that students whose faith matched that of their school’s significantly outperformed their unmatched peers in reading and mathematics.

This finding has a number of implications for Christian schools, extending well beyond academic measures and good grades. First, Dr. Pakaluk’s study provides a novel approach to thinking about the value of Christian schools. We can now say, empirically, that Christian schools create particular value for members of their own faith community by virtue of belonging. Cardus’s 2019 and 2020 pan-Canadian research on who chooses independent schools and why found that this sense of belonging is a key differentiator of Christian schools. We now can prove that a deep sense of belonging—in and of itself—results in better learning outcomes.

“Christian schools create particular value for members of their own faith community by virtue of belonging.”

Given the abundance of societal benefits correlated with strong academic performance, it follows that all of society reaps the benefits of such a match. Here’s another way to think about it: If learning takes place significantly more naturally in an environment of “good fit,” we can intuit that students have more time to give back in other meaningful ways.

Bottomline: fit matters.

Expanding perspectives

The school choice debate is not a binary “either/or.” Parents are increasingly choosing between a wider array of options, such as public-charter schools, open-enrollment public schools, virtual schools (of all kinds), micro schools, religious schools, and non-religious independent schools. The options seem to be accelerating by the month, especially in states that have passed Education Savings Account legislation.

Educational pluralism is happening. Our hope is to encourage parents and families of all kinds to clarify how the options they have fit into both the formation of their child and their family’s role in the common good.


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

  • David Hunt

    David Hunt is the Education Director and the British Columbia (BC) Director at Cardus. In addition to his BC responsibilities, David leads original research with education academics and researchers from around the globe. His research interests focus on educational pluralism, excellence in education, and graduate outcomes, with a particular aim to translate academically rigorous research into practical public policy for the common good. David holds a Master of Public Policy from Simon Fraser University and a Bachelor of Business Administration (with distinction) from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where he was the Dean's Medal recipient. He can be reached at dhunt@cardus.ca.

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