Reforms that give parents greater ability to choose their
children's schools continue to expand across the nation. Just a
decade ago, only a few school choice programs existed. Today, a
dozen states and the District of Columbia have private school
choice programs. In 2006, eight states- Arizona, Florida, Iowa,
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Wisconsin-enacted new
school choice programs or expanded existing programs. By 2007, as
many as 150,000 students will be participating in publicly
funded tuition scholarship programs.
As of August 2006:
- Seven states-Arizona, Florida, Maine, Ohio, Vermont, Utah,
and Wisconsin-and the District of Columbia have taxpayer-funded
scholarships to help students attend private elementary or
secondary schools of choice;
- Seven states-Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota,
Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island- have tax credits or deductions for
education expenses, including private school tuition, or incentives
for contributions to scholarship programs;
- Forty states and the District of Columbia have charter school
- Public school choice within or between districts is guaranteed
in 15 states;
- Dual enrollment programs exist in 38 states, in 18 of which the
programs are mandatory, to allow qualifying high school students to
attend college classes to receive higher education credits;
- Home schooling is legal in every state.
The Expansion of School Choice
Laws passed during the 2006 state legislative sessions
substantially increased parental choice in education. In all,
publicly funded private school choice programs were created or
expanded in eight states.
In Wisconsin, lawmakers broadened the state's landmark school
voucher program to allow an additional 7,500 students to
participate this fall- an increase of 50 percent. In Arizona, three
new private school choice programs were created: a corporate
scholarship tax credit program for low-income students, a
scholarship program for special education students, and a
first-in-the-nation scholarship program for foster children. New
scholarship tax credit programs were created in Iowa and Rhode
Island. Existing school choice programs were expanded in Ohio,
Pennsylvania, and Utah.
This progress in 2006 follows a 15-year trend of reforms to give
parents greater ability to choose their children's schools. In all,
10 states now have publicly funded scholarship programs to help
students gain access to private school options. By 2007, an
estimated 150,000 students will participate in publicly funded
tuition scholarship programs across the United States.
Forty states and the District of Columbia now have charter
schools. In all, more than 1 million students are attending more
than 3,600 charter schools across the United States. Every
state allows home schooling, and more than 1 million families have
opted to forgo publicly financed schools and to educate their
children at home.
While school choice is expanding, millions of families still do
not have the freedom to choose their children's schools.
Communities across the nation should follow in the footsteps of
existing school choice programs to increase educational freedom by
allowing parents to direct their children's education.
Developments in 2006
During 2006, seven states enacted measures to create new private
school choice programs or to expand existing programs. The
following is an overview of the measures enacted to expand or
create K-12 private school choice options.
Arizona. During the 2006 legislative session,
Arizona lawmakers created three new private K-12 school choice
options. The first new initiative is a corporate
scholarship tax credit that allows businesses to take a
dollar-for-dollar tax credit for contributions to nonprofit
organizations that fund private school scholarships for low-income
students. The total amount of tax credit contributions is capped at
$10 million annually with a provision increasing the cap by 20
percent each year until 2010, when $21 million will be available
for tax credit contributions.
Arizona's second new option is a private school scholarship
program for children with disabilities. Under the program, $2.5
million will be available annually for qualifying special education
students to attend private schools of choice.
The third program is a first-in-the-nation school voucher
program for foster children. This program will provide $2.5 million
annually for tuition scholarships for children who have been
placed in foster care. Foster children face many challenges in
life and in the classroom. Research suggests that, compared
with the general population, foster children have lower scores on
standardized tests and higher absenteeism, tardiness, truancy, and
dropout rates. One main problem is instability: Children in
long-term foster care often experience multiple home placements,
which can lead to school transfers. A voucher program could
provide foster children with a more stable and higher-quality
education. Governor Janet Napolitano (D) signed the foster
care and special education school choice programs into law and
allowed the corporate tax credit program to become law without her
Florida. In June, Governor Jeb Bush (R) signed
legislation to allow students who had been participating in
the A+ Opportunity Scholarship program, which helped children
from failing public schools, to receive scholarships through
Florida's existing corporate scholarship tax credit program.
This change in the law was necessary because the Florida State
Supreme Court had ruled that the Opportunity Scholarship program
was unconstitutional. Without this legislation, more than 700
children would have been returned to failing schools, as
defined under Florida law. The legislation includes accountability
requirements for participating private schools.
