A Year after the Capitol Disgrace, Public Schooling’s Unfulfilled Promise Is in Even Greater Focus


It has been a year since the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, and the failure of public schooling to do as promised by many of its advocates – unite diverse people and form them into “virtuous” American citizens – has only become more clear.

I wrote in depth about the promise of public schooling, and failure to fulfill it, at length soon after the riot last year. You can dive into that piece for detailed analysis. But one plank of what I wrote bears further discussion:

By trying to encompass diverse people, public schooling ends up fostering political and social conflicts which, by their adversarial nature, are more likely to have polarizing than unifying effects. Public schooling forces diverse people to fight over whose values, history, or preferred policies the schools will uphold.

If we desire a tolerant, peaceful society, arguably the worst way to do it is to force people into high‐​stakes, zero‐​sum contests. Yet that is exactly what public schooling does: push people into camps to determine whose values will govern schools, who will get their histories taught, and more. This is inherently divisive, creating constant us‐​versus‐​them mindsets. It is also avoidable, as many other countries have come to recognize, by allowing funding to follow children to schools their families choose.

While American public schools have been social and cultural battlefields for their entire existence, 2021 was an especially war‐​torn year, as I summarized a couple of weeks ago. 2021 saw a record number of conflicts logged on Cato’s Public Schooling Battle Map, and the entire country has seen searing images of screaming crowds at school board meetings, fistfightsarrests, and federal law enforcement called upon to investigate “domestic terrorism” by public schooling combatants. This as neighbors have had to fight one another to determine whose views on intensely emotional subjects such as racial justicesexuality and gender, and health and child development, would prevail.

Were money to follow children to educational arrangements their families chose, people would no longer be forced into warring camps in education. At least when it came to schooling, they could once again become just neighbors, or fellow Americans. And it would decrease understandable resentments when people perceive, often justifiably, that unwanted values or lessons are being imposed on their children, or important content withheld from them, in schools for which all must pay.

But wouldn’t choice enable people to engage in fringe teachings, radicalizing children?

Significant radicalization is not what we observe in other places with more choice, and U.S. research overwhelmingly finds that private schools produce more tolerant, civically engaged, and knowledgeable citizens than public schools. And as the Capitol attack itself testifies, public schooling has not erased radicalization and may well have fueled it, with education matters such as interpreting American history – the New York Times’ “1619 Project” versus the Trump 1776 Commission – figuring prominently in angry national debates.

Indeed, of the now‐​68 rioters for whom we have found education information, only 5 attended private high schools, and 1 attended a private elementary school. 6 of 68 is 8.8 percent; less than the share of all students who have annually attended private versus public schools since 1995, which has fluctuated between 9.7 and 11.7 percent. Include homeschoolers to calculate the national private share – we did not find any homeschoolers among the rioters – and in the most recent federal data private education accounted for 12.5 percent of all students.

Of course, this is not dispositive. There are many Capitol stormers for whom we do not have data, and many for whom we only have high school data. But add this to the body of empirical research finding that private schools tend to produce more tolerant and civically knowledgeable students, and fears that choice would produce a more radicalized or undemocratic society are unsubstantiated.

All that said, we cannot put all or most of the blame for the poisonous stew that led to the January 6 disgrace on public schooling. Many powerful ingredients went into it, from globalization to plain old demagoguery, and private schoolers are certainly not immune to disagreement or violence. But at the very least, we can conclude that public schooling is not the solution to social divisions or political unrest that its champions have portrayed it to be, and it may well have contributed to the anger and lawlessness that exploded on January 6, 2021.

Used with permission. Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0