School Choice 1999: What's Happening in the States

Report Education

School Choice 1999: What's Happening in the States

January 27, 1999 19 min read

Authors: Sarah Youssef and Nina Rees

School choice had another banner year in 1998:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court--by a vote of 8 to 1--rejected consideration of a challenge to Milwaukee's school choice program, which had expanded to include religious schools.1

  • Five new states (Missouri, Idaho, New York, Utah, and Virginia) passed charter school legislation, bringing the number of states that allow independently run public schools of choice to 34, in addition to the nation's capital.

  • Entrepreneurs Ted Forstmann and John Walton donated $100 million to establish the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF) to cover private school tuition costs for low-income children in 40 cities across the country.2

  • The largest privately sponsored program in the nation, CEO Horizon, was initiated in the predominantly Hispanic Edgewood district of San Antonio, Texas. CEO Horizon will award at least $50 million in scholarships over the next ten years to low-income children to attend schools of choice.3

  • And a study of New York's School Choice Scholarships Foundation (SCSF) by Harvard University and Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., found that 4th and 5th grade students in the program scored four percentile points higher than a control group in reading and six points higher in math.4 Because the SCSF scholarships were awarded by lottery, evaluators were able to conduct a natural experiment in which students were allocated randomly to the scholarship and control groups--thus controlling as much as possible for "parental involvement." The study also revealed that parents of scholarship recipients were more satisfied with their children's education and other aspects of school life than were parents in the control group.

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Congress complemented these developments by debating and passing two school choice measures. For the first time ever, Congress passed bills aimed at empowering parents to utilize the best schools and materials available to educate their children. President Bill Clinton vetoed both bills:

  • The D.C. Student Opportunity Scholarship Act of 1997 (S.1502), championed by House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-TX), would have given 2,000 students in the District of Columbia vouchers worth up to $3,200 to be used to attend a public, private, or religious school of choice. Three days after President Clinton vetoed that bill, The Washington Post released a poll which found that 65 percent of African-Americans residing in the District with incomes under $50,000 favor using federal dollars to send children to private or religious schools.5

  • S. 1133, introduced by Senators Paul Coverdell (R-GA) and Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), would have allowed individuals making up to $75,000 a year (or couples making less than $150,000) to contribute as much as $2,000 per year to an education savings account for a child. The tax-free money in these accounts could have been used for education-related expenses. Although this measure garnered the support of such school choice foes as Senators Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the President vetoed this measure as well.6

Another promising development in 1998 came when Arthur Levine, the president of Columbia University's Teachers College and a lifelong opponent of school choice, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "after much soul-searching, I have reluctantly concluded that a limited school voucher program is now essential for the poorest Americans attending the worst public schools."7 Mr. Levine joins the ranks of the many former opponents who today make some of the most convincing arguments for school choice.8

Today, Phi Delta Kappa places general public support for school choice at an all-time high of 51 percent--which jumps to 56 percent for parents with children in public schools.9 With the Supreme Court's decision, further social science support, and growing public and philanthropic interest, parents should be optimistic in 1999. The developments of the past year give supporters of choice a major boost in the climb to the summit of full parental choice.

The first means-tested publicly sponsored school choice model in the nation is the Milwaukee school choice plan.10 This program, approved by the state legislature in 1990, was limited initially to private schools. After undergoing a grueling round of litigation, it passed constitutional muster and, in 1995, was expanded to include religious schools. The education establishment immediately forced a court-ordered injunction to block funding for religious schools. The injunction lasted until June 1998, when, in a momentous decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court:

  • Rejected opponents' claims that choice violates the church-state separation clauses of the U.S. Constitution;

  • Clearly defined the program's neutrality over religious and secular options based on the fact that in this program, parents or children direct the funds;

  • Ruled that the program did not violate the Wisconsin constitution because it operated primarily to the benefit of children, not religious schools; and

  • Dismissed claims made by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that the program resulted in racial segregation.11

Citing a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the majority, in an opinion written by Justice Donald W. Steinmetz, declared, "The simplistic argument that every form of financial aid to church-sponsored activity violates the Religion Clauses was rejected long ago.... Not one cent flows from the state to a sectarian private school under the [plan] except as a result of the necessary and intervening choices of individual parents."12 The one-paragraph dissenting opinion addressed only the Wisconsin constitution's religious establishment provision. The First Amendment issue was effectively settled by a vote of 4 to 0.

