School choice is a nationwide movement that empowers parents by enabling them to make the best possible choice for their children's education. In short, it puts power in the hands of parents to decide which type of education best fits the needs of their particular child – whether that is a public, private or religious institution, or educating their child at home.
School choice also protects parents' constitutional rights to direct their children's upbringing in accordance with the values, principles and religious convictions they hold dear.
School choice, or the right to decide where and how to educate your children, has always existed for parents who could afford to send their children to a private school or to move to a better school district. Today, however, many states are implementing policies and programs that make available an unprecedented array of education options for families of varying levels. As of 2011, families in at least 18 states had some form of school choice, and legislators in 41 states introduced or passed school choice bills.1
While there are many different types of "school choice" programs, they can be generally categorized into two basic forms: public school choice and private school choice.
Private school choice refers to publicly funded scholarship programs that redirect the flow of education funding to individual families rather than to government schools. In other words, the money now follows the child rather than a bureaucracy. Under these programs, parents can apply for scholarships that allow them to send their child to a private school of their choice, including religious ones.
Without school choice scholarships, parents who want their kids to go to a private school would have to, in essence, double pay. In other words, they would pay for a private education while also paying taxes that go toward public education. That means private schools are out of the question for many middle class and underprivileged families. School choice is designed to solve this problem. It would level the playing field for families of different incomes by allowing parents to redirect their tax dollars toward schools of their choice.
More than 150,000 children benefit from private school choice programs across the country.2
These programs can be categorized into three main types:
Opportunity Scholarship Programs. The purest form of school choice, opportunity scholarship programs offer parents the opportunity to apply for scholarships that they can allocate toward tuition for their children at a private school, including a faith-based institution. Indiana recently enacted one of the broadest, most far-reaching school choice programs in the nation — providing scholarships for low-income and middle-income students. Usually scholarship programs are tailored to low-income families or award scholarships based on a sliding scale according to household income.
One of the most well-known of these programs is the federally funded, D.C.-based Opportunity Scholarship program, which after an intense outcry from D.C. parents, was restored with 2011 legislation that allows students in grades K-8 to apply for scholarships worth up to $8,000. High school students can receive scholarships worth up to $12,000. This program has received bipartisan support from city leaders. Louisiana also has implemented ground-breaking school choice programs that allows for up to 1,500 low-to-middle-income students in the New Orleans area, as well as a statewide program allowing special needs students to receive scholarships to attend private schools. 3
Milwaukee has one of the oldest and largest school choice scholarship programs, founded in 1990 for low-income students. Today, more than 20,000 children participate in the program.4
Special Needs and Foster-Child Scholarships. Even in states where there is significant opposition to more widespread school choice, incremental programs that seek to benefit the neediest children have been successful – especially scholarships designed to assist children with disabilities and those within the foster-care system. The states of Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and Utah all have special needs scholarship programs.
Tax Credit Scholarship Programs. These programs allow corporations who donate to school choice scholarships to receive tax credits for their contributions. States with tax credit scholarship programs include Georgia, Iowa, Arizona and Florida. Some states, including Georgia, are also beginning to allow tax deductions for individuals who contribute to education scholarship programs.
Education Savings Accounts: In 2011, Arizona passed a first-of-its kind law to offer educational choice through innovative Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs allow parents or guardians to have the state deposit a percentage of their child's per pupil funding into a savings account, which they can then use for various educational options, including private school tuition, online education, tutoring costs, or even college courses.
Despite the spread of private school choice programs, the majority of students – an estimated 56 million – remain in government-funded public schools, and too many of those schools are underperforming or failing. We spend nearly 500 billion on public schools, and yet graduation rates are as low as 52 to 56 percent for minority students. Clearly, efforts to increase choice and competition for families inside the public school system remain essential.
Charter Schools.Charter schools represent the most popular form of public school choice and have seen tremendous growth in the last few years. Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that have more autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic control than standard public schools. This autonomy is provided in exchange for agreed upon measures of accountability described in the school's charter. Charter schools can be started by parents, private companies, religious organizations or even universities. Parents often work together to start charter schools in their neighborhood that offer unique programs tailored to the needs of community children. Many charter schools are designed to assist disadvantaged students or those who have not been able to thrive in traditional public schools.
The charter school movement is remarkably successful, expanding rapidly in a relatively short period of time. In 1990, there were no charters schools. Today, there are more than 5,400 schools with more than 1.7 million students. States or cities with fast-growing charter school movements include Washington, D.C., Houston, California and New Orleans, where more than half of the city's students attend charter schools. New Orleans has the highest percentage of charter schools in the nation.5
Unlike their traditional public school counterparts, charter schools are more accountable to the public, and they are much easier to shut down if they do not perform well.
Other Forms of Choice. Another example of public school choice worth mentioning is a key provision in President Bush's No Child Left Behind education law, which will soon be revamped under a different administration. This provision allows children in consistently failing schools to transfer to a better performing public school.
