School choice

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"School choice" is a term for K–12 public education options in the United States, describing a wide array of programs offering students and their families alternatives to publicly provided schools, to which students are generally assigned by the location of their family residence. In the United States, the most common—both by number of programs and by number of participating students—school choice programs are scholarship tax credit programs, which allow individuals or corporations to receive tax credits toward their state taxes in exchange for donations made to non-profit organizations that grant private school scholarships.[1] In other cases, a similar subsidy may be provided by the state through a school voucher program. Other school choice options include open enrollment laws (which allow students to attend public schools outside the district in which the students live), charter schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, homeschooling, education savings accounts (ESAs), and individual tax credits or deductions for educational expenses.


Economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman proposed in 1955 using free market principles to improve the United States public school system; the practice had been that children were assigned a public school based on where their parents live, which public schools were funded by state and local taxes. Friedman proposed that parents should be able to receive those education funds in the form of vouchers, which would allow them to choose their children's schools, including both public and private, religious and non-religious options.[2] In 1996, Friedman and his wife economist Rose Director Friedman founded the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, (now EdChoice);[3][4][5] this American education reform organization headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana seeks to advance “school choice for all children” nationwide.[6]

The first use of school vouchers in the United States came in the form of state tuition grants provided by Virginia's 1956 Stanley Plan, which financed white-only private schools known as segregation academies. Other states followed until the practice was disallowed by Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1964). While school choice has always implied school improvement, debates have regularly followed about the motivation and implementation.


Scholarship tax credits[edit]

States with scholarship tax credit programs grant individuals and/or businesses a credit, whether full or partial, toward their taxes for donations made to scholarship granting organizations (also called school tuition organizations). SGOs/STOs use the donations to create scholarships that are then given to help pay for the cost of tuition for students; these scholarships allow students to attend private schools or out-of-district public schools that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for many families. These programs currently exist in fourteen states: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia in the United States.[7]


Vouchers give students the opportunity to attend a private school of their choosing, secular or religious; this would be paid for by accessing all or part of the public funding set aside for their children’s education.[8]

Charter schools[edit]

Charter schools are independent public schools which are exempt from many of the state and local regulations which govern most public schools; these exemptions grant charter schools some autonomy and flexibility with decision-making, such as teacher union contracts, hiring, and curriculum. In return, charter schools are subject to stricter accountability on spending and academic performance; the majority of states (and the District of Columbia) have charter school laws, though they vary in how charter schools are approved. Minnesota was the first state to have a charter school law and the first charter school in the United States, City Academy High School, opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1992;[9] the prevalence of charter schools has increased with the support of the Obama Administration. Under the Administration, the Department of Education has provided funding incentives to states and school districts that increase the number of charter schools.[10]

Somewhere between 22 and 26% of Dayton, Ohio children are in charter schools;[11] this is the highest percentage in the nation.[citation needed] Other hotbeds for charter schools are Kansas City (24%), Washington, D.C. (20-24%), and Arizona. Almost one in four public schools in Arizona are charter schools, comprising about 8% of total enrollment.

Charter schools can also come in the form of cyber charters. Cyber charter schools deliver the majority of their instruction over the internet instead of in a school building. And, like all charter schools, cyber charters are public schools, but they are free from some of the rules and regulations that conventional public schools must follow.

Magnet schools[edit]

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts allows the school committees of public school districts to have open enrollment policies. Towns in Massachusetts represented by the "School Choice Receiving District Status" (open enrollment status) of their public high school district for the 2016-2017 academic year. Towns represented in blue have school districts with an open enrollment policy for kindergarten through high school. Towns represented in purple have school districts with open enrollment only for specific grades. Towns represented in red have school districts with a closed enrollment policy.[12]

Magnet schools are public schools that often have a specialized function like science, technology, or art; these magnet schools, unlike charter schools, are not open to all children. Much like many private schools, some (but not all) magnet schools require a test to get in. Magnet schools are an example of open enrollment programs. Open enrollment refers to district or statewide programs that allow families to choose public schools other than the ones they are assigned. Intradistrict open enrollment programs allow school choice within a district. Interdistrict open enrollment allows families to choose schools outside the district in other districts.[13]

