School choice is a nationwide movement that empowers parents by enabling them to make the best possible choice for their children’s education. In short, it puts power in the hands of parents to decide which type of education best fits the needs of their particular child – whether that is a public, private or religious institution, or educating their child at home.
School choice also protects parents’ constitutional rights to direct their children’s upbringing in accordance with the values, principles and religious convictions they hold dear.
School Choice in the United States
School choice, or the right to decide where and how to educate your children, has always existed for parents who could afford to send their children to a private school or to move to a better school district. Today, however, many states are implementing policies and programs that make available an unprecedented array of education options for families of varying levels. As of 2011, families in at least 18 states had some form of school choice, and legislators in 41 states introduced or passed school choice bills.1
While there are many different types of “school choice” programs, they can be generally categorized into two basic forms: public school choice and private school choice.
Private School Choice
Private school choice refers to publicly funded scholarship programs that redirect the flow of education funding to individual families rather than to government schools. In other words, the money now follows the child rather than a bureaucracy. Under these programs, parents can apply for scholarships that allow them to send their child to a private school of their choice, including religious ones.
Without school choice scholarships, parents who want their kids to go to a private school would have to, in essence, double pay. In other words, they would pay for a private education while also paying taxes that go toward public education. That means private schools are out of the question for many middle class and underprivileged families. School choice is designed to solve this problem. It would level the playing field for families of different incomes by allowing parents to redirect their tax dollars toward schools of their choice.
More than 150,000 children benefit from private school choice programs across the country.
These programs can be categorized into three main types:
- Opportunity Scholarship Programs. The purest form of school choice, opportunity scholarship programs offer parents the opportunity to apply for scholarships that they can allocate toward tuition for their children at a private school, including a faith-based institution. Indiana recently enacted one of the broadest, most far-reaching school choice programs in the nation — providing scholarships for low-income and middle-income students. Usually scholarship programs are tailored to low-income families or award scholarships based on a sliding scale according to household income.One of the most well-known of these programs is the federally funded, D.C.-based Opportunity Scholarship program, which after an intense outcry from D.C. parents, was restored with 2011 legislation that allows students in grades K-8 to apply for scholarships worth up to $8,000. High school students can receive scholarships worth up to $12,000. This program has received bipartisan support from city leaders. Louisiana also has implemented ground-breaking school choice programs that allows for up to 1,500 low-to-middle-income students in the New Orleans area, as well as a statewide program allowing special needs students to receive scholarships to attend private schools. 3Milwaukee has one of the oldest and largest school choice scholarship programs, founded in 1990 for low-income students. Today, more than 20,000 children participate in the program.4
- Special Needs and Foster-Child Scholarships. Even in states where there is significant opposition to more widespread school choice, incremental programs that seek to benefit the neediest children have been successful – especially scholarships designed to assist children with disabilities and those within the foster-care system. The states of Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and Utah all have special needs scholarship programs.
- Tax Credit Scholarship Programs. These programs allow corporations who donate to school choice scholarships to receive tax credits for their contributions. States with tax credit scholarship programs include Georgia, Iowa, Arizona and Florida. Some states, including Georgia, are also beginning to allow tax deductions for individuals who contribute to education scholarship programs.
- Education Savings Accounts: In 2011, Arizona passed a first-of-its kind law to offer educational choice through innovative Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs allow parents or guardians to have the state deposit a percentage of their child’s per pupil funding into a savings account, which they can then use for various educational options, including private school tuition, online education, tutoring costs, or even college courses.
Public School Choice
Despite the spread of private school choice programs, the majority of students – an estimated 56 million – remain in government-funded public schools, and too many of those schools are underperforming or failing. We spend nearly 500 billion on public schools, and yet graduation rates are as low as 52 to 56 percent for minority students. Clearly, efforts to increase choice and competition for families inside the public school system remain essential.
- Charter Schools.Charter schools represent the most popular form of public school choice and have seen tremendous growth in the last few years. Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that have more autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic control than standard public schools. This autonomy is provided in exchange for agreed upon measures of accountability described in the school’s charter. Charter schools can be started by parents, private companies, religious organizations or even universities. Parents often work together to start charter schools in their neighborhood that offer unique programs tailored to the needs of community children. Many charter schools are designed to assist disadvantaged students or those who have not been able to thrive in traditional public schools.The charter school movement is remarkably successful, expanding rapidly in a relatively short period of time. In 1990, there were no charters schools. Today, there are more than 5,400 schools with more than 1.7 million students. States or cities with fast-growing charter school movements include Washington, D.C., Houston, California and New Orleans, where more than half of the city’s students attend charter schools. New Orleans has the highest percentage of charter schools in the nation.5Unlike their traditional public school counterparts, charter schools are more accountable to the public, and they are much easier to shut down if they do not perform well.
- Other Forms of Choice. Another example of public school choice worth mentioning is a key provision in President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law, which will soon be revamped under a different administration. This provision allows children in consistently failing schools to transfer to a better performing public school.
- There is also a significant growth of “virtual schools,” which allow students to participate in online public education in the privacy of their home.
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Outside both private and public choice, home schooling is a vitally important option that provides parents complete freedom to choose and direct their child’s educational curriculum. Today there are an estimated 2 million students receiving their education at home.