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School Choice Is Leading America’s Civic Revival

January 23, 2024

It’s no secret that a growing number of Americans lack basic knowledge of American history, our system of government, and the principles that support this system. In a 2018 survey, only 13 percent of adults could name the year that the Constitution was ratified. Sixty percent could not identify the countries that the United States fought in World War II. More than half did not know how many justices sit on the Supreme Court.

Sadly, countless public schools have abandoned their historic mission as training grounds of American citizenship. Fortunately, school choice provides an opportunity for parents to select educational options that make civics a priority.

Why does that matter? If most Americans do not have a basic understanding of our country’s history and government, how can we expect them to gain a deep appreciation for the blessings of liberty that our self-governing republic seeks to guarantee? How can Americans exercise responsible citizenship when they don’t understand the founding principles of our system of government?

Although this disaster has many culprits, too many of America’s schools are failing to remedy this ignorance. Fordham Institute education policy experts, for instance, found that 60 percent of mission statements at the 100 largest public-school districts in America did not include the terms “civics,” “citizenship,” or “democracy.” In fact, only one of the school districts included U.S. citizenship as part of its mission statement. Many mission statements cited education in “global citizenship” rather than American citizenship as a key part of their missions.

But there’s a simple solution: school choice. Unlike traditional district schools—which are bound not only by government mandates but also subject to the dictates of teachers unions—alternative schooling options like public charter schools, private schools, and home-based educators are free to adopt a curriculum that places American citizenship at the center of their educational programs.

Look no further than Hillsdale College’s network of classical charter schools. These tuition-free schools adopt a rigorous curriculum grounded in the liberal arts and sciences. They give extensive instruction in American history and civics throughout the elementary, middle, and high grades. Consider the curriculum for Ashley River Classical Academy (Charleston, S.C.), a member of the Hillsdale network that will begin operations later this year. Instruction in civics will start in kindergarten, with the youngest students learning the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. These civics lessons continue until 12th grade, when students read and discuss the entire Constitution, The Federalist Papers, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Schools like Ashley River Classical give parents a choice to pursue such enriching instruction, in contrast to a model of traditional public schooling that dictates a child’s educational options based solely upon their family’s zip code. As a result, charter schools and other alternative educational models often make their curricula and reading lists freely available to the parents of prospective students and the public. This transparency offers a stark contrast to many public school districts that stonewall efforts to make their educational plans available to parents. In this way, school choice promotes excellence in civics and other subjects by incentivizing schools to make parents more aware of and involved in the specifics of their children’s education.

That’s not all—studies suggest that school choice programs have a positive impact on students’ civic values. Several studies indicate that, when compared with public-school students, students in school choice programs displayed greater tolerance for people with different political views and were more likely to be civically engaged through voting and volunteering.

For those citizens who worry about the decline in civic knowledge and patriotism, school choice offers an excellent way to revitalize education for American citizenship. Instead of waiting for public schools to reform themselves, school choice enables parents to immediately place their children in schools that embrace the historic mission of K-12 education: to help students become intelligent and responsible citizens.

Tim Minella is a Senior Constitutionalism Fellow at the Goldwater Institute’s Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy.



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