Religious Tolerance, Cooperation And School Choice
Religion & Liberty Online

Religious Tolerance, Cooperation And School Choice

President Barack Obama, during a recent trip to Northern Ireland, decried the segregation of denominational churches and schools:

Issues like segregated schools and housing, lack of jobs and opportunity — symbols of history that are a source of pride for some and pain for others — these are not tangential to peace; they’re essential to it.

If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings, and Protestants have theirs — if we can’t see ourselves in one another, if fear and resentment are allowed to harden, that encourages division. It discourages cooperation.

As a former teacher in a private school, I made sure that my high school students not only studied their own faith, but world religions. They read the texts of other faiths, listened to people of different faiths, learned about the cultures those faiths grew out of. I told them it was important to learn this because their future college roommate might be Muslim, a future co-worker a Hindu, a someday-friend a Jew. It would be important to be able to converse with them, be respectful and aware of customs and rituals, and be able to dialogue in a knowledgeable manner.

I realize my American Midwest experience does not have the heavy political and religious history in Northern Ireland; however, research bears out that Obama has it wrong: students in private schools are more tolerant than those in public schools.

…Patrick Wolf identified 21 studies of the effect that public and private schooling have on political tolerance. Tolerance is typically measured by asking students to name their least-liked group and then determining whether students would allow members of that group to engage in political activities, such as running for elected office or holding a rally. The more willing students are to let members of their least-liked group engage in these activities, the more tolerant they are judged to be…

Of those studies, only one—focusing on the relatively small sector of non-Catholic religious schools—found that public-school students are more tolerant. Eleven studies, examining both secular and religious private schools, found that private-school students are significantly more likely to be tolerant, and nine found no difference.

It seems as those who teach in private schools have the same understanding as I did: “…contrary to elite suspicion, religion can teach important lessons about human equality and dignity that inspire tolerance.”

I don’t live and did not teach in Northern Ireland, where civil war and terrorism still haunt many. However, if studies bear out that private schools could help heal such wounds, why would the president not support school choice? In Washington, where public schools are about as bad as they can get, President Obama and his administration have opposed vouchers that would allow low-income students greater choice in education.

[T]he Education Department prevented the program’s administrator from accepting applications after an arbitrary date of March 31 of this year [2012], shutting out anyone who came forward after that cutoff. Then, scholarship lotteries for the 2012-13 school year weren’t allowed to take place until July, far later than many parents could wait to make decisions about where their kids would attend school in the fall. Nobody at the department can give straight answers as to why.

In practical terms, what this means is that only 319 new students were offered scholarships, despite demand for many more.

It is ironic that President Obama would decry religious segregation of schools in the name of tolerance and cooperation in Northern Ireland, while just beyond the White House windows, students are denied the ability to seek opportunity outside the failing D.C. school system. If the president wants to do away with division, encourage cooperation and end segregation in schools, why not start in his own backyard?


Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.