Nuances of School Choice

January 27, 2014 Topic: Society Region: United States

Nuances of School Choice

Uncompromising advocates and opponents ignore the details of what is at root a subtle issue.


This week is National School Choice Week. Across the country, school choice supporters have planned over 5,500 events to celebrate and advocate for increased educational options for students and families.

Now is a good time to talk about school choice. As Republican leaders gear up for 2014 and 2016, they repeatedly offer school choice as a lever not only for education reform, but broader economic development. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called school choice “the surest way to break [the] vicious cycle of poverty.” Chris Christie called school choice a “moral issue.” Marco Rubio said of school choice, “I think school choice means that every parent in America, irrespective of how much money you make or don’t make, should be allowed to put their kids in any educational environment they deem fit.”


But what does it mean to support school choice? As it turn out, a wide variety of programs fall under the umbrella of “school choice,” and some are better than others.

Though at first programs like charter schools or school vouchers might come to mind, the two most traditional and popular forms of school choice are private schooling, when a family pays tuition to have their child educated outside of the public system, and “choice by real estate,” when a family buys a house that is zoned for a high quality public school. This school year, 5.2 million of the nation’s 50 million students will attend private schools. When it comes to real estate, according to a survey, over 60 percent of homebuyers rank school district boundaries as a factor in their home buying decision. This results in good schools boosting home values up to 16%.

Other forms of school choice support families’ choices with public dollars.

Some public school districts offer intradistrict choices like magnet schools (designed to “attract” students from across a district) or open enrollment plans that allow students to attend any school in the district. Others offer interdistrict choice, such as the controversial busing plan currently under debate in St. Louis, which allows students to attend schools in neighboring districts to alleviate segregation concerns or to offer students an escape hatch from failing schools.

Charter schools are another form of school choice. They run the gamut from one-building “mom and pop” operations to multi-campus systems run by non-profit charter management organizations like the well-known Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools. Other networks are run by for-profit education management organizations, like Edison Learning. Charter schools are authorized by a variety of bodies, from local school districts to mayors to independent state boards to universities and other non-profits.

Most controversially, school choice also includes vouchers and tuition tax-credits, which allow families to use public dollars in order to send their children to private schools or provide tax credits to individuals or corporations that make donations to organizations that grant scholarships to students. It also includes innovative new models like Louisiana’s “course choice” program, which allows students to take a portion of their school funding to go to outside providers for individual classes and Arizona’s Education Savings Account program, which creates a Health Savings Account-like restricted use fund that families can use to pay for education.

But all of these options are not created equal. It turns out, what you mean when you say “school choice” matters a lot.

For example, in states like Wyoming, Kansas, and Virginia, charter schools have to be authorized by the very monopolies that they are trying to replace, local school boards. It should not be a surprise that their competition is not welcome and that, respectively, those states have only four, fifteen, and four charter schools.

In Cleveland, Ohio, because of how the voucher program is funded, on average, students only receive $3,200 per year, 29% of the average amount spent in Ohio. This program has not driven a groundswell of schools hoping to participate to serve students. For that meager amount, it’s hard to blame them.

Different choice options also have serious implications for equity. Magnet schools, which are generally noncontroversial, have the ability to screen students based on ability and behavior, something that most charter schools are legally not allowed to do.

Some interdistrict transfer programs punish folks who have worked hard, played by the rules, and moved to districts that have good schools and now have to educate the kids of the next town over.

State by state and district by district, programs are regulated differently, managed differently, and funded differently, with varying degrees of success. Program design matters.

Unfortunately, too often that nuance gets lost in unflinching advocacy for, or opposition to, school choice. This does good programs a disservice and lets bad programs off the hook. That is not a recipe for improving the education of our nation’s children.

Dr. Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former inner city high school teacher, and author of President Obama and Education Reform: The Personal and Political.

Image: Flickr/ajari. CC BY 2.0.