School Choice & Charters

Researcher Finds Graduates Of Catholic Schools More Likely to Vote

By Debra Viadero — October 29, 2003 3 min read
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Going to Roman Catholic schools seems to increase the chances that students will grow up to become active voters, but it doesn’t make them any more likely to volunteer in their communities.

That conclusion, which is drawn from national studies tracking students from secondary school into adulthood, comes from a study presented here this month during the annual meeting of the National Academy of Education.

The academy, which comprises 150 of the most distinguished scholars in the field of education research, holds the annual event to nurture the careers of promising young researchers.

The study on Catholic schools, by Swarthmore College researcher Thomas S. Dee, was among 32 projects and studies-in-progress spotlighted during the Oct. 17-18 meeting at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

Those younger scholars came here to present work on civic education, the academic progress of black boys in small schools, English education in China, and nearly two dozen other topics in the hope of getting feedback and making some connections with the “old walruses” of education research.

‘Agnostic’ on Credit

For his study, Mr. Dee, 35, analyzed data from two nationally representative surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education: High School and Beyond and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. While most of the research on the benefits of Catholic schooling focuses on young students, those federal databases track students into adulthood, which gave the Swarthmore economist a chance to determine how Catholic-school alumni behaved years after leaving school.

Mr. Dee found that students who had attended Catholic secondary schools were more likely than their public school counterparts to report that they had registered and voted in local and national elections.

In some cases, he found, the former Catholic-school students were 8 to 12 percentage points more likely than public school graduates to have voted.

The sizable advantage also held up after the researcher adjusted the numbers to take into account dozens of other possible explanations for the differences, such as parents’ wealth or educational levels, whether the former students attended religious services regularly, and the percentages of voters who turned out at the polls in their communities.

It’s still possible, Mr. Dee cautioned, that his analyses might have missed some explanations that were not measured in the surveys. For that reason, he quipped, researchers should remain “agnostic” in definitively crediting Catholic schools for boosting voter turnouts.

He said the findings were still important, though, because they show that Catholic schools are “not inferior” to public schools at nurturing civic-minded students.

“I still think there’s sort of a maintained assumption in the U.S. that, if anything, private schools should be worse at providing civic benefits,” said Mr. Dee, a product of Catholic schools himself.

He did not know, however, why Catholic schooling seemed to have no effect—and, in some cases, even had a slight negative effect—on students’ propensity to volunteer in adulthood.

A Veteran’s View

Denis C. Phillips, the veteran Stanford University researcher selected to critique Mr. Dee’s study, praised the younger scholar for thoroughly exploring other possible explanations for his results. But he suggested one possibility the economist might have overlooked: Were there election issues in those years that might have drawn more Catholic-school graduates to the polls?

Mr. Phillips was among 40 academy members who came to the meeting. The event also attracted nearly 100 current and former postdoctoral fellows—a group whose work the academy supports with grants from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation. The foundation also sponsors reporting on education research in Education Week.

In the same session, the group heard from Rob Reich, 34, another Stanford University researcher, who is examining whether private contributions to public schools exacerbate inequalities among schools.

His ongoing project looks in part at the local education funds that sprang up throughout California in the 1990s to supplement budgets at many suburban schools. What he wants to find out is which private contributions are greater—the large foundation grants received by poorer, urban schools or the grants from local education funds that went to wealthier suburban schools.

“I suggest it’s the former but, on a per-pupil basis, it might be the latter,” he said.

Researchers will have to wait until next year’s meeting to find out the answer to that question.

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