The Wisconsin decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared on November 11, 1998, that it would not review the state court's decision upholding Milwaukee's publicly funded voucher program. Thanks to this development, more than 6,000 low-income students in Milwaukee now attend 90 different parochial and secular private schools of their parents' choice.

Support for the Milwaukee voucher program is at an all-time high. According to a July 1998 survey of 1,000 Wisconsin residents conducted by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and Louis Harris & Associates, 62 percent of Milwaukee residents support the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision upholding the expanded program. Among low-income parents, support soared, especially in Milwaukee: 73 percent of low-income African-Americans in the state and 72 percent of low-income parents in Milwaukee support the expanded program.13

The Milwaukee decision gives school choice a boost, but several other courtroom battles are still brewing.

  • The Ohio Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the Cleveland scholarship program on September 28, has yet to hand down a decision.14

  • Lawsuits filed by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice on behalf of Maine and Vermont parents who wish to send their children to a religious school of choice await decisions from each state's respective Supreme Court.15

  • The Arizona Supreme Court has yet to rule on a suit challenging the state's education tax credit plan, which gives a $500 tax break to individuals donating to private scholarship programs.16

  • And a plan approved by Pennsylvania's Southeast Delaware County School District offering tax bene¬≠fits for families who relieve the district of public school expenses by sending their children to private schools or public schools in other districts is on appeal to the state court of appeals.17

Meanwhile, a group of Massachusetts parents have filed suit in Boston's federal court alleging that the state constitution wrongfully prohibits the enactment of school choice legislation. The plaintiffs, represented by the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm, claim that the state's 1854 Anti-Aid Amendment disallowing the use of any public money for religious schools contradicts parents' First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.18 Becket is attacking the law in all 36 states that have such a provision--known as a Blaine Amendment.

Education entrepreneurs Ted Forstmann and John Walton captured headlines last year when they launched a new private school choice program called the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF).19 They pledged $100 million to provide low-income students in 40 selected cities across the country with scholarships to attend the school of their choice. CSF will match funds raised by parents and interested parties in those selected cities. A lottery in April 1999 will determine who will receive the four-year scholarships for children entering kindergarten through 8th grade.

Similarly, on April 22, the Children's Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation America, through CEO Horizon, offered every family in the predominantly Hispanic Edgewood district of San Antonio, Texas, a scholarship to send their children to a school of choice. CEO Horizon will make at least $50 million available over the next ten years. It is the largest district-wide program in the nation.20 During the 1998-1999 school year (the program's first year), 700 students elected to leave Edgewood public schools for private schools.

On the research front, Professor Paul Peterson of Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance and Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., released the results of their research studying the effects of New York's School Choice Scholarships Foundation (SCSF). The SCSF announced in February 1997 that it would award 1,300 scholarships to children from low-income families who were attending public school to allow them to transfer to private schools. The scholarships, valued at $1,400 annually, could be redeemed for at least three years at both religious and secular schools.

The response was overwhelming. More than 20,000 students applied for scholarships between February and late April 1997. Recipients were selected by lottery in May 1997, and 75 percent of those selected accepted the scholarship and began school that fall.

The Peterson/Mathematica study documented the gains in academic scores by students participating in the SCSF program.21 Because the SCSF scholarships were awarded by lottery, evaluators were able to conduct a natural experiment in which students were allocated randomly to the scholarship and control groups. The study compared scholarship recipients in 2nd through 5th grades to students in similar grades with similar backgrounds who had applied for scholarships but did not receive one. The aggregate differences in test scores between the scholarship recipients and the control group for all grades was about two percentile points in both reading and math, but 4th and 5th graders scored four percentile points higher than the control group in reading and six points higher in math.22

The study also revealed that parents of scholarship recipients were more satisfied with their children's education and other aspects of school life than were parents in the control group.

  • More than half of the scholarship parents gave their schools an "A" grade, compared with only one-eighth of the control group.

  • More than half the parents of scholarship recipients were very satisfied with the academic quality of their child's new school, compared with one-sixth of the control group.

