Social benefits of religious schools extend beyond education

Written by William C. Duncan

August 12, 2021

This is the time of year when millions of American children return to school. The vast majority of them will be attending public schools, but a sizeable minority will attend one of the more than 30,000 private elementary and secondary schools in the United States.

Of these, “20 percent [are] Catholic schools, 12 percent [are] conservative Christian schools, 9 percent [are] affiliated religious schools, 26 percent [are] unaffiliated religious schools, and 33 percent [are] nonsectarian schools,” as a report for the National Center for Education Statistics says.

In all, nearly 4 million U.S. children are educated at religious schools in any given year.

The social benefits of religious education, however, go beyond the number of students who are educated in religious schools.

Historically, as with colleges and universities, elementary and secondary schools in the colonial and early Republic period were predominantly religious. In fact, many of the colonies specifically promoted religious education in their laws (including later, after they became states). In fact, “Education in America remained primarily under ecclesiastical control up to the middle of the nineteenth century until gradually state support of sectarian schools was withdrawn.”

Thus, religious organizations and churches played a significant role in “creating educational infrastructure.”

Religious schools continue to make important contributions. Research suggests that students educated in private schools are more likely to vote as adults. Another study found students “educated in Protestant secondary schools are considerably more likely than other young people to continue to volunteer.”

Patrick Wolf, a professor at the University of Arkansas, reviewed research on private schools and concluded that these schools “often enhance the realization of the civic values that are central to a well-functioning democracy,” particularly among ethnic minorities “and when Catholic schools are the schools of choice.”

Some religious schools also have demonstrable benefits to an even more fundamental social institution – the family. A report from scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies found:

  • “Adults who attended Protestant schools are more than twice as likely to be in an intact marriage as those who attended public schools. They are also about 50% less likely than public-school attendees to have a child out of wedlock.
  • “Among those who have ever married, Protestant-school attendees are about 60% less likely than public-school attendees to have ever divorced. …
  • “Catholic-school attendees are about 30% less likely to have had a child out of wedlock than those who attended public schools.”

This is true even when a child’s socioeconomic status is considered. “About 40% of public-school attendees who grew up in financially unstable households eventually marry and never divorce. The rate is higher for Catholic-school attendees who grew up in the same unstable financial situation (53%). Meanwhile, Protestant-school attendees who grew up in financial hardship are the most likely to marry and never divorce; 72% are still in their first marriage.”

This is consistent with other research noted in the report that “indicates that religious schooling is associated with higher rates of marriage among young adults.” Religious school students “have lower odds of teenage births than public school students.”

One of the authors of the AEI/IFS report, who herself benefited from a religious school education, suggested some of the reasons for these advantages:

  1. “I was exposed to healthy married families with faithful dads and husbands. …
  2. “I was taught a worldview that said every life has value and purpose, that marriage was designed by God for the good of children and society, that divorce was taboo, and sex and parenthood should be reserved for marriage. Importantly, I saw these values lived out in the lives of my teachers and in most of the families of my peers. …
  3. “The friends and classmates I found there helped keep me away from choices that would have derailed my future.”

Religious schools not only set the pattern for our current school system, but they continue to benefit society by educating capable and involved students and strengthen their families, benefiting not only those students but their communities as well.

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