Comprehensive School Choice Policy: a Guide for Legislators

Josh Cunningham 3/15/2018

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School buildingLegislatures around the country have enacted various forms of school choice over the past 20 years. The intent of these policies has been to improve student achievement throughout the education system, seek innovative methods of instruction and school governance, and provide parents with an alternative to neighborhood schools.

Although many methods are available to states to provide public school choices—including open enrollment policies and magnet schools—the most prominent public school choice policy is charter schools. As of Spring 2015, 43 states and the District of Columbia had enacted legislation permitting these unique public schools, which operate outside the traditional school governance structure, instead exercising a high level of autonomy in exchange for more stringent accountability. Most state legislatures have adopted comprehensive charter school policies and are routinely considering adjustments to them.

Map of states with school vouchers, scholarship tax credits and private school tax credits/deductionsIn addition to public school choice programs such as charter schools, 24 states and the District of Columbia have enacted school choice programs that provide support and incentives for parents to choose private schools in place of public schools. Options include traditional school vouchers, scholarship tax credits, and personal tax credits and deductions. Legislators frequently consider legislation to either create new programs or amend existing ones. The bulk of existing private school choice programs have emerged during the last 10 years and are found mainly in states that also have charter schools.

Considerable research has compared the various forms of choice to the traditional public school system at the academic, financial and governance levels. However, little information exists about how these forms of choice affect each other when they operate concurrently in a state. Since they must examine the broad range of available policies, it is helpful for legislators to understand how each type of school choice policy works, what
questions to ask and what other states have proposed.

Many states are examining whether to adopt and implement school choice strategies. This guide is intended as a resource for understanding the types of school choice options states are considering and enacting, including the effects of using multiple forms of choice. School choice policies may not be appropriate for every state, and that decision is entirely up to individual state legislatures.

Josh Cunningham was the primary author of this guide with assistance from Lauren Heintz. Josh, a policy specialist in the NCSL Education Program, focuses his work on school choice and charter school policy. This publication was generously funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
NCSL is grateful to the foundation for supporting this project and recognizing the importance of state legislatures in school choice policy.