Home schooling[edit]

"Home education" or "home schooling" is instruction in a child's home, or provided primarily by a parent, or under direct parental control. Informal home education has always taken place, and formal instruction in the home has at times also been very popular; as public education grew in popularity during the 1900s, however, the number of people educated at home using a planned curriculum dropped. In the last 20 years, in contrast, the number of children being formally educated at home has grown tremendously, in particular in the United States; the laws relevant to home education differ throughout the country. In some states the parent simply needs to notify the state that the child will be educated at home. In other states the parents are not free to educate at home unless at least one parent is a certified teacher and yearly progress reports are reviewed by the state; such laws are not always enforced however. According to the federal government, about 1.1 million children were home educated in 2003.[14]

District of Choice

District of Choice is a program in California created during 1993, allowing any California public school district to enroll students outside district lines.[15] To participate in the program, district governing boards only need to declare themselves a District of Choice and set a quota for how many transfer students to accept to participate in the program. School districts cannot discriminate among students to enroll, but can limit them through an unbiased lottery system; the program was created in response to several parent's concerns over the lack of choice of schools to enroll their children in. Currently 47 school districts and 10,000 students participate in the program, serving 5 percent of school districts and 0.2 percent of students in California.[16]

Education Savings Accounts[edit]

This variant of school choice allows the parent to withdraw their child out of the public or charter school, and receive a direct deposit of public funds into a government-authorized savings account; these funds are often distributed in the form of a debit card that can be used to pay for various services, such as private school tuition and fees, online programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education services, and other approved learning materials and services. ESA’s also acquire the ability to pay for a combination of public school courses and private services.[17]

Tax credit/deduction for educational expenses[edit]

Certain states allow parents to claim a tax credit or deduction as a means to provide relief for certain educational expenses; these can include private school tuition, textbooks, school supplies and equipment, tutoring, and transportation. Currently, Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have such programs.[18]

Individual Tax Credit and Deduction Option[edit]

  • This form of choice abates the income tax for parents, so approved educational expenses are economical. Approved educational expenses include private school tuition, supplies, computers, books, tutors, and transportation.

*Tax credits: lowers the total a person owes on taxes

*Tax deduction: reduces a persons total taxable income


Online Learning[edit]

Online learning permits students to work with teachers and their courses over the internet; this can be used in cooperation with, or in place of traditional classroom instruction. The online learning can be also paid for by accessing ESA’s and vouchers.[8]

Customized Learning[edit]

This form of tutelage is a student-tailored form of education; this form of instruction can have various combinations. For example, course choice programs, public school courses, and special education therapies can all be integrated into a students curriculum. There are a myriad of possibilities, especially as learning innovations continue to occur.[8]



The goal of school choice programs is to give parents more control over their child's education and to allow parents to pursue the most appropriate learning environments for children. For example, school choice may enable parents to choose a school that provides religious instruction, stronger discipline, better foundational skills (including reading, writing, mathematics, and science), everyday skills (from handling money to farming), or other desirable foci.[20][21]

Supporters of voucher models of school choice argue that choice creates competition between schools for students. Schools that fail to attract students can be closed. Advocates of school choice argue that this competition for students (and the dollars that come with them) create a catalyst for schools to create innovative programs, become more responsive to parental demands, and to increase student achievement.[22] Caroline Hoxby suggests that this competition increases the productivity of a school. Hoxby describes a productive school as being one that produces high student achievement for each dollar spent.[23] Others suggest that this competition gives parents more power to influence their child's school in the school marketplace. Parents and students become the consumers and schools must work to attract new students with new programs. Parents also have the ability to punish schools that they judge to be inferior by leaving the 'bad' school for a better, more highly ranked school.[24] Parents look for schools that will advocate for the needs of their child and if the school does not meet the needs required for that child, parents have the choice to find a school that will be more suitable;[25] this freedom to choose puts the consequences of good or bad choosing on the parents instead of the government.[26]

