A New Era of School Choice

By Josh Cunningham | Vol . 25, No. 10 / March 2017


Did you know?

  • All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of public school choice.

  • Combined, the number of students attending charter schools and receiving vouchers nationwide equals less than 10 percent of all public school children.

  • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that state voucher programs do not violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

One of the most challenging and important decisions parents make is which school their child will attend. The emergence of school choice policies offers educational options beyond traditional neighborhood public schools. But they also are pitting many public school teachers and advocates against those who believe all parents should have the ability to select the best school for their child. School choice continues to be a hot topic in 2017, as lawmakers across the country grapple with where school funds gain the best return on investment.


In the distant past, children almost exclusively attended schools in their neighborhood. Because schools are largely funded with property taxes, by the 1960s it was becoming clear there were great inequities among families who could afford to live near good schools and those who could not.

Federal policies in the 1970s encouraged school districts to create magnet schools, which are open to students across an entire school district and incorporate a common theme, such as performing arts or math and science, in their instruction.

In the early 1990s, states started adopting charter school laws. These allowed schools to receive public money but operate under their own independent school board rather than the local district school board. Charter schools are granted exemptions from various local and state regulations such as those for budgeting, staffing and the school calendar. In exchange for the exemptions, charter schools operate under a contract with a defined expiration date, at which time they must apply for renewal or be shut down. Additionally, charter schools must follow all state and federal school accountability and testing requirements. Like magnet schools, charter schools do not have attendance zones and accept students from anywhere in the local district, and often outside the district.

Another school choice approach that emerged in the early 1990s was private school vouchers. These are state-funded scholarships that parents can use to cover private school tuition. The nation’s first voucher program was enacted in Wisconsin and served low-income students in Milwaukee. A few years later, Arizona enacted a new form of vouchers in which nonprofit organizations provide private school scholarships to eligible students. The scholarships are funded with private donations and states award donors with tax credits. These programs are regulated by the state but funded and administered in the private sector.

The most recent iteration of private school choice, also first introduced in Arizona (in 2011), are education savings accounts. ESAs are similar to vouchers. They are funded with public dollars but parents can use the money for educational purposes beyond private school tuition, including for private tutoring, online courses and certain home schooling expenses. Unspent funds can often be transferred into a college savings plan. 

Advocates for choice believe competition among schools forces all schools to improve or risk losing students. It allows schools to be more innovative and operate outside the traditional school mold. They believe parents are in the best position to decide which educational experience and environment are best for their child.

Critics of charter schools point to a lack of oversight, since the schools operate outside the purview of an elected school board. They also express concerns about the costs of opening new facilities and spreading education funding so thin that it reduces funding to traditional public schools.

Critics of voucher programs raise similar concerns, but also question directing public funds to religious schools. Some argue that private schools receiving public funds should be held to the same state accountability standards as public schools. 

School choice for students with disabilities brings its own unique challenges. Nearly all private school voucher programs are open to students with disabilities, but once enrolled, students surrender many of their rights and protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which does not fund students using vouchers. States, however, can offer similar protections.

Numerous studies have measured the impact school choice programs have on academic achievement. The results show that on average, students perform comparably to their peers who attend neighborhood schools. There is evidence that students enrolled in school choice programs are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college. There also appears to be some correlation between school competition and system-wide increases in achievement, though this is difficult to measure. 

State Action

As of January 2017, there are 43 states with charter schools, 31 states with magnet schools and 27 states that offer private school choice. Since the 2010 election, the number of states offering private school vouchers has doubled, making it the fastest-growing form of school choice. Despite the rapid growth of private choice programs and continued support for charters, school choice programs of all forms serve fewer than 10 percent of all school-aged children in the U.S. 

Federal Action

NCSL expects Congress to weigh in on school choice in 2017. During the campaign, President Donald Trump promised a $20 billion federal investment in school choice programs using existing funding sources. It remains unclear what the expanded federal role in school choice would include or which funds might be redirected.

One possibility is expanding the Charter School Program—a competitive grant program for states that supports replicating high-performing charter schools. Another possibility is “portability,” which would direct federal education funding to wherever qualifying students enroll in school, including private schools. This would be a significant shift in policy as federal funding currently is funneled through school districts, which disperse funds to public schools as needed. Private schools for the most part do not have access to federal dollars. Federal legislation introduced in 2015, which was publicly supported by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, would award individuals and corporations a federal tax credit for donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations. Such programs already exist in 17 states, serving
upwards of 255,000 students each year. What remains unclear is how any federal action would affect the 23 states without voucher programs. Many of these states likely would resist any federal programs.


PDF Version