Iowa. In June, Governor Tom Vilsack (D) signed
into law the Educational Opportunities Act, creating a
scholarship tax credit program to help thousands of children
in Iowa. Individuals can receive a 65 percent tax credit for
donations to nonprofit school tuition organizations that fund
private school scholarships. Students from families with incomes
below 300 percent of the poverty line are eligible to receive
scholarships. The total amount of donations that can qualify for
the tax credit is capped at $2.5 million in 2006 and $5 million
annually in subsequent years. The legislation received overwhelming
bipartisan support, passing by a vote of 49 to 1 in the Iowa Senate
and 75 to 19 in the Iowa House of Representatives.
Ohio. Ohio lawmakers enacted legislation to expand
the number of students eligible for scholarships through the
2005 EdChoice program, which provides school vouchers to students
attending low-performing schools. By extending this
opportunity to students attending public schools under
"academic watch," this legislation increased the number of
students eligible to receive scholarships from 20,000 to
Pennsylvania. In July, Pennsylvania lawmakers
expanded the state's Educational Improvement Tax Credit program,
which allows corporations to receive partial tax credits for
donations to organizations that fund private school
scholarships or school improvement projects. The measure increased
the tax credit limit from $44 million to $54 million.
Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, lawmakers
created a new $1 million corporate scholarship tax credit
program to provide tuition scholarships to children from low-income
families. To receive a scholarship, a student must
be from a family with an income below 250 percent of the poverty
Utah. In March, Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. (R),
signed legislation to expand the Carson Smith Scholarship program,
created in 2005 to provide tuition scholarships to children with
special needs. The 2006 legislation increased the number of schools
and students that are eligible to participate.
According to the Alliance for School Choice, between 250 and 500
children received Carson Smith scholarships worth $5,700 each to
attend private schools in 2005-2006.
Wisconsin. In March, Governor Jim Doyle (D)
reached an agreement with Republican leaders in the state
legislature to increase the number of students who can participate
in the landmark Milwaukee school voucher program from 15,000 to
22,500. The program, which was created in
1990-1991, had limited the number of participating children to 15
percent of the school district's enrollment. In 2004- 2005, 15,035
students received vouchers. In addition to
lifting the enrollment cap, the compromise legislation requires
participating private schools to administer a national
norm-referenced test in reading, mathematics, and science to
voucher students in 4th, 8th, and 10th grades and to submit the
results for an academic evaluation.
Growing Bipartisan Support
In addition to the successful efforts to enact school choice
legislation across the country in 2006, state lawmakers in at least
29 states considered school choice initiatives, according to
the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation. Since six states
did not have a legislative session in 2006, this represents
approximately two-thirds of all the states that had legislative
sessions. The Friedman Foundation reports that 428 school choice
initiatives were considered during the 2005-2006 state
legislative sessions. (For an overview of school choice plans,
see the Appendix.)
The 2006 state legislative sessions witnessed increasing
willingness of Democratic lawmakers to embrace school choice
initiatives. In Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin,
Democratic governors signed legislation to create new school
choice programs or to expand existing ones. Similarly, a growing
number of state Democratic legislators backed school choice
measures during the 2006 legislative session. This trend of
expanding bipartisan support suggests that more school choice
programs could be enacted in future years.
Growing Evidence That School Choice
One likely reason for the growing bipartisan support for
school choice is the mounting empirical evidence that school choice
programs work. Over the past 15 years, the growth of school choice
programs has enabled researchers to study the impact of school
choice on students, families, and school systems. Students
participating in school choice programs have made academic gains
when compared to their peers in public school. Importantly,
public schools that face competition from choice programs have
Strong Demand for Scholarships. School choice is clearly
popular among participating families. For example, when tuition
scholarships have been made available to low-income families,
the number of students seeking scholarships has far surpassed
scholarship availability. In 1998, the Children's Scholarship Fund
offered 40,000 privately funded tuition scholarships to low-income
students. More than 1.2 million children applied. In New York City,
Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, nearly one out
of three eligible students applied for scholarships. In
Washington, D.C., nearly two applicants applied for each available
scholarship offered through the federal D.C. Opportunity
Higher Parental Satisfaction. Parents benefiting
from school choice report higher levels of satisfaction, as
indicated by numerous studies. For example, a 2003 Goldwater
Institute survey of approximately 2,600 low-income families
participating in the Arizona School Choice Trust's scholarship
program found that parents who were able to choose their children's
schools were happier with their children's schools than were
parents who were unable to choose their children's schools. In
2003, the Manhattan Institute surveyed parents participating in
Florida's McKay Scholarship Program for Students with
Disabilities and found that 92.7 percent of parents were satisfied
or very satisfied with their children's schools, compared to just
32.7 percent of public school parents.