  • Likewise, 58 percent of the scholarship parents expressed the highest satisfaction with "what's taught in school," compared with 18 percent of the control group that reported satisfaction with class content.23

Charter Schools Climb in Popularity
Several studies of charter schools were conducted last year, 24 but one offered the best insight into the impact of charter schools in boosting parental involvement and improving the schools. A study by the Pioneer Institute's Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center found that Massachusetts charter school parents reported more involvement with their children's education.25 Specifically, these parents:

  • Reported twice as many in-person meetings with their child's teacher as did district school parents;

  • Received more phone calls from their child's school and averaged 3.3 forms of written communication from the school, compared with 1.7 for district school parents; and

  • Were more confident that their children could easily obtain extra help (90 percent) than were district school parents (71 percent).

Another Pioneer study, released in July 1998, revealed that teachers at Massachusetts' charter schools found it easier to participate in the decision-making process at charter schools than at their previous schools.26 According to this study, the most common reason teachers give for seeking a position at a charter school is the school's mission and educational philosophy (51 percent); the other reasons include control over curriculum and instruction (47 percent); the quality of academic programming (42.5 percent); and the school's collaborative working environment (41 percent). The study also shows that nearly half the teachers in charter schools hold a master's or higher degree, with 67 percent holding a Massachusetts teaching certificate.

One charter school in Boston became the first public school in the nation to offer a "learning guarantee" to parents. The Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School promises that if a student does not pass the 10th grade state assessment test, his or her parents have the right to send the student to another school of their choice.27 The Academy will transfer the $7,400 per-pupil state expenditure to that school. However, parents must sign weekly progress reports on their child, and if the school feels a student is lagging behind, the student must consent to work with a tutor. The Academy's innovative approach to serving the needs of students and guaranteeing them a good education provides an excellent model for other schools to follow.

Several states will have an opportunity to pass school choice legislation in the coming year.

  • New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani already has proposed a school choice plan for one of the city's community school districts, saying it might force failing public schools to improve.28

  • Under the leadership of newly elected Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican and long-time school choice advocate, Florida parents have an excellent opportunity to see the nation's next means-tested choice program enacted. Bush earned high marks with education reformers when he took the lead a few years ago to start a charter school with the Urban League of Greater Miami.

  • In Texas, school choice enjoys broad bipartisan and multiracial support, and the legislature has come close to passing choice several times in the past. Because of its strong charter school law, its system of holding school districts accountable in exchange for flexibility, and the fact that it has several large private choice programs, Texas is primed for passage of school choice legislation in the near future.

  • Choice came to the forefront in Philadelphia when Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia, proposed a voucher plan in a May 26, 1998, letter to Mayor Edward Rendell and School District Superintendent David Hornbeck. The Cardinal believed the voucher program would help alleviate several of the Philadelphia school district's problems, such as overcrowding and funding. On June 5, he broadened his offer by sending similar letters to officials in ten suburban school districts that suffer from overcrowding or money problems.29

Complementing these efforts, Pennsylvania school choice advocates in November 1998 proposed voucher legislation that most likely will be considered when the General Assembly reconvenes in 1999. The legislation would phase in financial support to parents below a certain income level to pay for private school tuition.30

  • New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, a long-time choice advocate, has asked the legislature to consider passing school choice during the upcoming legislative session.31

  • Arizona Superintendent of Schools Lisa Graham Keegan has offered a choice plan that the legislature may pass this year. Arizona demonstrated its willingness to experiment with market-based education reforms when legislators approved the strongest charter school law in the nation, as well as a child-centered funding plan and an education tax credit plan for those who contribute to the state's privately funded choice program.32

  • Allowing school choice through tax credits and deductions is likely to capture center stage in Idaho and Virginia.

Two efforts in Michigan and California to put education tax credits on the ballot in 2000 are also worth watching.

  • Michigan choice advocacy groups, including School Choice YES!, are preparing to gather 300,000 signatures to put a tuition tax credit measure on the November 2000 ballot.33 The initiative, modeled after the Michigan-based Mackinac Center's Universal Tuition Tax Credit plan, would allow businesses or individuals paying private or public school tuition to take up to 80 percent of the cost of tuition off their taxes. The tax credit would be capped at $2,800, which is half of the state's public school per-pupil expenditure.

