Education and School Choice

School Choice Survey and Primer

School Choice Survey

School Choice Primer

What is School Choice?

School choice gives parents the power to choose the best educational environment for their child. Currently, a family’s zip code determines the quality of education that a child receives, with those residing in low-income areas at an extreme disadvantage. School choice takes zip codes and economic status out of the equation, giving parents the freedom to choose between a host of public, private, charter, magnet, virtual and home schooling options.

In its current state, the American pubic education system is unfairly denying thousands of children access to the quality education that they are entitled to. Studies have shown that school choice programs facilitate academic growth, increase graduation rates and improve the performance of public schools. By increasing access to educational opportunities, school choice benefits all children and increases the power and freedom of parents.

Types of School Choice

School Vouchers

School vouchers are state funded scholarships issued by the government that parents can use to send their kids to any school they choose. The voucher can be applied to private school tuition. There are several types of voucher programs:

  • Universal Voucher Programs

This is a voucher program in which all children are eligible

  • Means-Tested Voucher Programs

Means-tested voucher programs are for children from low-income families that meet specific income criteria.

  • Failing Schools, Failing Students Voucher Programs

This type of voucher program is for students who have displayed poor academic performance at the public school they attend or for children who attend low performing public schools.

  • Special Needs Voucher Programs

Special needs children with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) qualify for Special Needs Voucher Programs.

  • Pre-Kindergarten Voucher Programs

This type of voucher program is for children who are in a pre-kindergarten program.

  • Town Tuitioning Programs

Students who live in towns that do not have public schools are eligible for a voucher to either attend a public school in another town or a private school.

Tax Credit Programs

Tax credit scholarship programs provide companies and individuals who donate to scholarship and educational improvement organizations with tax credit. The donations that these corporations and individuals make are then used to fund private school scholarships. Since the scholarships are the result of private donations, the organizations use their own criteria for determining student eligibility.

Personal Tax Credits and Deductions

Some states offer parents tax credits or tax deductions for school related expenses such as private school tuition, supplies, transportation, and tutors.

Alternative Education

There are also school choice options outside of public and private schools. Parents may choose to send their children to charter schools, which are tuition free schools that are not subject to all of the same rules and regulations that apply to state run public schools. Parents may also choose to send their children to virtual schools, which teach students primarily through an online curriculum. Homeschooling is another school choice option that parents may explore. In some states, parents are even able to come up with their own curriculum.

School Choice in your State

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia currently operate school choice programs. Click here to see what school choice options your state offers.

The Achievement Gap

The achievement gap refers to the disparity between the academic performances of groups of students. Using measures such as standardized test scores, drop-out rates, graduation rates and college enrollment one can see that there is a substantial gap between the performances of minority and white students and between low-income and middle to upper income students. For example, 78.4 percent of white students in the class of 2008 graduated on time, while only 57.6 percent of Hispanics and 57 percent of black students graduated on time. While it is true that the achievement gap has narrowed over the past few decades, it still remains a persistent problem in our education system.

School Choice FAQs

 Does school choice have a positive academic impact on participating students?

Yes. Studies conducted since the late 1990s convincingly show that school choice is an effective intervention and public policy for boosting student achievement and graduation rates.

Nine studies using a method called random assignment, the gold standard in the social sciences, have found statistically significant gains in academic achievement from school vouchers, one study found improved graduation rates. No such study has ever found negative effects. One study’s findings were inconclusive.

Random-assignment methods allow researchers to isolate the effects of vouchers from other student characteristics. Students who applied for vouchers were entered into random lotteries to determine who would receive the voucher and who would remain in public schools; this allowed researchers to track very similar “treatment” and “control” groups, just like in medical trials.

Highly respected random-assignment research has been conducted in five large cities: Milwaukee, Charlotte, Washington, D.C., New York City, and Dayton.

How does a school choice program affect public schools?

Sound research has consistently demonstrated school choice policies improve public school performance. More than twenty credible studies indicate school choice programs introduce more competition among all public and private schools, compelling them to go out of their way to attract and retain students. Not a single empirical study has ever found that outcomes at American public schools got worse when exposed to school choice programs, and numerous studies have found that they improve over time.

