Today, a surprising mixture of educational reformers, business leaders, minority parents, conservatives, and liberals are arguing for a revolutionary restructuring of public education called "school choice." If adopted, this approach would radically change public schooling in the United States.
What Is School Choice?
The goal of school choice is to give parents the opportunity to select the schools they want their children to attend. As it is now, public school students must attend particular schools within their school district. Some choice plans would allow parents to choose any public school within their home district or even within the entire state. A "full-blown" choice system would provide state grants (also called "vouchers" or "scholarships") to parents who would then be free to enroll their children in any public, private, or religious school in the state.
The voucher version of school choice was first proposed by conservative economist Milton Friedman in 1955 and then promoted by the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush also favored some form of vouchers. President George W. Bush has not pushed vouchers, but as a candidate he said he favored giving vouchers to parents of children who attend failing public schools.
In 1991, J. Patrick Rooney founded the Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust in Indiana. This organization provides scholarships covering the cost half of the tuition of private elementary schools. These scholarships are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis to the children of low-income parents. CHOICE was in the vanguard of the plethora of school choice programs that swept the nation during the 1990s. By 1998, over 35 cities—including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington D.C.—had instituted some form of school choice program. In 1999 alone, 57,000 children were awarded private school choice scholarships. The question of whether a similar program can be instituted by the government remains unanswered.
Supporters of the choice idea point out that today only parents who can afford to move to neighborhoods with good schools or send their children to private schools have freedom of choice. Why not enable everyone to send their children to the schools that provide the best education? All schools would then have to compete to attract students. Those schools able to provide a rigorous academic program, increase achievement, motivate students, and keep parents satisfied would flourish. Those schools that could not keep up would inevitably fail and perhaps even close down. Choice advocates also argue that under this system individual schools could specialize in gifted, special education, vocational, teen pregnancy, and many other programs. The end result, say those in favor of school choice, would be a substantial improvement in the quality of American elementary and secondary education.
Opposition to the school choice movement comes from those who argue that the emphasis on school reform should be on improving all public schools, not pitting one against the other or funneling scarce tax dollars into private and parochial schools. Opponents also wonder if choice would really benefit only well-off families financially able to transport their children to distant superior schools while poor inner-city students would be forced to stay in under-funded, deteriorating schools. Another argument against choice claims that using public tax money to send children to religious schools would violate the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state.
State courts have ruled inconsistently on whether school choice violates the free exercise and establishment clauses of the First Amendment. Courts in Wisconsin and Arizona have ruled in that school choice is constitutional, while the top courts in Maine and Vermont have ruled that their respective states cannot provide school vouchers for use at religious schools. In 1999, a federal district judge ruled that Cleveland's program was unconstitutional under the establishment clause. In 2002 in Zelmon v. Simmons-Harris, however, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Cleveland's voucher program as constitutional.
Choice Among Public Schools
Transfers among public schools have been possible in most states for a long time but have been used mainly in special cases. Originally designed to foster racial desegregation, magnet schools with specialties in science, the arts, and other programs became popular in the 1970s. But attempts to provide choice to parents and students for purely academic reasons until recently have been relatively rare in the public schools.
One of the earliest experiments took place in New York City's District 4 in East Harlem, an area heavily populated by poor African-American and Hispanic families. A network of public schools was designed around curricular themes such as marine biology and the performing arts. Parents could choose among these alternative schools, which were granted a great deal of local independence. Today, over 50 small, specialized schools share space in 20 buildings. At one time, District 4 students had the lowest reading scores in Manhattan. Now they rank second from the top. Almost all District 4 students graduate from high school and half go on to college.
Also, starting in the late 1980s, several states adopted school choice plans allowing parents to select public schools within or outside their home districts. The only limitations on admission to a school were availability of space and maintenance of racial balance.
In the fall of 1990, Minnesota began its full-time state-wide public school choice plan. Initially, only about 6,000 out of 740,000 Minnesota public school students participated (less than 1 percent). Another phase of the state's choice plan allows juniors and seniors to attend state college classes for both high school and college credit. This option has involved more students than the regular choice program and has caused a dramatic increase in the number of high schools offering advanced placement courses.
Another option in school choice is charter schools. These are public schools set up independent of school boards. The founders contract with the state or local school board to set up a charter school. The charter school is not controlled by the school board, but it must promise that its students will achieve certain results. At the end of a fixed year term (three to five years), the school's charter may be renewed or canceled. The first charter school opened in 1991 in Minnesota. Soon most other states passed laws allowing for charter schools.
Charter schools offer parents greater choice within the public school system. They promise greater accountability. And they are free from administrative directives from the school board.
Charter schools can be started by parents, teachers, community members, business people, or existing schools. The founders may want to get free from the constraints of the school board. Or they may have a different view of how a school should work. Or they may want to focus on a particular group of students.
Many of the schools are small and offer students personal attention and safety. They promise results. The schools have support from groups across the political spectrum. In a decade, the number of charter schools has grown from one to more than 2,000.
