Building moral character

An open embrace of spiritual values in choice schools builds better citizens

By PATRICK MCILHERAN | April 14, 2022

Carmen Bell gives high marks to the Milwaukee high school that her daughter Naomi graduated from last year. Ask why, and she starts with phrases you’ve heard before.

The teachers were supportive and caring. But many teachers in many schools are supportive and caring. Teachers pushed students to excel. Again, admirable — and widely professed.

Then she says this: Teachers at Milwaukee Lutheran High School are “very open with their faith.” At chapel in the gym when a child overwhelmed by the message would start crying from joy. Or in everyday interactions with students. It wasn’t pushy, but the school was demonstrating to the children that “we serve a living God,” she says.

Bell, who describes herself as a believer in Christ, thinks the element of faith made a difference for the students, for her daughter. “Why wouldn’t it make a difference?” she says. “It should make a difference.”

Findings released last fall by a long-running project studying Milwaukee schoolchildren suggest faith makes a big difference. When children who have little or no religious upbringing attend a private choice school (roughly nine in 10 such schools in Milwaukee are religious or following a religious tradition), it serves to “suppress criminal tendencies and paternity cases of students later in life” to about as great a degree as having had a highly religious upbringing.

Avoiding criminal tendencies later in life is not the fullness of good citizenship, but it is a prerequisite. In this sense, school choice — a specific part of school choice — makes better citizens. “We really do think that the religious component is what’s forming the moral ecology at these schools,” says Patrick Wolf, one of the researchers.

The findings build on earlier research that says attending a private choice school makes a huge difference in whether a Milwaukeean will be convicted of a crime as a young adult.

Citizenship markers

The School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas began studying Milwaukee’s pioneering school choice program in 2006 under a mandate from the Wisconsin Legislature.

By 2011, it became clear that, all factors being equal, students in choice program private schools were significantly more likely to graduate from high school and stay in college. The findings were a landmark vindication of a program under political attack since its launch in 1990.

Researchers followed up by pairing about 1,100 of those students with Milwaukee Public Schools students, surveying their parents and checking court records to compare what became of them. Wolf, a University of Arkansas professor, and researcher Corey DeAngelis released their findings in 2016.

Young men who were in the choice program all the way through high school were 79% less likely to have committed a felony and 42% less likely to have been convicted of any kind of crime than their MPS counterparts, the findings showed.

DeAngelis and Wolf followed up three years later and found that those 25- to 28-year-olds who had been in a private school were now 53% less likely to have a drug conviction, 86% less likely to have been convicted of damaging property and 38% less likely to have been involved in a paternity suit.

Drug convictions serve as a marker in the community: “It suggests you’re involved in other criminal activity,” Wolf says. So, too, with paternity suits, according to University of Arkansas researcher Marilyn Anderson Rhames: They don’t indicate crime, she says, but filing one “implies some level of poverty or desperation that we don’t want our children to have to grow up to experience.”

Rhames is behind the most recent research on criminal tendencies. She and Wolf capitalized on the fact that the 2006 research asked parents their religious affiliation and frequency of attending worship services.

They found that among the 25- to 28-year-olds, the former MPS students who came from a “low-religiosity” home were markedly more likely to later be convicted of resisting arrest and having restraining orders placed against them than MPS students from a “high-religiosity” family.

Students from a low-religiosity family who attend a private choice school, however, had markedly fewer misdemeanors, drug convictions, arrests and fines compared to low-religiosity students in MPS.

And when it comes to paternity suits, the effects of going to a private choice school and coming from a religious family reinforce one another.

The researchers are careful to point out that the study is descriptive, not causal — the numbers say only that going to a choice school produces better results, not why. But they do suggest a school can provide the same sort of framework for building moral character as a religious upbringing, Wolf says.

A transcendent urgency

What does it look like when a school provides such a framework? Ask those involved, and at first the answers sound mundane.

Trenae Howard, principal at Granville Lutheran, a K-8 school on Milwaukee’s northwest side with 249 students, most via the choice program, talks about setting expectations.

“We really let kids know this is their safe place,” she says. Again, all of this is at least talked about in public schools, too. “We stress the teamwork of having families involved,” she says.

Doesn’t everyone try to stress that?

“It sounds good and looks good on paper. But holding people to it is where you see some schools finding it too much work,” Howard says. Not when you understand the stakes for families and their children: “I have their prize possession. This gift God has given — we have it here at this school, and we give it back better.”

In other words, the school’s ability — as a choice school — to openly embrace its faith tradition lends a transcendent urgency to its character- and community-building.

Granville Lutheran builds its school year calendar around working on a particular virtue each week. The week we spoke, the students were discussing a Bible passage, Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Here were future adult citizens of Milwaukee, most of whom are not Lutheran, learning how to live peacefully. Not simply for practical reasons but as the profound moral imperative to be a child of God, Howard says.

A values advantage

Alex Riehle, who directs admissions at the nondenominational Christian K4-12 Eastbrook Academy on Milwaukee’s northeast side, says the school’s 400 students come from 19 area cities — Milwaukee, the North Shore, Muskego, West Bend — and from different backgrounds and denominations.

“They’re bridge-makers,” Riehle says. The daily practice of building friendships across differences means that by graduation, “they’re better equipped at being able to talk with people who attend different churches than them. They’re better equipped at being able to sustain their neighborhood.”

Tia Hatchett, whose son, Jaden, graduated in 2021 from Milwaukee Lutheran High, says her son was drawn to the school by its academics and because he saw it as a chance to deepen his faith.

Hatchett’s family isn’t Lutheran — they go to a nondenominational church — but rather than feeling like an outcast, her son was challenged “to look for something we have in common.” He learned that “I may not have to believe what you believe, but I don’t have to lose respect for you,” she says.

Rather than narrowly sectarian goods, these lessons — respectful understanding of others’ beliefs and differences, making peace as if eternity depended on it — are civic virtues.

That comports with last year’s findings by Rhames and Wolf that, as Rhames put it, religious private schools in the choice program “may have the most profound effect on the unchurched student population.” Nothing in the research said low-religiosity students underwent a religious conversion. But they did better at staying out of trouble — a benefit for them and for their fellow citizens.

Rhames taught in the Chicago Public Schools for 14 years, and she’s the founder of a nonprofit that supports public school teachers who seek to model Christian behavior in a secular environment.

Her education policy research has led her to conclude the ability of private schools to openly express a religious view gives them an advantage over government-run schools.

“Private schools really do have more latitude to express their values,” she says. “That’s why having school choice is liberating for some parents who know they can’t provide that religious background for their children, but they know the value for their children,” she adds.

And of value to the greater Milwaukee community, enriched by young adults who, through their school choice education, are moral and civic assets.

Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited. 

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