  • Several groups, including the state's largest religious organization, the Wolverine State Missionary Baptist Convention, have endorsed this plan. A recent survey conducted by School Choice YES! shows that more than half of Michigan's state senators and 44 of 110 representatives in the House would support an amendment allowing education tax credits (44 representatives were undecided and 22 were opposed).34

  • In California, Ted Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Republican-appointed member of the state Board of Education, is gathering suggestions over the Internet on how to draft a school choice initiative.35 He intends to gather the 433,269 signatures needed to place the initiative on the March 2000 presidential primary election ballot. Draper recommends that the value of the vouchers be set at $5,500, the state's current expenditure per pupil.36

For many, 1998 will be remembered as the year school choice received its biggest legal boost and generated a flurry of support from state and Washington legislators, former school choice opponents, and low-income parents. The school choice movement has a long road to climb before reaching acceptance nationwide, but developments in 1998 moved supporters over one of the most difficult ridges in the ascent toward full parental choice. The horizon now appears much clearer.

Nina Shokraii Rees is Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation. Sarah E. Youssef is a Research Assistant at The Heritage Foundation.


1. Institute for Justice, press release, "U.S. Supreme Court Lets Stand Wisconsin School Choice Decision," November 9, 1998. See .

2. Jeff Archer, "Millionaires to Back National Voucher Project," Education Week, June 10, 1998. See 

3. Mark Walsh, "Group Offers $50 Million for Vouchers," Education Week, April 29, 1998.

4. Paul E. Peterson, David Myers, and William G. Howell, "An Evaluation of the New York City School Choice Scholarships Program: The First Year," PEPG98-12, Harvard University, October 1998.

5. Sari Horwitz, "Poll Finds Backing for D.C. School Vouchers: Blacks Support Idea More Than Whites," The Washington Post, May 24, 1998, pp. F1, F7.

6. "News in Brief: Clinton Vetoes GOP-Backed Savings-Account Measure: A Washington Roundup," Education Week, August 5, 1998.

7. Arthur Levine, "Why I'm Reluctantly Backing Vouchers," The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 1998.

8. See also Nina H. Shokraii, "What People Are Saying About School Choice," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1188, June 2, 1998.

9. See Lowell C. Rose and Alec M. Gallup, "The 30th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public School," Phi Delta Kappan, September 1998, p. 44.

10. Daniel McGroarty, Break These Chains: The Battle for School Choice (Rocklin, Cal.: Prima Publishing in Association with ICS Press, 1996).

11. Institute for Justice, Web site press release, "Voucher Victory! Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds School Vouchers, Victory for Parents," June 10, 1998.

12. Supreme Court of Wisconsin, Case No. 97-0270, June 10, 1998.

13. Gordon Black, The Wisconsin Citizen Survey, Wisconsin Policy and Research Institute, Vol. 11, No 6 (August 1998).

14. Institute for Justice memorandum, "School Choice Litigation Status," January 1, 1999.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. George Will, "A Choice for Children," The Washington Post, November 29, 1998, p. C27.

19. Jeff Archer, "Millionaires to Back National Voucher Project," Education Week, June 10, 1998.

20. Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation, press release, "School Choice for an Entire District!" April 22, 1998.

21. Peterson et al., "An Evaluation of the New York City School Choice Scholarships Program: The First Year."

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. See also Sol Stern and Bruno V. Manno, "A School Reform Whose Time Has Come," City Journal, Summer 1998.

25. Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center, "Poll Finds Higher Satisfaction Rate Among Charter School Parents," Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, Policy Directions, No. 3, June 1998.

26. Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center, "Study Finds Charter School Teachers Are Stakeholders," Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, Policy Directions, No. 4, July 1998.

27. "Student Guarantees," The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 1998.

28. Abby Goodnough, "Mayor Proposes Voucher Experiment in Single School District," The New York Times Regional on the Web, January 15, 1999.

29. The Blum Center's Educational Freedom Report No. 61, July 17, 1998.

30. Mark Walsh, "`Green Light' for School Vouchers?" Education Week, November 18, 1998.

31. Based on personal communication with a state contact.

32. Darren Goode, "Arizona May Be First State With En Masse Vouchers," Education Daily, December 30, 1998.

33. See

34. Ibid.

35. Thomas D. Elias, "Web Site Petitions Support for School Vouchers," The Washington Times, November 27, 1998, p. A13.

36. Ibid.


Sarah Youssef

Senior Visiting Fellow, Japan

Nina Rees

Senior Research Fellow