Abstract: School choice -- what does it mean for American's daily lives? It means that more and more parents are able to send their children to safer, better schools. It means that low-income and special-needs children across the country are attending a public or private school of their parents' choice. It means that students need not remain trapped in failing and dangerous schools -- though too many students still are. Congress, as well as state and local policymakers, must enact policies that give all American children the opportunity to learn and achieve. This Heritage Foundation report details the latest school-choice facts and figures for the 2009-2010 school year.
In 2009, more students than ever are benefiting from school choice. Today, millions of America's students exercise public school choice, attend private schools, and are schooled at home. Policies that strengthen parental choice in education have been enacted at the state and national levels, which has led to a steady increase in the percentage of families who exercise school choice.
This year, families are being served by various private-school-choice initiatives in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The parents of more than 190,000 school children are making use of scholarships and vouchers to send their children to private schools -- made possible by corporate and individual tax credits for tuition and for donations that fund scholarships. In addition to private-school-choice options, millions of children are also taking advantage of other school-choice policies, such as public-school choice, charter schools, virtual education, and homeschooling. Despite the proliferation of school-choice options, nearly three-quarters of American children remain in government-assigned public schools, too many of which fail to provide a real education or even basic safety.
While many American families are now able to send their children to safer, better schools, Congress and state legislators should enact policies to ensure that every family has this opportunity.
School Choice in America
As of August 2009,
- Eight states -- Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Ohio, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin -- and the District of Columbia provide taxpayer-funded scholarships that allow children to attend private elementary and secondary schools of their parents' choice;
- Nine states -- Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island -- offer education tax credits to encourage businesses and individuals to make donations to organizations that provide tuition scholarships to students to attend private school;
- Two states -- Louisiana and Minnesota -- offer tax deductions to reduce their state income-tax liabilities by taking deductions on education-related expenses, including private-school tuition;
- In all, 15 states and Washington, D.C., currently have policies that support private school choice;
- Forty states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws, which allow for the creation of charter schools -- public schools that are free from many of the regulations imposed on traditional public schools, but are held accountable to the same achievement measures as their traditional counterparts. This allows charter schools to be more flexible -- and innovative -- than traditional public schools;
- Forty-six states have policies that permit public-school choice;
- Homeschooling is legal in every state; and
- Millions of students take classes online.
Private-school-choice policies provide public support for parents to choose a private school for their children. Private-school-choice policies include vouchers and scholarship programs that let parents use a portion of their child's public-school funding to enroll in a private school. They also include tax credits or deductions that provide tax rebates or relief for the purchase of private-school tuition, or for making a donation to a charity that awards tuition scholarships. In 2009, eight states and the District of Columbia provided taxpayer-funded scholarships to children to attend private school. Ten states permitted education tax credits or deductions to enhance school-choice options. Following is an overview of the policies of the 15 states and the District of Columbia that allow private-school choice:
1) Arizona. Families in Arizona benefit from two different private-school-choice programs. Since 1997, the state has provided a dollar-for-dollar state income-tax credit for individuals who make contributions to non-profit organizations that award private-school scholarships to students. This individual scholarship tax credit is currently capped at $500. In 2009, more than 27,000 children received scholarships that were funded by the tax-credit program, whose 78,000 supporters donated a total of more than $55 million. Moving forward, the individual scholarship-tax-credit program could increase in popularity. In July 2009, Governor Jan Brewer signed legislation that now allows individuals to deduct contributions directly from their paychecks, making it easier for people to plan their donations and will thus likely strengthen the tax-credit program.
Families in the Grand Canyon state also benefit from the Corporate Scholarship Tax Credit Program, which allows corporations to take a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations made to private-school tuitioning organizations that provide scholarships to students. Scholarships provided through the state Corporate Scholarship Tax Credit Program -- up to $4,300 per child for kindergarten through eighth grade, and up to $5,600 per child for grades nine through 12 -- are limited to families whose incomes are below 185 percent of the federal poverty line. In 2008, nearly $12 million was contributed by corporations for tuition scholarships, with a total of 2,967 scholarships awarded for the 2008-2009 school year. Corporate tax credits in Arizona were capped at $17.2 million for program contributions in 2009. In March 2009, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the state constitutionality of the Corporate Scholarship Tax Credit Program in Green v. Garriott, rejecting a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Since 2006, Arizona had also offered two school-voucher programs for specific student populations: special-needs students and foster children. During the 2008-2009 school year, the Arizona Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities program served 224 children, and the Displaced Pupils Choice Grant program served 255 foster children.