Two recent research projects give evidence supporting this positive conclusion.

  • A 2010 study by David Figlio and Cassandra Hart of Northwestern University examined the competitive effects of the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship Program on public schools. They learned that more access and variety of private schools increased the competitive pressure on public schools in the wake of the policy announcement. They state in their conclusion, “Our results suggest that policies that introduce competition to public schools spur improvements in public school students’ test scores. This work therefore helps inform a major policy debate regarding whether harnessing market forces is an effective way to help not only the students who enter the private education market, but also the students who remain behind in the public sector.”

A 2009 study by Jay Greene and Ryan Marsh of the University of Arkansas considered the systemic effects of expanding school choice in Milwaukee. Greene and Marsh found that public school students in Milwaukee fare better academically when they have more free private options through the voucher program. They say in the conclusion of their paper, “It appears that Milwaukee public schools are more attentive to the academic needs of students when those students have more opportunities to leave those schools. This finding is robust across several different specifications of the model.”

Do Americans favor school choice policies?

Yes. numerous polls and surveys find that most Americans support policies for school vouchers and tax-credit scholarships.

In 2010, the Foundation for Educational Choice conducted statistically representative surveys of registered voters in seven states. In all of the surveys, majorities favored school voucher and tax-credit scholarship policies.

  • Voters supported vouchers in the interviews; favorability ranged from mid-50s to mid-70s, depending on the state surveyed. Mississippi and New Jersey recorded the highest support for vouchers, 74 percent and 69 percent respectively. Kansas and Arkansas showed the lowest levels of favorability, 56 percent and 60 percent respectively.

Tax-credit scholarships also garnered substantial voter support. Favorability also averaged in the mid-60s. New York and New Jersey recorded the highest support for tax-credit scholarships, 70 percent and 69 percent respectively. Kansas and Alabama voiced the lowest levels of favorability, 56 percent and 60 percent respectively.—What-Do-Voters-Say-About-K-12-Education-in-Six-States.pdf

Does school choice drain funding and resources away from public schools?

No. Real world experience and evidence show that states and cities with school choice programs have not seen their public school budgets go down.

When students leave public schools using voucher programs, they free up more money for the students who remain. Taking a student out of public school removes the cost of educating that student. Most of these savings remain in local school budgets where they benefit other students; the rest of the savings go into state budgets. States and cities with school choice programs have all increased their per-student instructional spending in the years since the programs began.

Two examples may help for consideration. By 1992, Milwaukee’s school choice program had been in place for two years, and according to the U.S. Census, the city’s public schools spent $9,038 per student; by 2007 that figure had swelled to $11,725 – a 30 percent increase in real dollars. Cleveland’s school choice program launched in 1997, when the city was spending $9,293 per student. Cleveland was spending $11,383 per student in 2007 – a 22 percent increase in real dollars over eleven school years.

The cost of a voucher or scholarship for a participant in a school choice program is less than what would have been spent on that student if he or she had remained in public schools. While the average public school spends about $10,000 per student, the average private school charges about $6,000 in tuition. That difference is the fundamental reason school choice policies will save money.

Is school choice constitutional?

Policy design is critical. School choice is constitutional at the federal level and in most states as long as policies and programs are designed properly.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court answered this constitutional question thoroughly at the federal level. In the landmark Zellman v. Simmons-Harris case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Cleveland’s school voucher program by a 5-4 vote. The justices made it very clear that when an individual uses public funds to make a private choice—in this case when a parent uses a voucher to send his or her child to a private school (including religious schools)—it does not violate the First Amendment.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist explained in the majority opinion that voucher programs such as Cleveland’s are “neutral in respect to religion (because they) provide assistance directly to a broad class of citizens, who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice.” Hence, if a school choice program allows “true private choice” and it is “religiously neutral”, then it is constitutional.


What is the impact of school choice on encouraging civic values?

research shows that private schools and school choice programs promote and advance good citizenship and democratic values. Students at private schools tend to be more tolerant of the rights of others, more likely to vote, and more likely to be volunteers than students at public schools.

