A Primer on School Choice

June 29, 2019 —

The idea behind school choice is that giving parents more options for where their children attend school will lead to better education outcomes. The last four presidents have called for expanding school choice. Federal education policies encourage states to create alternatives to traditional public schools that are better suited to the diverse needs of local students. Today, nearly every state offers some form of school choice program, whether it’s open enrollment, charter schools, vouchers, or tax credits.

At the same time, the expansion of school choice options has created opportunities to research its effectiveness – for charter schools in particular – and the results have been mixed. In recent years support for charter schools has been waning among Democratic leaders. Cory Booker, once a proponent of charter schools and school choice, has downplayed the issue in his presidential campaign. Education Secretary Betsy Devos put school choice at the center of her policy agenda, but there are reports that her school choice coalition plans to rebrand itself after voucher and tax credit proposals met with strong resistance from Democrats in Congress.

How did an idea with broad political appeal lose momentum? It’s possible that confusion plays a role. After years of experimentation, there are so many different kinds of programs in effect that school choice has come to mean different things to different people. Furthermore, state legislatures continually consider new school choice proposals and make changes to existing programs.

Beneath all these choices, however, there are two underlying questions. The first is how we spend public funds for education. The second is how we go about providing better educational opportunities to all children.

On the funding side, most school choice programs fall into one of two categories: those that promote choice within the public school system, and those that include the choice of private school options. Public school programs, unlike private school options, keep public funds inside the public school system. Examples of public school choice programs include open enrollment, magnet schools, and charter schools.

  • Open enrollment programs allow individual schools or districts to decide whether they will accept students who live outside their boundaries.
  • Magnet schools are public schools that offer special instruction and programs not available elsewhere, often designed to attract a more diverse student body from within a school district or from outside the district as well.
  • Charter schools are public schools established by teachers, parents, or community groups under the terms of a charter, usually with a state authorizing agency. The terms of the charter can exempt them from some state laws and regulations that govern traditional public schools. Like magnet schools, they can select students from anywhere within and sometimes outside their district.

Private school choice programs allow families to use some form of public funding to educate their children outside the public school system. These programs include school vouchers, education savings programs, and tax credit programs.

  • School voucher programs give parents a certain amount of public education money to pay toward private school tuition. Some states allow religious schools to accept vouchers, but many states prohibit spending public dollars on religious schools.
  • Education savings accounts are a variation on school voucher programs. Instead of a voucher, parents receive a deposit of funds in an account. One key difference is that vouchers can be used only at participating schools, but parents can use ESA funds for tuition at whatever school they choose, and sometimes for home schooling as well.
  • Tax credit programs allow families to claim income tax credits for education expenses, which can include private school tuition, books, supplies, computers, tutors and transportation.

One reason that private school choice programs are more controversial than public options is that private schools often are not held to the same accountability standards as public schools.   Critics argue they should not receive public funds if they are not held to the same standards. Furthermore, in states that allow these programs to be used to pay tuition at religious schools, the programs raise larger questions about separation of church and state.

Apart from the funding question is the issue of equal opportunity. Public schools are funded by local property taxes, so families that can afford to live in better school districts have a basic advantage over families that cannot.

Despite years of federal reform measures designed to increase support for minority students and low-income families, achievement gaps persist. All too often these gaps are characterized by differences in race and income. Seen in this light, school choice is about much more than sources of funding. It is about leveling the playing field by giving more families access to school choices they cannot otherwise afford.

In future articles, we will take a closer look at two of the more complex and controversial school choice programs, charter schools and voucher programs, and try to assess the arguments for and against each one.

To start learning more about school choice programs, check out these resources.

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This article originally appeared in the June 29, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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