Another argument in favor of school choice is based on cost-effectiveness. Studies undertaken by the Cato Institute and other libertarian and conservative think tanks conclude that privately run education both costs less and produces superior outcomes compared to public education.[27][28][29][30]

Others argue that since children from impoverished families almost exclusively attend D or F ranked public schools, school choice programs would give parents the power to opt their children out of poorly-performing schools assigned by zip code and seek better education elsewhere. Supporters say this would level the playing field by broadening opportunities for low-income students—particularly minorities—to attend high-quality schools that would otherwise be accessible only to higher-income families.[20][31]

The Organisation Internationale pour le Droit à l'Education et la Liberté d'Enseignement (OIDEL), an international non-profit organization for the development of freedom of education, maintains that the right to education is a fundamental human right which cannot exist without the presence of State benefits and the protection of individual liberties. According to the organization, freedom of education notably implies the freedom for parents to choose a school for their children without discrimination on the basis of finances. To advance freedom of education, OIDEL promotes a greater parity between public and private schooling systems.[32]


Teachers' unions in the United States are very opposed to school choice. School choice measures are criticized as profiteering in an under-regulated environment.[33] Charter authorization organizations have non-profit status; and contract with related for-profit entities with public funding;[34] some reports indicate that the New Markets Tax Credit allows double returns on charter school related investments.[34] Reports indicate that charters create organizational arms that profit by charging high rent,[34][35] and that while the facilities are used as schools, there are no property taxes.[35] Other reports indicate bankers, hedge fund types and private equity investors gathered in New York to hear about opportunities at Capital Roundtable's conference on "private equity investing in for-profit education companies" which involve the collection of an individual's property taxes.[36] Walton Foundation has also held charter school investment conferences featuring Standard & Poor's, Piper Jaffray, Bank of America, and Wells Capital Management.[37]

Public school entities are chiefly concerned that these school choice measures are taking funding away from public schools and therefore depleting their already strained resources. Other opponents of certain school choice policies (particularly vouchers) have cited the Establishment Clause and individual state Blaine amendments, which forbid, to one degree or another, the use of direct government aid to religiously affiliated entities; this is of particular concern in the voucher debate because voucher dollars are often spent at parochial schools.

Some school choice measures are criticized by public school entities, organizations opposed to church-state entanglement, and self-identified liberal advocacy groups. Known plaintiffs who have filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of state sponsored school choice laws are as follows: School Boards Associations, Public School Districts, Federations for Teachers, Associations of School Business Officials, Education Associations/Associations of Educators (unions for public school teachers), the American Civil Liberties Union, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and People for the American Way.[38]

There is evidence that school choice programs reduce housing prices, and that they do so in high-performing districts more than in low-performing districts.[39]

Segregation in school choice models[edit]

School choice systems afford families the opportunity to choose where to enroll their child among all available schools in a district; the policy is an alternative to neighborhood schools, which often assign low-income families to lower-performing schools and high-income families to higher performing, better-funded schools. In theory, school choice should lead to less segregation by race and class than neighborhood school policies by allowing families to select schools outside their neighborhoods. However, a closer look at the reality of school choice presents several ways in which the policy does not provide equal opportunities to all students. A longitudinal interview study showed that families of lower socioeconomic status considered and eventually chose lower-performing schools than their higher-income peers. Low-income families lacked the social networks and access to information to learn which schools were higher-performing, and sometimes a family's own history with school achievement affected their choice for their child.[40] Many of the current school choice models do not offer transportation to out-of-neighborhood schools, which discourages low-income families from selecting schools outside their neighborhoods.[41]

Studies continue to support that choice schools are a contributing factor to racial segregation. A study conducted in 2006 examined the 22 largest school districts in the United States and findings suggested that there is more racial segregation in school districts with choice schools because public schools had less white students, it is important to note that there was a greater racial segregation between white and Hispanic students. This study found that there would be less segregation if students attended their school based on district boundaries [42]. Magnet schools had a goal to help desegregate schools, but studies continue to highlight that school choice tends to be racially-based. For example, white parents were least likely to enroll their students in a school with a large population of African Americans [43]; this highlights the downfall of magnet schools being a choice school system to desegregate communities, because of the choices being made by parents. As more choice schools continue to replace public schools in the district, the problem of racial segregation is still prevalent if educational equity and opportunity remain a goal in the United States school system.