Private schools benefit from being legally permitted to have a point of view, which allows private schools to handle controversial topics and issues in a straightforward manner. This pedagogical flexibility may help convey a tangible sense of what tolerance and civic duty require in practice.

Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas conducted a systematic review of all empirical studies comparing civic values in public and private schools. Among 23 findings based on random assignment (using lotteries to admit applicants to voucher programs) or other highly rigorous methods, Wolf reports that 12 found better civic values in private schools, while 10 found no visible difference, and only one found better civic values in public schools. Among 36 other, more basic findings, Wolf reports that 21 found private schools had better civic values, while 13 were neutral and two found better values in public schools.

Are participating private schools held accountable?

Private schools are accountable to both parents (they have power and leverage by way of choosing a school) and various government entities (through existing codes, rules, and regulations).

Private schools are primarily accountable to parents and caregivers, who can pull their children out of a school that fails to serve them. If a public school fails to perform, parents are essentially powerless. They have very little practical means to hold it accountable; they are stuck.

Private schools are not just accountable to families; they are already accountable to the public and government authorities. Private schools in every state comply with a vast array of health and safety regulations, antidiscrimination and civil rights laws, and even rules covering the minimum number of school days. In addition, most private schools are already required to undertake financial audits and evaluate student performance using standardized tests.

Private schools that participate in school choice programs are required to be safe, non-discriminatory and fiscally sound and to file regular reports and disclosures.

More regulations do not always mean more accountability. What gives the concept of accountability real teeth is a parent’s ability to choose a school freely. With that power and leverage, a parent can take a child out of a school that isn’t doing the job and find another school that will. Without that parental leverage, non-negotiable public school assignments greatly increase the chances that students’ needs will be taken for granted and parent concerns ignored.

Furthermore, private schools are not highly selective, and offer better educational opportunities for students who are difficult to teach, including students with disabilities. They are often better equipped to handle students with disabilities or other challenging students than public schools.


Can a school choice program lead to more integrated schools?

Yes. The research shows that students in school choice programs attend more integrated schools than their public school counterparts. All the available empirical research finds that vouchers are moving students into private schools that are substantially less segregated than public schools.

Private schools in voucher programs are less racially segregated than their public school counterparts. Vouchers break down neighborhood barriers and draw students together, providing a more integrated school experience. The empirical research shows that vouchers put students into less segregated schools.

On average, private school classrooms are more integrated than nearby public school classrooms. Our nation’s public schools and districts are heavily segregated. Public schools are so segregated primarily because of residential segregation. Attendance at public schools is largely determined by where people live, which guarantees that segregation in housing patterns will always be reproduced in public schools. Desegregation efforts have largely failed because they are geographically limited; white families who move to the suburbs cannot legally be forced to bus their children across municipal lines. Private schools, by contrast, can draw students with no limitation to geography. In fact, private schools typically draw from a much larger geographic area than public schools. That means private schools can mitigate the effects of residential segregation in a way public schools cannot match.


Can school choice help students with special needs?

Yes. Providing school choice to special-education students allows families unhappy with their assigned public school to find a program that meets their child’s individual needs. In 1999, the Florida Department of Education began the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, which makes a school voucher available to any special needs student in the Florida public school system to attend a public or private school of their choice. As of 2010, after ten years of operation, Florida’s McKay program has more than 20,000 participating students, which is the largest program of its kind in the country. Private schools are not highly selective, and offer better educational opportunities for students who are difficult to teach, including students with disabilities. They are often better equipped to handle students with disabilities or other challenging students than public schools.

Will a school choice program increase the rules and regulations placed on private schools?

No. Based on the history of existing school choice programs, vigilance and responsible stewardship of programs are working.

For nearly twenty years, attempts to transform private schools into over-regulated public schools through school choice programs have failed. Opponents of vouchers and scholarships have tried to increase the regulations on private schools participating in school choice programs, and in nearly all of these cases parents and supporters defeated them. Under a few special circumstances, some school choice programs have adopted reasonable accountability rules in cooperation with school choice advocates.