The first school voucher plan was limited to disadvantaged students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Beginning in the 1990-91 school year, up to l,000 eligible Milwaukee students could use state vouchers worth $2,500 to enroll in one of several private schools. Voucher schools could not be church-affiliated, but some emphasized black or Hispanic history and culture. In the first year, only 258 students took up the offer, but they reportedly did better than they had in public school. In 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the Milwaukee school choice program did not violate the Wisconsin constitution because it operated primarily to the benefit of children, not religious schools. Currently, a few other states are considering plans like this one.
In 1993, a voucher initiative called Proposition 174 went on the California ballot. The initiative attracted only 30 percent of the vote, with the California Teachers Association as its greatest opponent.
In 1999, Florida passed the nation's first statewide voucher program. Under the Florida program, vouchers were limited to those children who have earned failing grades two years out of four at their public schools. In March 2000, a state judge ruled that Florida's school voucher law is unconstitutional. The case is being appealed.
One of the most thoughtful voucher plans is spelled out in a recently published book, Politics, Markets, and American Schools by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe. After analyzing 500 public and private high schools in the United States, Chubb and Moe concluded that the school reforms of the 1980s were "destined to fail." The two researchers argued that the real problem with public education in America is the oppressive bureaucracies that stifle local school independence and creativity. "The key to effective education," they wrote, "rests with unleashing the productive potential already present in the schools and their personnel."
Chubb and Moe went on to propose that the only effective solution to the educational crisis plaguing the nation is a "full-blown" voucher system, which would allow parents and students in each state to choose among competing public, private, and parochial schools. Below are the main points of their plan:
- Each state should set minimum requirements for high school graduation, school health and safety, and teacher certification. Any school meeting these requirements would be chartered as a "public" school giving all students full access and allowing the use of public funds. "Public" schools would include those in current school districts, private schools, and even religious schools "as long as their sectarian functions can be kept clearly separate from their educational functions."
- States would determine the dollar amount of the vouchers. Dollar amounts for "special-needs" and "at-risk" students would be greater than for regular students. In addition, parents in any district could tax themselves more to boost the basic value of the state voucher.
- Parents and students would be free to apply to any "public" school in the state. A Parent Information Office in each district would assist parents and students in making their applications.
- Each school would make its own admission decisions limited only by a non-discrimination requirement.
- Each school would set its own tuition. But schools accepting vouchers would have to take them as payment in full. No parent could supplement a voucher with cash.
- All students would be guaranteed admission to some school, by lottery if necessary.
- Transportation should be provided for those who needed it.
- Each school would have the authority to expel or refuse to re-admit students as long as these actions were not "arbitrary and capricious."
- Each school would establish its own governing system (e.g., teacher control, parent control, etc.) except for current school districts where elected boards of education would continue in authority.
- Local authority, not the state, would decide on textbook selection, teacher training standards, teacher tenure, and virtually everything else beyond the minimum requirements set by the state. Collective bargaining, the method in which teacher unions negotiate employment contracts, would continue but only at each school site or current school district.
For Discussion and Writing
- What are the different types of school choice now being discussed in the United States? How are they similar? How are they different?
- What do you think about the idea of schools competing with each other for students?
- Some critics of school voucher plans argue that providing public tax funds to church-affiliated schools would be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court in Zelmon v. Simmons-Harris upheld Cleveland's voucher plan. What were the main arguments of the majority and dissenting opinions? Which do you agree with? Why?
- Some school-voucher plans would allow parents to supplement a voucher with money if the voucher did not cover the costs of tuition. Do you think this is a good idea? Why or why not?
- Tax breaks for private school tuition have been adopted in Arizona, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota, and the Supreme Court has upheld their constitutionality. Do you think that private school tax breaks help to accomplish the goals of the school-choice movement? What do you think some of the goals of the movement are?
For Further Information
The Battle Over School Choice From PBS's Frontline.
Online NewsHour: Education Background Reports
Vouchers: The Debate Before the Supreme Court
The Bush Education Plan
School Vouchers in Texas
Stateline.org Source for news on state issues.
State Education Agencies Links to each state's education department.
Ask Eric Eric is a federally funded program that provides information on education issues.
Program on Education Policy and Governance Collected articles on many education subjects including school choice and vouchers. From Harvard's.
Children First America An organization advocating for school choice.
School Choices An organization in favor of vouchers.
U.S. Charter Schools An organization that supports charter schools.
Charter Schools Development Center An organization that provides technical assistance to the charter school movement.
Center for Education Reform A group advocating for school choice and charter schools.
Friedman Foundation An organization supporting vouchers.
School Choices A group advocating school choice and vouchers.
Partners for Public Education A group opposing vouchers.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State An organization opposed to vouchers.
Educator Resource Center World Book's huge collection of links to education associations, educational offices, curriculum standards, boards of education, and much more. Excellent site.
A C T I V I T Y
What Is Your Choice?
- Develop a class questionnaire on the different types of school choice, and then survey the opinions of students, teachers, administrators, parents, and other citizens in the community.
- Tally the results of the survey and use this information for an informal class debate on the voucher plan proposed by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe.
a. Divide the class into pro and con sides. You may also wish to select a panel to judge the debate.
b. Each side should prepare arguments based on the survey the class has conducted, the article above on school choice, and other sources found in the library.
c. The teacher or panel of judges should serve as the moderator of the debate making sure that each side, in turn, has a chance to raise and respond to arguments.