For the California School District of Choice program, analysis from the California State Assembly demonstrates possible evidence that the program is excluding low-income students and increasing racial segregation. A report from the legislature lists several Districts of Choice accepting Black, Latino, and low-income students at lower percentages than the city or the student's original district demographics;[44] the legislature found that Latino students consist of 66 percent of students enrolling in original districts, while only 32 percent transfer to Districts of Choice. During the program's inception, a budget was provided for transportation, but the budget currently does not exist and some Districts of Choice do not pick up that extra cost. Critics argue that the lack of transportation creates a barrier for low income students to enter the program.[45] Several school districts have sued Districts of Choice over concerns of accepting and excluding specific demographics.

Charter schools are another example of school choice. Parents can opt out of their traditional public school to attend a charter, regardless of school district. Charters are significantly more segregated than their traditional public school counterparts.[46] A descriptive study using three national data sources on schools in the United States examined the enrollment characteristics of charter schools as opposed to traditional public schools; the study found that Black students are over-enrolled in charters nationally, and the same is true for Latino students in metro areas. In a majority of states, at least half of the Latino and Black students in charters are in intensely segregated minority schools (90–100% minority.) Conversely, in diverse parts of the West and the South, charters serve racially isolated white populations. Charters also enroll a higher percent of low-income students than public schools nationally.[46]

The next question we must answer is why school choice systems and charter schools are more racially segregated. One theory is that because choice systems allow parents to select their own school, any differing priorities between racial groups would cause some schools to be more appealing to black families, others to white families, et cetera.[47] While no racial differences in school preferences have been found through self-report, to truly examine parental motivations, we must also look at behaviors; this idea was examined in a group of parents who had switched their children out of the traditional public school and into a charter. A survey was paired with an analysis of the characteristics of the school that each family left, and the characteristics of the charter school where the family then placed their child; these results showed that regardless of stated preferences, parents chose to place their students in schools where they would have more classmates of their own race, even if this meant placing the child in a school with lower test scores. This effect was the same across White, Black and Latino families. However, this trend was seen only in choosing elementary and middle schools, not at the high school level.[48][49] Although it appears that parents are moving to more racially segregated schools, these choices are not necessarily motivated by race. Instead, parents may be influenced by the location of the school.[50] In a similar study, the proximity of the school to the family's home was found to be a significant predictor of school choice; the author suggests, then, that the segregation found in charter schools is not due to a parental bias towards racially homogeneous schools. Instead, segregation in school choice programs is a reflection of the deeply segregated neighborhoods in our country, and the fact that parents want their child's school to be close to home.[50] Another study was conducted in Washington D.C. with 11,000 students in reference to the proximity theory of school choice. This study supported parents’ choice for schools based on school proximity, which is contrary to the belief that they choose schools based on academic scores; when parents choose schools based on what school is closest to them, it fosters racial segregation through economic means due to surrounding schools in a wealthy neighborhood versus people residing in a low- income neighborhood [51]. This racial segregation stems from a systems level as to why more choice schools are being placed in neighborhoods with higher SES (socioeconomic status) and the determinants for these specific choice school placements.