Private schools already are publicly accountable. They are accountable to parents, who can pull their children out of a school that fails to serve them—a freedom not available to parents stuck in a public school monopoly system. Private schools are also accountable to the public, through health and safety regulations, antidiscrimination laws and other state rules, as well as widespread voluntary fiscal audits, accreditation and testing.

Do vouchers “cream” the best students from public schools?

Statistics show little evidence to support the claim that voucher students are either socioeconomically privileged or academically gifted. Voucher students might enjoy one major advantage: involved parents.

Legislative Roundup

Important school choice legislation was proposed and passed in 2011. Big gains were made for school choice in states like Arizona, Indiana, Colorado, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Arizona enacted the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account, which enables parents of children with disabilities to withdraw their children from the public school they attend and use a portion of their public funding to put into an education savings account. Indiana launched the nation’s largest voucher program, and in January 2012, the program was ruled to be constitutional and upheld. Colorado, Wisconsin and Oklahoma all passed legislation to enact voucher programs, while North Carolina passed an individual tax credit program. Ohio, already a state with numerous school choice programs, expanded funding and added a special needs scholarship program in 2011. Already, early into 2012, education reform legislation has been proposed. For example, For example, in January 20I12, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin unveiled an education reform package that would rate schools, link teacher evaluations to student test scores and require kindergartners to take a state-funded reading test beginning in the 2012-2013 school year

How to Get Involved

In order to protect existing and facilitate the creation of school choice programs around the country, we encourage you to get involved. Check to see if there is an existing parents union or school choice organization active in your state and join it, and if one doesn’t exist start one! Join with other school choice supporters and actively participate in education rallies and petition drives. You can also write to or call your legislator, letting them know that school choice is highly valued by his or her constituents. By contacting your legislators, you encourage them take action and support issues that matter to their constituents. Lastly, tell your story; personal accounts are a powerful tool for conveying the need for school choice. So get involved and share you story!


Visit the websites below to learn more about school choice and to see what other organizations are doing to ensure that all children receive a quality education.

Black Alliance for Educational Opportunity

Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options

Heritage Foundation

Democrats for Education Reform

Brookings Institute

Hoover Institution

Heartland Foundation


National School Choice Week

American Legislative Exchange Council

National Taxpayers Union

The Reason Foundation

Education Breakthrough

Alliance for School Choice

The Institute for Justice

Education Reform Now

Cascade Policy Institute

The American Center for School Choice

Independent Women’s Forum

Students for Education Reform

Public Interest Institute

James Madison Institute

Intellectual Take Out

Diversity Leadership Institute

Parents Advancing Choice in Education

League of United Latin American

Students First

The Center for Education Reform

K12 Reboot


American Board

Click on the links below to learn more about research and studies being done in the education and school choice field.

Expanding Choice: Tax Credits and Educational Access in Idaho

Institute for Justice

Building Effective Charter Schools in Alabama

Alabama Policy Institute

Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress, and


American Legislative Exchange Council

Online Learning: A Literal New World of Possibilities for Minnesota K-12 Education

The American Experiment

Opening the Schoolhouse Doors: Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program Extends Long

   History of Choice-Based Aid

Institute for Justice

North Carolina vs. the World: Comparisons of Educational Inputs and Outputs

John Locke Foundation

Students Without Borders: Funding Online Education in Virginia

Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy

Washington Public School Index

Washington Policy Center

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers

The Foundation for Educational Choice—The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Vouchers.pdf

The Poverty of Preschool Promises: Saving Children and Money with the Early

   Education Tax Credit

CATO Institute

Achievement Gaps

National Center for Educations Statistics

Spreading Freedom and Saving Money: The Fiscal Impact of the D.C. Voucher Program

CATO Institute

The ABCs of School Choice 2008-2009



 New Assessments for Improved Accountability

Brookings Institute

Charter School Performance in New York City


School Vouchers and the Students Who Use Them

Illinois Policy Institute

The Jury on School Vouchers

Illinois Policy Institute

2012 ABCs of School Choice

Foundation for Educational Choice

Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence

CATO Institute

The Education Choice and Competition Index: Background and Results 2011

Brookings Institute

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