The U.S. Department of Education's National Household Education
Survey Program also found that parents benefiting from school
choice were more satisfied with their children's schools and more
involved in their children's education:
Parents whose children attended either public, chosen schools or
private schools were more likely to say they were very satisfied
with their children's schools, teachers, academic standards, and
order and discipline than were parents whose children attended
public, assigned schools. Parents whose children attended private
schools were more involved in activities at their children's
schools than were parents whose children attended public, assigned
and public, chosen schools.
Improved Academic Achievement. Students in private school
choice programs show increased academic achievement. Eight
"random-assignment" studies of five school voucher and tuition
scholarship programs compared the performance of students who were
awarded scholarships to attend private school through a lottery
system to the performance of their peers who entered the
lottery but did not receive a scholarship and therefore
remained in public school.
According to education researcher Jay Greene, all but one of
these studies found that students using scholarships to attend
private schools performed significantly better academically,
and every study found some positive academic effect. For example,
the Milwaukee school voucher program has been subject to two
randomized-experiment studies that have found that students who
received vouchers through a lottery made academic gains when
compared to their peers who remained in public school. Similar
studies of private school choice programs in cities such as
Charlotte, North Carolina; New York City; and Washington, D.C.,
reached similar conclusions.
Improved Public School Performance Through Competition.
In addition to helping participating children, school choice
programs introduce competition into public school systems,
which can drive public schools to improve performance or risk
losing students. Studies have suggested that competition has a
desirable system-wide effect, encouraging traditional public
schools threatened with a loss of students to make better use of
For example, Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxby
has studied the effects of competition on education in Arizona,
Michigan, and Milwaukee and found that it sparked improvement in
public schools. In Arizona and Michigan, public schools facing
competition from charter schools realized greater academic
improvement than public schools that did not face competition. In a
separate study of Milwaukee's choice program, Hoxby found
statistically significant evidence that competition spurs
improvement. Hoxby has studied other types of school choice-such as
interdistrict choice among public schools-and found that these
types of competition also lead to significant improvements. Her
findings point to significant benefits from competition:
If every school in the nation were to face a high level of
competition both from other districts and from private schools, the
productivity of America's schools, in terms of students' level of
learning at a given level of spending, would be 28 percent higher
than it is now.
Despite growing evidence that school choice programs are
working, efforts to expand parental choice in education still face
many obstacles, particularly legal challenges that threaten to
eliminate school choice options. In January, the Florida Supreme
Court struck down the state's Opportunity Scholarship program,
ruling that the scholarship program for children in failing schools
violated the Florida constitution's "uniformity" clause that
guarantees all students a "uniform, safe, secure, and high
quality system of free public schools." The ruling would have
ended a program that had been helping students enrolled in failing
public schools to attend private schools since 1999 if the Florida
legislature had not provided an alternate funding source for
The recent ruling in Florida is likely to inspire future legal
challenges. Clark Neily, an attorney with the Institute for
Justice, an organization that litigates on behalf of school choice
initiatives, explained: "There's no question that this decision
will embolden the school choice opponents to throw the uniformity
argument against the wall and see if it sticks in other states."
School choice programs like Florida's Opportunity
Scholarship program have been the subject of numerous legal
challenges across the country in spite of a favorable verdict in
the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2002, the Court upheld the
constitutionality of the Cleveland school voucher program in
the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision. The Court
ruled that the Cleveland voucher program, which allowed
students to use scholarships to attend religious private schools,
did not violate the First Amendment. In addition, school choice
programs have been successfully defended in Arizona, Illinois,
Ohio, and Wisconsin.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court decision has not halted
challenges based on state constitutions, which have different
language and legal histories. State courts have issued rulings that
have excluded religious private schools from school choice
programs in Puerto Rico and Vermont. Lawmakers implementing
school choice programs should be optimistic that well-designed
programs have been upheld by state courts across the country, but
the legal challenges to school choice can be expected to
What Congress and State Policymakers
Children across the country would benefit from greater choice in
education. Millions of American children are enrolled in
underperforming public schools. According to a Department of
Education report in 2006, more than 2,112 public schools have
missed state benchmarks for five or more years under No Child Left
Behind. In some large school districts, including
New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, hundreds of thousands of
students are enrolled in persistently underperforming public
Moreover, the children in chronically underperforming
schools are just the tip of the iceberg. A high percentage of
public school students nationwide are achieving only minimal
academic standards. On the recent 2005 National Assessment of
Educational Progress, 32 percent of 8th graders from low-income
households scored "below basic" on math, and 29 percent scored
"below basic" on reading.