Finally, it is important to consider the ramifications of a system that is significantly more racially segregated than traditional public schools. In an ethnographic study of three California charters serving populations segregated by race and class, the majority Black and Latino schools suffered from fewer financial resources; these schools received less financial support from families, and had to fund services for their students that families from the majority white school paid for on their own, such as school supplies or emotional counseling. Additionally, teachers in the lower-income, minority segregated schools had less training and fewer resources. One result of this was that frustrated teachers were more likely to attribute difficulties to negative student characteristics and the values of the child's family.[52] Black and Latino students have also been shown to have significantly lower achievement gains on standardized testing when in schools with high minority populations, based on a correlational study using No Child Left Behind data;[53] the broad effect of school choice and charter schools is to increase race and class segregation in schools. This isolation creates environments in schools that do not reflect the make-up of the United States, and prevent students from being exposed to peers of different races or cultures. More research is needed to examine how racially and economically segregated schools affect students' attitudes towards other races and classes, it is also important to remember that even some schools with diverse populations do not function as such: many highly "integrated" schools are in fact heavily tracked, with disproportionately fewer students of color in advanced tracks. The real work ahead is to devise a system to functionally integrate schools so that students of all races and classes have access to equally successful schools, advanced courses, and preparation for higher education.

International overview and major institutional options[edit]


The basic compulsory educational system in Finland is the nine-year comprehensive school (Finnish peruskoulu, Swedish grundskola, "basic school"), for which school attendance is mandatory (homeschooling is allowed, but extremely rare). There are no so-called "gifted" programs; the more able children are expected to help those who are slower to catch on.


The French government subsidizes most private primary and secondary schools, including those affiliated with religious denominations, under contracts stipulating that education must follow the same curriculum as public schools and that schools cannot discriminate on grounds of religion or force pupils to attend religion classes.

This system of école libre (Free Schooling) is mostly used not for religious reasons, but for practical reasons (private schools may offer more services, such as after-class tutoring) as well as the desire of parents living in disenfranchised areas to send their children away from the local schools, where they perceive that the youth are too prone to delinquency or have too many difficulties keeping up with schooling requirements that the educational content is bound to suffer; the threatened repealing of that status in the 1980s triggered mass street demonstrations in favor of the status.[citation needed]


Sweden reformed its school system in 1992,[54] its system of school choice is one of the freest in the world, allowing students to use public funds for the publicly or privately run school of their choice, including religious and for-profit schools.[54] Fifteen years after the reform, private school enrollment had increased from 1% to 10% of the student population.[54]


In Chile, there is an extensive voucher system in which the state pays private and municipal schools directly, based on average attendance (90% of the country students utilize such a system); the result has been a steady increase in the number and recruitment of private schools that show consistently better results in standardized testing than municipal schools. The reduction of students in municipal schools has gone from 78% of all students in 1981, to 57% in 1990, and to less than 50% in 2005.

Regarding vouchers in Chile, researchers have found that when controls for the student's background (parental income and education) are introduced, the difference in performance between public and private subsectors is not significant.[55] There is also greater variation within each subsector than between the two systems.[56]

United States[edit]

A variety of forms of school choice exist in the United States, it is a highly debatable subject because some people wish to use taxpayer dollars in order to allow low-income students the choice of a private schools by way of vouchers. Research has shown that the students who transfer do worse in math and reading than their public school counterparts; not until an average of four years in the voucher program do the transfer students show to be performing equal to their counterparts in the public education system.

Scholarship tax credits[edit]

Scholarship tax credit programs currently exist in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia.[7]

Arizona has a well-known and fast-growing tax credit program. In the Arizona Individual Private School Tuition Tax Credit Program, in accordance with A.R.S. §43-1089[57] and §1089.03,[58] individuals can claim up to $1,053 and couples filing joint returns can claim up to $2106 (for 2014, amounts are indexed annually).[59] Nearly 24,000 children received scholarships in the 2011-2012 school year. Since the program has started in 1998, over 77,500 taxpayers have participated in the program, providing over $500 million in scholarship money for children at private schools across the state.[60]