Outside both private and public choice, home schooling is a vitally important option that provides parents complete freedom to choose and direct their child's educational curriculum. Today there are an estimated 2 million students receiving their education at home.
School choice initiatives have the potential to rescue millions of American children currently trapped in failing public schools. Minority children suffer the most; many African-American and Hispanic students are trapped in school districts with the worst drop-out rates and lowest scores on academic achievement tests. Despite the unprecedented growth of school choice in recent years, significant obstacles remain that continue to hamper momentum.
School choice initiatives are consistently opposed by a powerful coalition of unions and left-wing interest groups. For instance, the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association, poured millions of dollars into defeating what would have been one of the nation's first universal school choice program: a Utah initiative that would have made school scholarships available to families regardless of income. After the initiative passed in Utah's state legislature, it failed in a ballot referendum led and funded mostly by union operatives.
Far-left interest groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and People for the American Way, also oppose private school choice programs. The ACLU regularly initiates legal challenges against school choice laws and has publicly pressured U.S. congressmen to oppose adding private school options to federal education law.
Liberal politicians have also united at the state and national levels to block school choice legislation. One of the most recent examples of this were the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of liberal U.S. representatives to dismantle the D.C.-based Opportunity Scholarships program, which benefits many impoverished students and is widely supported by African-American leaders and parents. Destroying this program would have forced many underprivileged children to return to low-performing schools.
Liberal interest groups have taken advantage of obscure provisions within many state constitutions that prohibit the use of public funds for "sectarian" schools (known as "Blaine Amendments"). They use these provisions to file lawsuits in state courts, where judicial activists can interpret them in a restrictive way. As many as 30 states have this language, or similar provisions, in their constitutions. But, they do not reflect the spirit and principles within the U.S. Constitution. As a result, ongoing legal challenges to Blaine Amendments could gradually break down the obstacle of restrictive state laws.
Other states have clauses in their laws requiring education to be "uniform." Though this requirement has no direct relation to school choice and is vaguely worded, judicial activists have chosen to interpret it in a way that negates school choice statewide. For instance, the Florida Supreme Court used the "uniform" requirements to strike down that state's innovative Opportunity Scholarship program, even though it was popularly supported by voters.
So, progress in the school choice movement will depend in large part on the ability of reformers to improve state laws and add wording that protects parents' rights to direct their children's schooling.
In addition to teachers' unions, efforts to increase school choice for parents are often vigorously opposed by local school officials who want to protect the status quo and who feel threatened by the prospect of new competition. They often claim that school choice will destroy the public school system and limit good schooling options to only a privileged few.
In addition, public school boards and agencies often make it difficult for charters to expand by implementing regulations and rules like placing a cap on the amount of charters that can exist, requiring difficult and complicated start-up processes, limiting funding and space that's available for new schools, etc.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court has been friendly to school choice, opponents of these initiatives are trying to use state court systems to their advantage. For instance, there was a long battle in Arizona over state legislation that provides education scholarships for disabled and foster-care children. Unfortunately, the state's Supreme Court ruled against the legislation. But in April 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out an ACLU-backed lawsuit that had attempted to also dismantle an important Arizona tax-credit, school choice program. Read more about that here.
Despite these legal challenges and obstacles, it is vitally important for parents to continue to protect and fight for their right to direct their children's education. Unfortunately, more and more public schools are promoting homosexuality, sexual promiscuity and other politically liberal views, all the while failing to provide satisfactory academic preparation. In this context, parents need options that allow them more control over their child's education and safeguard their religious freedoms.
For more information, read The Next Civil Rights Battle.
Focus on the Family believes that children are a heritage and blessing from God and that parents are accountable to God for raising, shaping and preparing children to serve Him. This accountability includes a responsibility to protect the hearts and minds of their children, a vital part of which is actively choosing the best education environment for their children. Thus, we whole-heartedly support school choice in its many varied forms.
Each child is unique, having different strengths and weaknesses. This is why we encourage parents to consider all available types of schooling, including public, private and home schools. Each education option has its own set of pros and cons, so Focus also encourages parents to make their schooling decisions on a family-by-family, child-by-child basis:
Focus on the Family also supports school choice because we believe it improves quality of education – creating a situation where school personnel need to compete for students by offering the best possible programs and standards. Competition makes schools more responsive to parents. This is the heart of a free enterprise system, which puts power in the hands of the "customers" – in this case, parents and students.
We also believe school choice is the fastest and most efficient way to equalize educational opportunity for all children, regardless of socio-economic status or ethnicity. Today, if an upper-class family is dissatisfied with their local public schools, they have the resources to send their children where they wish. An underprivileged family, however, has no such alternative. We believe school choice levels the playing field by making schools accountable to the parents – instead of bureaucrats – and by making the best schools available to the families who need them most.
In summary, we believe school choice represents the cutting-edge future of education. It breaks up the current bureaucratic monopoly controlling our education system and places the power squarely into the hands of the people to whom it belongs: parents.