A growing number of American students are benefiting from
school choice policies. Twenty years ago, few states and
communities offered parents the opportunity to choose their
children's school. Today, millions of American students are
benefiting from policies that enable parental choice in
This year, 13 states and the District of Columbia are supporting
private school choice. Approximately 150,000 children are
using publicly funded scholarships to attend private school.
Millions more are benefiting from other choice options that range
from charter schools and public school choice to homeschooling and
virtual education. Still, an estimated 74 percent of students
remain in government-assigned public schools.
If given the opportunity, many more children could benefit from
school choice options. To improve education in America, Congress
and state policymakers should reform public education laws to allow
greater parental choice.
School Choice in America. Research on existing
programs suggests that school choice is having a positive impact.
Surveys of families participating in school choice programs have
found that parents are more satisfied with their children's
education when they can choose their children's schools.
Researchers studying effects of private school choice options on
academic achievement have reported positive effects both for
participating students and for public schools, which are
forced to improve performance because of competition from private
Despite this growing positive evidence, progress in implementing
school choice policies across the nation remains slow. In 2007,
Georgia became the 13th state to offer private school choice,
enacting a school voucher program for children with special needs.
Pennsylvania and Iowa have responded to growing demand for private
school choice by increasing the caps on their respective
scholarship tax credit programs.
However, private school choice initiatives that were passed by
the Louisiana, Ohio, and Utah state legislatures were ultimately
blocked. In Louisiana and Ohio, governors vetoed the legislation.
In Utah, opponents of school choice mounted a successful referendum
campaign to overturn the universal school choice program passed by
the state legislature. These developments highlight the
continuing political resistance to policies that give families
greater school choice.
Millions of children in American public schools are not
receiving a quality education and could benefit from greater school
choice options. According to the 2007 National Assessment of
Educational Progress, 26 percent of 8th graders scored "below
basic" in reading, and 29 percent scored "below basic" in
mathematics. Estimated national high school graduation rates
show that as many as one in four students drop out before
graduation. Graduation rates are even lower among minorities, with
56 percent of African- American students and 52 percent of Hispanic
students dropping out before graduation.
What Congress and State Policymakers Should Do. Congress
and state policymakers should reform education policies to give
parents greater power to direct their children's education.
Specifically, Congress should:
- Expand parental choice in the District of Columbia,
where Congress has oversight authority over the local public
school system. Specifically, Congress should reauthorize the D.C.
Choice Incentive Act of 2003 and create new school choice
options for families living in the nation's capital.
- Expand Coverdell Education Savings Accounts to give
families greater ability to save for and pay for their children's
K-12 education costs to ensure that they receive a quality
- Reform No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to restore greater state
and local control in education and to restore parental
choice. Specifically, Congress should reform NCLB to allow
states to enter into charter agreements with the U.S. Department of
Education to give states greater authority to decide how federal
funds for education are spent. At a minimum, the law's
existing parental choice options should be strengthened.
For their part, state policymakers should:
- Enact education reforms that give families greater school
choice options, including private school choice programs
like tuition scholarships and education tax credits.
- Expand parental choice within the public education
system by enacting strong public school options, enacting
strong public charter school laws to promote more charter school
options, and offering innovative learning options such as distance
learning and virtual education.
- Expand education savings options for families by
offering taxpayers the same incentives for K- 12 education as are
currently available for post-secondary education.
Conclusion. Expanding parental choice in education
will not solve all of the problems in American education, but
giving families the power to choose the best schools for their
children will provide an immediate benefit to children who are
currently assigned to low-performing public schools. Expanding
school choice will create a reform environment that encourages
innovation and improvement. High-performing schools will become
models that other schools imitate. Low-performing schools will be
forced to improve in order to continue to attract students or risk
losing students to higher-performing schools. Creating a
reform environment of healthy competition is an important step
toward improved public education in America.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst
in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage