May 16, 2001 | Executive Summary on Education
The movement to enable more parents to choose the schools their children attend is gaining ground. Last year, presidential and congressional candidates brought much-needed attention to the problems plaguing public education. President George W. Bush made school choice an important element of his education platform "to leave no child behind." And a growing body of research demonstrates that school choice can improve the academic performance of at-risk children and even foster competition and accountability in public school systems.
Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school or voucher legislation. Indiana's governor signed the state's first charter law on May 2, and an effort to overturn Oregon's charter school law last year failed when opponents obtained fewer than half of the signatures needed to place it on the ballot. To date, no state has repealed a charter school law.
The Growing Popularity of Choice
Public approval of school choice continues to grow. Approximately half of the respondents in a 2000 nationwide poll conducted by the Center on Policy Attitudes favored the use of vouchers for tuition at private and religious schools. A recent survey conducted for the National Education Association and released in March 2001 found that a clear majority of Americans support the President's proposal to allow parents of children in chronically failing schools to use public dollars to send their children to a public, private, or charter school of choice. In fact, 63 percent favored giving them tuition vouchers worth $1,500 a year. And a group known as Parents in Charge released the results of a survey in April 2001 indicating that 82 percent of parents want to be in charge of their children's education and 72 percent believe competition improves education.
Some of the nation's most prominent African-American leaders also support choice: for example, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young; Martin Luther King III, the President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and former Colorado NAACP President Willie Breazell, who was asked to leave his post after publicly voicing his support for school choice.
In September 2000, former Superintendent of Milwaukee Schools Howard Fuller, now director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, announced the formation of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) to bring public attention to the importance of choice for children in inner-city poor communities. The theme of the alliance's compelling television advertisement--"school choice is widespread unless you're poor"--is resonating with the poor and minority families who are most often shortchanged by public education. Fuller believes that vouchers giving minority parents the ability to take their children out of failing schools will help to close the achievement gap.
Even former critics of school choice are now agreeing that choice matters. John Witte, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who was hired by Wisconsin to evaluate the effectiveness of Milwaukee's choice program, concluded on the basis of his initial research that expanded choice had little impact. Now, based on the overwhelming weight of the evidence since his original study, he concedes that choice can be a "useful tool to aid low-income children."
More Interest by the States
The increasing national popularity of choice means that even more state legislatures and school districts are considering choice-related proposals. For example, at least 21 states considered legislation in 2000 to create charter schools or voucher programs for low-income students. At least 18 states considered tax credits or tax deductions that in four states are already helping parents with their educational expenses and encouraging contributions to scholarship programs for low-income students. Today, nearly 100 privately funded programs and five publicly funded scholarship programs together enable almost 70,000 disadvantaged students to attend a better school.
Victories in Court
Supporters of school choice also have found much to applaud in how the courts are handling anti-choice suits. Victories for choice were won in Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and Utah. For example, the New Jersey and Utah Supreme Courts found their charter school laws constitutional; and on April 21, 2000, a circuit court judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Illinois Education Association and other organizations against the state's tax credit for education-related expenses (tuition, book fees, and lab fees) that exceed $250 per child or $500 per family.
Amendments to strengthen charter school laws are pending in Minnesota, Missouri, Connecticut, Florida, Nevada, Illinois, and Alaska. Charter school legislation is moving through the Iowa legislature for the first time.
Voucher legislation has been proposed in eight states, including Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, New York, and Texas. A corporate income tax credit for private school tuition, already approved by the Florida House, was recently passed by the state Senate. A similar tax credit bill was recently passed in Pennsylvania.
The popularity of school choice will expand as more Americans realize that it improves student achievement, challenges public schools to improve, and enables more low-income families to give their children the best education. It recognizes that mediocrity is no longer good enough for America's students. Real education reform will not take root unless policymakers empower parents and teachers to make the decisions affecting their children's education. Bureaucrats may know line items in the budget, but parents and teachers know the students and their needs. School choice can maximize the nation's sizeable investment in education and help the United States ensure that all its children, regardless of their socioeconomic status or where they live, have the opportunity to succeed.
Jennifer Garrett is a Research Assistant in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation.