"Digital learning is more than the latest addition to education reformers’ to-do lists, filed along with teacher evaluations, charter schools, tenure reform, academic standards, and all the rest. It’s fundamentally different: for it to fulfill its enormous potential will require a wholesale reshaping of the reform agenda itself, particularly in the realms of school finance and governance....
In recent decades, Americans have watched with dismay as the quality of the nation's K-12 public education system has deteriorated. This deterioration has prompted many proposed solutions, including calls for increased spending, better teachers, more accountability, and higher standards. One of the most commonly proposed solutions is school choice.
School choice is "a public policy that allows a parent/guardian or student to choose a district, charter, or private school, regardless of residence and location." School choice is grounded in the idea that parents should be able to control the education of their children. Thomas Jefferson promoted parental control in scoffing at the notion that the state could manage elementary education better than parents.
Many trace the beginning of the modern school choice movement to the publication of Milton Friedman’s 1955 essay "The Role of Government in Education." Friedman was a proponent of free market economics, and believed in applying its principles to the education system. He suggested giving tax money for each child to take to the school of her choice, rather than forcing her to attend a local school. This concept became known as the "voucher" system, and was thought to spur better academic results by forcing schools to compete for students. In 1987, Minnesota became the first state to allow children to choose to go to school in a district other than their home district.
Today, school choice consists of many different options, the most common being vouchers, tax credits, and charters.
Voucher programs enable "education dollars [to] 'follow the child'" while also allowing "parents [to] select private schools and receive state-funded scholarships to pay tuition." In 2012, eight states and a few individual cities had school voucher programs, some of the most well-known being the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
Of all the school choice programs, vouchers are the most contentious: only 44% of the public favors them. Much of this contention revolves around the separation of church and state, as vouchers allow parents to use public money to pay for private - and often religious - institutions. In 2002, however, the U.S. Supreme Court set precedent by ruling that an Ohio voucher program did not violate the Establishment Clause because public aid reached religious schools only through individual, not government, choices.
Proponents of vouchers believe they give children - especially those from lower incomes – the freedom to leave ill-performing schools for better ones. Supporters also point to data suggesting that vouchers promote academic progress and greater college enrollment. Opponents, however, argue that vouchers cost more money and fail to demonstrate better academic results. Voucher opposition also stems from a fear that public funds will bring more government regulations into private schools.
Tax credits are a second form of school choice. Similar to school vouchers, education tax credits either allow parents to take a tax deduction for money spent on education expenses, or allow businesses to receive tax credits for the scholarships they give for children to attend a school of their choice. The latter option is available in various forms in eleven states, the most prominent being Arizona.
Arizona's scholarship program illustrated the contention surrounding school choice tax credits when it was challenged in the Supreme Court under the Establishment Clause. The high court upheld the tax credit law in 2011 on the grounds that money contributed to the scholarships was a voluntary expenditure of private, not public, money.
Proponents believe that education tax credits allow for greater school choice while avoiding the pitfalls of vouchers, which include greater government regulation in private schools, religious establishment problems, and greater cost. On the other hand, those opposed to education tax credits believe that they offer "no proven educational benefits" and merely take money away from underfunded public schools.
Charter schools are another common form of school choice. They are publicly-funded schools that sign a contract, or “charter,” with either a public or private authorizer. In exchange for greater autonomy from the regulations of the state and local school district, the charter must meet its academic goals or risk having its charter terminated. The first U.S. charter school opened in Minnesota in 1991.
Supporters of charters suggest that the competition they provide improves academic standards in both charters and regular public schools. In addition, charters offer an alternative for those who might not flourish in traditional school settings. Yet, a variety of other studies suggest that charters more often than not exhibit poor performance and promote segregation.
Besides vouchers, tax credits, and charters, school choice can also include options such as open enrollment ("the ability to transfer from one public school to another public school"), magnet schools (public schools that have special educational programs designed to attract students from other districts), and homeschooling (education directed by parents in a home setting).
The data surrounding school choice outcomes is mixed, but many studies show that it increases parental satisfaction and student achievement gains. Additional evidence suggests that children involved in school choice programs were less likely to be imprisoned and more likely to have a higher income as adults. Despite fears to the contrary, school choice programs have also been found to be cost-saving for public schools.
Yet, in spite of these positive effects, some worry that school choice will erode the funding and communal bond of public education. Others worry that parents will not have the wherewithal to make wise choices for their child if given the opportunity to choose a school.
This topic provides an array of information on school choice history, options, data, and outcomes to help citizens inform themselves about the many critical choices to be made in education today.
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