American taxpayers spend more than $440 billion annually on K-12
public education in the United States. Federal and state
policymakers should give parents greater freedom to control the
dollars and decision-making in their children's education.
To this end, Congress should:
- Implement reforms to strengthen the existing parental
choice components of No Child Left Behind, including enacting the
America's Opportunity Scholarship for Kids initiative, a pilot
program to provide opportunity scholarships to children in
persistently failing public schools;
- Reauthorize and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship
program to give more children in the nation's capital the freedom
to attend schools of their parents' choice;
- Expand Coverdell Education Savings Accounts to give
families greater ability to save for and direct their children's
K-12 education; and
- Implement reforms to transfer dollars and power back to
state and local policymakers so that local policymakers can enact
reforms that best suit local community needs, such as
expanding parental choice.
For their part, state policymakers should:
- Enact student-centered education reforms to provide all
students with greater freedom to attend schools of their parents'
choice, including scholarship programs and tax incentives to
promote parental choice, and
- Expand parental choice within the public school system
through such means as allowing for the creation of more public
Across the country, parental choice in education is growing and
working. Today, a dozen states and the District of Columbia have
private school choice programs. Existing school choice programs
have been shown to increase parental satisfaction, improve academic
achievement of participating children, and improve public school
performance through competition.
The growing success of school choice programs has led more
policymakers to support expanding parental choice in education.
Already in 2006, eight states have enacted new initiatives or
expanded existing private school choice programs.
However, millions more children in the United States could
benefit from the opportunity to attend schools of their parents'
choice. State and federal policymakers should implement
student-centered reforms to give all parents the ability to direct
their children's education.
Dan Lips is Education
Analyst and Evan Feinberg is a Research Assistant in the Domestic
Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation.
 This estimate is based on participation
in current programs and projections of full participation in newly
enacted or expanded programs in 2007. (For an overview of school
choice plans, see the Appendix.) This year, 22,522 students
received scholarships through Arizona's scholarship tax credit
program. An estimated 2,350 students will participate in Arizona's
three new scholarship programs next year. In Florida, 31,636
students participated in scholarship programs last year. In Iowa,
an estimated 500 students will participate in the state's new
scholarship program next year. In Maine and Vermont, 13,959 and
8,040 students, respectively, participated in the states'
tuitioning programs during a recent year. In Ohio, 5,675 students
participated in the Cleveland voucher program last year. As many as
14,000 students could receive scholarships through Ohio's new
school choice program. In Pennsylvania, an estimated 25,000
students participated in the corporate scholarship tax credit
program last year. In Rhode Island, as many as 200 students will
receive scholarships through the new corporate tax credit program
next year. In Utah, as many as 500 students participate in the
Carson Smith special needs scholarship program. In Washington,
D.C., 1,733 students received opportunity scholarships last year.
In 2007, 22,500 students will be eligible to receive school
vouchers in Milwaukee.
 For additional background information,
see The Heritage Foundation, "Choices in Education," Web site, at
and Krista Kafer, "Choices in Education: 2005 Progress Report,"
Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1848, April 25, 2005,
/77495_1.pdf (August 14, 2006).
 Kafer, "Choices in Education."
 News release, "PA Expands Education Tax
Credit by $10 million."
 News release, "Ohio and Utah Pass Bills
Expanding School Choice Programs."
 Paulson, "Milwaukee's Lesson on School
 Milton & Rose D. Friedman
Foundation, "A Map for Success," August 2006.
 Anemona Hartocollis, "Private School
Choice Plan Draws a Million Aid Seekers," The New York
Times, April 21, 1999, p. A1.
 Jay P. Greene, Education Myths
(Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), pp.