Parents have always had a vested interest in their children’s education. Public policy should fiercely defend the right of parents to choose an education for their children because parental choice in education is in the best interest of their children. Parental preference is a powerful predictor of student outcomes. When parents choose, kids win!
Biblical foundations for a parental prerogative
There’s a strong biblical foundation for a parental prerogative in education. In Deuteronomy 6, parents are explicitly commanded to teach God’s commandments “diligently to your children” (vv. 4-9; 20ff; English Standard Version). The expressed command is repeated in Psalm 78 with the hope that “the next generation might know” what God has done for his people (vv. 1-8). In Psalm 127, children are described as a “heritage from the LORD,” who supports parents in building them up and watching over them. Paul’s exhortation to parents in Ephesians is equally clear: bring up your children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Even when parents do not directly administer their children’s education, the teacher-student relationship often draws on this parental motif. In the book of Proverbs, Solomon refers to his students as “my son” or “my sons” on several occasions. Eli called Samuel “my son” (1 Samuel 3:6). Paul wrote to Timothy, “my true child in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2), and to Titus, “my true child in a common faith” (Titus 1:4). Paul even saw himself as being “spent” for the Corinthian church, his “children” (2 Corinthians 12:14-15). Parents who choose to partner with a Christian school invite their school to come alongside and support them as they commit themselves and their families to “serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15).
Empirical research on parental choice
As I often say, empirical evidence is not the reason for affirming biblical truth. I would firmly believe in the parental prerogative to oversee children’s education, regardless of what social science concludes. Nevertheless, we should not be surprised if research supports what we know to be true from the Bible. Three recently published studies provide compelling evidence that parental preference is a powerful predictor of student success.
These papers examine education contexts in which students are assigned to schools by a central office. Beuermann and Jackson (2022) studied parental choice in the Barbados education system, in which students are awarded a seat at their parent-preferred school by test score performance until no more seats are available, at which point they are admitted to the parents’ next most preferred school with seats available. Beuermann et al. (2022) and Ovidi (2022) studied similar systems in other geographic contexts (Trinidad and Tobago and London, respectively).
The key detail in each of these studies is that students of similar ability are assigned to schools of similar quality: the students compared performed similarly on prior standardized tests, and they attended schools that are rated similarly by experts. Because students are admitted to schools based in part on how parents ranked the schools, the only difference is parental preference: some students attend schools slightly more preferred by parents, while others attend schools slightly less preferred. If parental preference is not related to student outcomes, this “minor” difference would not lead to measurable differences.
Instead, all three papers find compelling evidence that parental preference makes a major difference for their children.
Attending a parent-preferred school benefits students’ short-term outcomes, including test scores and graduation rates. Ovidi found that these effects were even more favorable for students eligible for free lunch. Parental preference also benefits students’ long-term outcomes, resulting in improved earnings, occupational rank, and health, as well as reduced criminality and teen motherhood.
Implications for Christian schools
Whether it is because they know something about their children or because they were able to detect something about the school, these studies support the claim that parents are more than capable of exercising discretion when it comes to their child’s education, and that parental choice is positive for student learning. Education policy should empower families to send their children to the schools they prefer.
Many parents prefer a faith-based education for their children. In a literature review on how parents in the United States exercise educational choice, Heidi Holmes Erickson found that religious or moral instruction was among the most important considerations for parents when choosing schools. In its recent decision in Carson v. Makin, the Supreme Court concluded that states cannot prevent religious schools from participating in private school choice programs, paving the way for greater access to the faith-based schools parents desire.
Unfortunately, even in the case of private school choice scholarship programs in the United States, regulations often deter Christian private schools from participating, preventing parents from accessing the schools they prefer. Christian schools often have their reasons for avoiding regulations, which may affect their ability to maintain their faith-based identity, teach moral content, or hire faculty and staff to support their mission. According to Jay Ferguson, regulations have the power to “fundamentally alter the nature and character of Christian schools” (2020, p. 101).
So which regulations would most deter Christian schools from participating in scholarship programs? To answer this question, Eric Price, Lynn Swaner, and I recently fielded an experimental survey with ACSI member schools. School leaders were randomly assigned to a control condition (no regulations) or one of four regulations (required standardized testing, open enrollment mandate, employment regulation, or copay prohibition), allowing us to estimate the effect each regulation would have on participation rates. We found that the open enrollment mandate and the employment regulation each significantly reduced participation rates, especially among accredited schools and schools that offer programs such as STEM, fine arts, or special education.
Policymakers need to recognize that parental school choice makes a powerful difference for students. But when legislating private school choice programs, policymakers should also consider the impact of regulations. Regulations that limit parents’ ability to choose hinder student outcomes in both the short-term and long-term. Instead, policy should empower parents to make the choice that makes a difference for their children’s lives.
Ferguson, J. W. (2020). The philosophical futility of “substantially similar” in the interplay of religious and public education: A Christian school perspective. In J. M. Bedrick, J. P. Greene, & M. H. Lee (Eds.), Religious liberty and education: A case study of yeshivas vs. New York (pp. 101–110). Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.
About the Author
Dr. Matthew H. Lee is director of research at the Association of Christian Schools International and an adjunct professor of education policy at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches a course on education finance. He is co-editor of Religious Liberty and Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020) and author of numerous peer-reviewed research articles, book chapters, technical reports, and op-eds on civics education, education leadership, and religious education. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @hmatthewlee.