In 2009, both the special-needs scholarship program and the scholarship program for foster children were ruled unconstitutional in Cain v. Horne in another suit brought by the ACLU and other organizations. The court ruled that the programs violated the Arizona constitution, which prohibits the use of state funds to support religious schools. Shortly thereafter, Governor Brewer signed Lexie's Law, which will allow students currently enrolled in the program to complete the school year thanks to corporate tax credits for donations made to the scholarship program. Lexie's Law created a new revenue source using tax credits for children who had been eligible for state-funded scholarships served by these programs. In addition, a new tax-credit program was created by the Arizona legislature to provide tuition assistance to families participating in the foster scholarship program.
2) Florida. Florida offers two private-school-choice programs. The McKay Scholarship Program, which began in 1999, provides scholarships for a private school of choice to children with disabilities. According to the Florida Department of Education, 20,530 students received scholarships to attend a private school in 2008. In all, the McKay program awarded $133 million in scholarships during the 2008-2009 school year. The scholarship amount is based on the amount a child's assigned public school would have spent, or the cost of private-school attendance, whichever is less. During the 2008-2009 school year, scholarships averaged $7,295 per child and were used at 897 participating private schools.
Florida also offers tax credits to corporations that contribute money to private-school scholarships for students with disabilities. The Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program, also known as "Step Up for Students," which began in 2001, allows corporations to take a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for contributions to scholarship-funding organizations (up to 75 percent of their state income tax liability). For fiscal year 2009, tax credits were capped at $118 million for the program. Last year, 23,259 students attended 988 different private schools using scholarships funded by the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program. During the 2008-2009 school year, the average scholarship was $3,950. In 2009, the tax-credit program was also expanded to give the dollar-for-dollar credit to insurance companies. In 2008, the program was expanded to extend scholarship eligibility to foster children.
3) Georgia. Georgia has two private-school-choice programs. In 2007, Governor Sonny Perdue signed the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship (GSNS) program into law. GSNS provides scholarships for a private school of choice to students with disabilities. The amount of each scholarship is equal to what was allotted for the child's public school education, or for the amount of tuition at the child's chosen private school, whichever is less. During the 2008-2009 school year, 1,596 students received scholarships for 145 different private schools under the special-needs program. Scholarships averaged $6,331 per child.
In 2008, Governor Perdue signed into law the Georgia Tax Credit for Private School Costs and Scholarship Donations program, which allows both individuals and corporations to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to Georgia Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs), which provide scholarships to children for a private school of their parents' choice. Tax credits are capped at $1,000 for individuals, at $2,500 for married couples filing jointly, and at 75 percent of a corporation's income tax liability. In 2008, Georgia individuals and corporations took more than $5 million in tax credits for donations to scholarship-granting organizations. As of September 2009, nearly $8.5 million in tax credits had been pre-approved by the Georgia Department of Revenue for 2009. According to education analyst David Pusey of the Center for an Educated Georgia, 22 scholarship-granting organizations provided approximately 1,100 scholarships to students in 2009 through the tax-credit program.
4) Illinois. Since 2000, parents have received tax credits for education expenses in the Prairie State. Parents can take a tax credit of up to 25 percent for education-related expenses, including private-school tuition and book fees up to $500. This allows for the maximum $500 credit when education expenses reach $2,250. In 2007, 238,119 taxpayers received an average credit of $295. More than $71 million was taken in tax credits in fiscal year 2007.
5) Indiana. In June 2009, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed into law a new scholarship-tax-credit program. The program provides tax credits of 50 percent of each dollar contributed to organizations that grant scholarships to children for a private school of their parents' choice. The program was capped at $2.5 million annually. Scholarships are targeted at low- and middle-income families, and will be available beginning in 2010.
6) Iowa. Iowa has two private-school-choice programs: a state income-tax credit for tuition expenses, and a scholarship tax credit to encourage contributions to scholarship-granting organizations. Residents of the Hawkeye State may receive tax credits for educational expenses, including expenses incurred at private schools for tuition and textbooks. Parents can take a tax credit of 25 percent for educational expenses, up to $1,000 per child. More than 192,000 taxpayers received education tax credits in 2007, totaling $15.3 million.
In addition to the tax credits for educational expenses, since 2006, the School Tuition Organization Tax Credit program has allowed taxpayers to receive an individual income tax credit for contributing to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to private schools. Taxpayers receive a tax credit worth 65 percent of their donation to the organization that provides scholarships to children from families with incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty line. There is currently a $7.5 million cap on the aggregate amount of the tax credits. During the 2007-2008 school year, 8,737 scholarships were awarded to Iowa students to attend a private school of their parents' choice. In 2009, the Iowa legislature expanded the tax-credit program to include corporations in addition to individuals.
7) Louisiana. In June 2008, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed a new private-school-choice program into law, which went into effect for the 2008-2009 school year. The Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program provides scholarships for New Orleans children in kindergarten through third grade from families with incomes below 250 percent of the federal poverty line. Each school year, an additional grade level will be added to the program, beginning with the addition of fourth grade for the 2009- 2010 school year. For the 2008-2009 school year, the maximum scholarship amount was $7,138, with a total program appropriation of $10 million. In 2008, its first year of operation, 640 scholarships were awarded.
