The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #2102 on Education

January 31, 2008

January 31, 2008 | Executive Summary on Education

Executive Summary: School Choice: Policy Developments and National Participation Estimates in 2007-2008

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 education.

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 schools.

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 education.
  • 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 Foundation.

About the Author

Dan Lips Senior Policy Analyst
Domestic Policy Studies

Related Issues: Education