Vouchers for Religious Schools and the Development of Democratic Values

Author(s): Jason Giersch

Source: Giersch, Jason. 2014. “Vouchers for Religious Schools and the Development of Democratic Values.” Kappa Delta Pi 78:142-149.

Link: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00131725.2013.878426#.U6ByrJRdV8E

Jason Giersch examines whether religious schools and instruction influence students’ civic and democratic values, and weighs the potential strengths and weaknesses of religious schools for preparing students to participate in a pluralistic and democratic society. He concludes that religious schools and public schools appear to provide similar civic preparation and that religious schools “do no worse” than public schools in preparing students for democratic participation.

Public and Religious Schools and the Purposes of Schooling
The first amendment ensures that students are not indoctrinated into a single state-supported religion in public schools. Giersch points out that religious schools may receive students under vouchers and tax credit plans but are exempt from the separation of school and denomination since the choice was exercised by a student’s parents. The question of the public good remains, however. Would religious schools instill in students a narrow connection to religious community rather than to the larger civic community?

Most Americans agree that primary education should instill civic and democratic values without treading on a diverse set of religious beliefs and practices. The goal of promoting an expanded view of tolerance can lead to a pedagogy that is “too thick or too thin” in the words of Thiessen (2001). When the values curriculum is too thick, too overly specific and detailed, it can conflict with individual beliefs, whether religious or personal. When only common values are presented, it can seem thin or watered down in an attempt to avoid conflict or appeal to the largest group possible. However, Giersch points out that government funded religious schools in European democratic countries have experienced little tension in this relationship, striking a healthy balance between presenting differences and promoting tolerance. Critics of this position point out, however, that without oversight religious schools may narrow their focus and choose to expose students only to beliefs and lifestyles that the religious community approves.  

Connections Between School Experience and Student Attitudes
Giersch presents three potential ways that students learn tolerance and democratic values. The first is simply teaching about tolerance and its importance. While this knowledge provides background to consider historical and contemporary issues, existing research does not find a strong correlation between knowledge and student attitudes of tolerance. A second perspective suggests that tolerance develops as a result of participation in a culturally and intellectually diverse environment. Here critics sometimes attack private, religious schools as hopelessly homogeneous, but Giersch argues that public schools in many places are less diverse than private schools, often as a result of systems of school funding. The third approach sees tolerance as a result of increased cognitive skills. Subject knowledge is not enough, in this view, since students must be able to grapple with the material, and understand the issue from multiple angles. They must be able to see the benefits of civic engagement and interaction for both the individual and the larger society.

Civic Education a Responsibility for All Schools
Giersch suggests that it is not the kind of school that determines the quality of civic education but the particular learning process and the school environment. All schools should recognize their responsibility to produce “civic-minded graduates” who are able to apply higher level thinking to issues of tolerance, pluralism, and the ideals of a democratic society. Giersch acknowledges that teaching respect and tolerance for individuals who believe differently (in the case of homosexuality, abortion, etc.) may be difficult for some religious leaders. However, those in the religious minority are often accustomed to living differently in “separate public and private spheres” and retain a self-confidence regarding personal religious belief that allows them to respect the rights of others while retaining their own.

Giersch calls for all schools to encourage students to think critically, develop a student’s autonomy, and to learn about those who are different. All schools, public and private, should be held to high standards regarding civic education. Giersch suggests that school oversight of this task may be necessary to ensure a good democratic education. While not an easy undertaking, oversight may be a necessary component of voucher-type programs and provide some assurance that religious and private schools include this important element of cognitive development in their courses of study.

The problem is how to do this in a way that respects the place of legitimate diversity, including a diversity of religious communities, in the public sphere. Critically thinking, individual autonomy, and tolerance are at some level essential for a democratic public life, but provide little concrete guidance for ordering a pluralistic society. We expect there is more to a good civic education, whether offered in government-funded or independent schools.    

Keywords: school choice, civic values, religious schools, vouchers, socialization

Sector: Catholic,  Charter,  Evangelical Protestant,  Homeschool,  Jewish,  Muslim,  Other Protestant,  Private,  Public

Outcomes: Civil and Political,  Morality and Character Formation,  Religious and Spiritual,  School Choice,  School Organization

Date Posted: 2014-11-03