In 2008, Louisiana also created the Elementary and Secondary School Tuition Deduction program. Louisiana families can now take a 50 percent tax deduction for educational expenses incurred at public or qualified private schools, as well as qualified homeschooling expenses, up to $5,000 per student. For Louisiana parents with foster children, a full deduction may be taken for educational expenses, including tuition and fees. The tax deduction program goes into effect later this year; therefore, data on participation are not yet available.
8) Maine. Since 1873, students from rural towns in Maine have taken advantage of the state's "town tuitioning" program, which provides scholarships for students to attend a public or private school in an area other than where they live, if their town lacks a public school. A 1981 Supreme Court ruling prohibited religious private schools from participating in the program. During the 2007-2008 school year, 14,012 students used the town tuitioning program to attend a public or private school of choice. Rural towns that send students to other districts or to private schools pay tuition directly to the school that receives the incoming student. Approximately 38 percent of students at private schools in Maine were admitted through the town tuitioning program.
9) Minnesota. Minnesota residents can use the K-12 Education Credit Program, which provides tax credits for educational expenses in order to enhance existing school-choice options. A tax credit is available for qualified K-12 educational expenses up to 75 percent of the amount spent. The amount of the credit is reduced based on the number of students qualifying per family in those families whose incomes exceed $33,500. In 2006, 56,372 families took advantage of the tax credit program, claiming an average of $265.
Families of all income levels can take part in the K-12 Education Deduction Program, which provides tax deductions for private-school expenses. Parents may subtract up to $1,625 for children through grade six, and up to $2,500 per child in grades seven through 12. Approximately 230,000 families took advantage of the tax deduction program in 2007. Minnesota parents cannot claim the same expense for both a tax credit and a tax deduction.
10) Ohio. Ohio currently has three private-school-choice programs. Since 1996, disadvantaged children in Cleveland have been eligible for private-school scholarships, which are distributed through a lottery system. To be eligible for a scholarship, children must be from families with an annual income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Scholarships are worth 90 percent of tuition, up to $3,450. The landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris Supreme Court case upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland scholarship program in 2002. During the 2007-2008 school year, 6,273 students received scholarships totaling more than $18 million.
Since 2004, the Autism Scholarship Program has also been available to families in Ohio. Qualifying students can receive up to $20,000 to attend a public or private school of choice to better meet their needs. According to the Ohio Department of Education, during the 2008-2009 school year, more than 1,500 children received scholarships through the Autism Scholarship Program.
Since 2006, students attending certain low-performing schools have been eligible to receive scholarships to attend private schools. To qualify for an Educational Choice (Ed Choice) scholarship, students in the Buckeye State must attend or be assigned to a school placed on "academic watch" or "academic emergency" for two out of the past three years. The scholarships are worth up to $4,500 for children in kindergarten through grade eight, and up to $5,300 for students in grades nine through 12. During the 2009-2010 school year, scholarships were provided to 12,685 students to attend a private school of their parents' choice -- a 20 percent increase over the previous year.
11) Pennsylvania. Since 2001, Pennsylvania has offered businesses a tax credit to encourage charitable donations that fund tuition scholarships through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC). Under the EITC, corporations receive tax credits for contributions to scholarship organizations worth 75 percent of the amount contributed. However, companies may receive a credit worth 90 percent of their contribution if they pledge to contribute the same amount for two consecutive years. The amount of tax credits available for contributions is capped at $75 million during the 2009 fiscal year. Nearly 53,000 students received scholarships during the 2008-2009 school year worth approximately $1,200 each.
12) Rhode Island. During the 2008-2009 school year, more than 280 students received scholarships to attend a private school of their parents' choice thanks to the Rhode Island Business Entity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, which began in 2007. Businesses can receive a tax credit of 75 percent of their contribution to a scholarship-granting organization. To encourage consistency in donations, businesses that match 80 percent of their prior year's donationare eligible to receive a 90 percent tax credit in the second year. Donations are capped at $100,000. Scholarships may be awarded to students from families below 250 percent of the federal poverty line. The scholarship program is capped at $1 million.
13) Utah. Since 2005, Utah has awarded scholarships to students with special needs through the Carson Smith Scholarship for Students with Special Needs program. Students with disabilities may receive a voucher worth up to $6,442.50 to attend a private school of choice. During the 2008-2009 school year, 583 students received scholarships to attend a private school.