The Arizona program was challenged in court in ACSTO v Winn by a group of state taxpayers on the grounds that the tax credit violated the First Amendment because the tuition grants could go to students who attend private schools with religious affiliations;[61] the suit was initially brought against the state until the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (ACSTO), one of the largest School Tuition Organizations in the state, voluntarily stepped in to represent the defense with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund). Typically, taxpayers are not allowed to bring suit against the government regarding how taxes are spent because injury would be purely speculative. In addition, insomuch as a donation to a School Tuition Organization is still a charitable act, just like any donation to a charity, there would be no standing unless all charitable deduction programs nationwide were brought under scrutiny; the Court ruled 5-4 to let the tax credit program stand.[61] In April 2011, a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll found that a majority of American voters (60%) felt that the tax credits support school choice for parents whereas 26% felt as it the tax credits support religion.[62]

In Iowa, the Educational Opportunities Act was signed into law in 2006, creating a pool of tax credits for eligible donors to student tuition organizations (STOs). At first, these tax caps were $5 million but in 2007, Governor Chet Culver increased the total amount to $7.5 million.[63] The Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education (Iowa ACE) oversees the STOs and advocates for school choice in Iowa.

Greater Opportunities for Access to Learning (GOAL) is the Georgia program which offers a state income tax credit to donors of scholarships to private schools.[64][65] Representative David Casas was responsible for passing the Georgia version of the school choice legislation.[66][67]


Vouchers currently exist in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Indiana and, most recently, the District of Columbia[68] and Georgia.

The largest and oldest Voucher program is in Milwaukee. Started in 1990, and expanded in 1995, it currently allows no more than 15% of the district's public school enrollment to use vouchers; as of 2005 over 14,000 students use vouchers and they are nearing the 15% cap.[69]

School vouchers are legally controversial in some states. In 2014 a lawsuit sought to challenge the legality of the Florida voucher program.[70]

In the U.S., the legal and moral precedents for vouchers may have been set by the G.I. bill, which includes a voucher program for university-level education of veterans.

The G.I. bill permits veterans to take their educational benefits at religious schools, an extremely divisive issue when applied to primary and secondary schools.[citation needed]

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), the Supreme Court of the United States held that school vouchers could be used to pay for education in sectarian schools without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As a result, states are basically free to enact voucher programs that provide funding for any school of the parent's choosing.[citation needed]

The Supreme Court has not decided, however, whether states can provide vouchers for secular schools only, excluding sectarian schools. Proponents of funding for parochial schools argue that such an exclusion would violate the free exercise clause. However, in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), the Court held that states could exclude majors in "devotional theology" from an otherwise generally available college scholarship. The Court has not indicated, however, whether this holding extends to the public school context, and it may well be limited to the context of individuals training to enter the ministry.[citation needed]

Charter schools[edit]

The majority of states (and the District of Columbia) have charter school laws. Minnesota was the first state to have a charter school law and the first charter school in the United States, City Academy, opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1992.[9]

Dayton, Ohio has between 22–26% of all children in charter schools;[11] this is the highest percentage in the nation. Other hotbeds for charter schools are Kansas City (24%), Washington, D.C. (20-24%) and the State of Arizona. Almost 1 in 4 public schools in Arizona are charter schools, comprising about 8% of total enrollment.

Charter schools can also come in the form of Cyber Charters. Cyber charter schools deliver the majority of their instruction over the internet instead of in a school building. And, like charter schools, they are public schools, but free of many of the rules and regulations that public schools must follow.

Magnet schools[edit]

Magnet schools are public schools that often have a specialized function like science, technology or art; these magnet schools, unlike charter schools, are not open to all children. Much like many private schools, the students must test into the school.

Home schooling[edit]

The laws relevant to homeschooling differ between US states. In some states the parent simply needs to notify the state that the child will be educated at home. In other states the parents are not free to educate at home unless at least one parent is a certified teacher and yearly progress reports are reviewed by the state; such laws are not always enforced however. According to the Federal Government, about 1.1 million children were Home Educated in 2003.[14]


The United States has school choice at the university level. College students can get subsidized tuition by attending any public college or university within their state of residence. Furthermore, the U.S. federal government provides tuition assistance for both public and private colleges via the G.I. Bill and federally guaranteed student loans.

See also[edit]


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