14) Vermont. Since 1869, Vermont has had a "town tuitioning" program similar to Maine's, which provides scholarships to students from rural areas of Vermont that do not have public schools. Students who receive a tuitioning scholarship may attend a non-religious private school of choice. Like the tuitioning program in Maine, the Vermont program requires the town sending the student to pay the tuition to the school that receives the student. The tuitioning program, which began in 1869, had 2,459 participants during the 2006- 2007 school year.
15) Wisconsin. During the 1990-1991 school year, Wisconsin began offering Milwaukee students the opportunity to receive a scholarship to attend a private school of choice. During the first year of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), 337 students received scholarships. The program has increased dramatically, and, during the 2008-2009 school year, 19,538 students received a voucher for up to $6,607 to attend a private school of choice. The MPCP remains the largest urban school-choice program in the country.
, D.C. In 2004, President George W. Bush signed the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act of 2003, creating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships of up to $7,500 to students from low-income families to attend a private school of choice. Since 2004, families earning less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line have been eligible for the scholarships, with the average income of scholarship families being less than $23,000 in 2009. During the 2008-2009 school year, 1,715 students attended 49 private schools in the District of Columbia.
In addition to private-school choice, many states now offer families the opportunity to choose the best public schools for their children. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 73.2 percent of children attend an assigned public school, down from 80 percent since 1993. Sixteen percent of students attended a public school of choice in 2007, compared to just 11 percent in 1993.
The Education Commission of the States also reports that open enrollment policies are flourishing. Only four states -- Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia -- have not enacted some form of open enrollment. Open-enrollment policies can be either intra-district, allowing students to choose from schools within their assigned district, or inter-district, allowing students to choose schools from outside their assigned district. Some states have mandatory open-enrollment policies that require districts to participate, while other states have voluntary policies, allowing districts to choose whether to participate in a public-school-choice option.
Some school districts have reformed their school-funding systems to provide families with greater ability to choose which school their child attends within the public system. According to education analyst Lisa Snell, at least 15 school districts now employ the weighted student formula, allowing education funding to follow a child directly to the public school of the parents' choice. Districts in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago, among others, as well as the entire state of Hawaii, have implemented the weighted student formula.
Many students are also eligible to transfer to a different public school under federal law, at least in theory. Under No Child Left Behind, students in low-performing schools that fail to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) benchmarks for two consecutive years are eligible to transfer to another public school of their parents' choice. But the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education reports that while 5.2 million children were eligible for a transfer during the 2004-2005 school year, only 48,000 did so (less than 1 percent). Low transfer rates may be a result of lack of information about the transfer option due to late notification or failure to inform parents. In addition, lack of space in higher-performing public schools contributed to the low transfer figures.
Charter Schools. The proliferation of charter schools has contributed to the increase in the number of children attending a chosen public school. Charter schools, which are publicly funded, are free from many of the rules and bureaucracy governing traditional public schools. Charter schools are held accountable by certain performance standards set by their governing authority. However, charter schools generally operate with greater freedom from government regulations than traditional public schools. Charter schools are innovative and provide parents an alternative to their assigned public school.
The Center for Education Reform reports that an estimated 1.4 million children are attending charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia this year. During the 2008-2009 school year, more than 4,600 charter schools were in operation, representing 4.8 percent of all public schools. Charter schools are a growing presence in many school districts across the country. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that 54.5 percent of children in New Orleans attend a public charter school, followed by 30.6 percent of students in the District of Columbia, and 28 percent of students in Southfield, Michigan. Major cities, such as Dayton, Ohio; Phoenix, Arizona; Kansas City, Missouri; and San Antonio, Texas, all have well in excess of 20 percent of students attending public charter schools. As of August 2009, only 10 states -- Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia do not have charter school laws.
Homeschooling. Homeschooling is legal in every state and gives families the opportunity to take their children out of the traditional public- or private-school setting, allowing parents or instructors to teach their children at home. Homeschooling has experienced a significant rise in popularity in recent years. Nearly 3 percent of school-age children (1.5 million students) were homeschooled in 2007, an increase of 36 percent since 2003, and an impressive 74 percent increase since 1999. Homeschooling is one of the fastest-growing schooling trends in the United States, along with the charter-school movement. Homeschooling continues to proliferate because it provides parents with an additional choice in their children's education. Growth trends suggest that homeschooling will continue to be a popular alternative to traditional public schooling for American families. The ability for parents to provide moral or religious instruction, a safe environment, and to provide instruction that meets their children's needs contribute to the many reasons families cite for choosing to homeschool.
Virtual Education. John Chubb and Terry Moe, authors of the recently published Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education, write that virtual education allows students to be "freed from the geographic constraints of districts and brick-and-mortar buildings." The authors also assert that all students can have access to a wide range of course work, from remedial to advanced, and that students will have more interaction with teachers. In addition, Chubb and Moe suggest that virtual education gives parents greater inclusion in the education process, and that virtual education can reduce cost for schools.
Virtual education and the proliferation of online learning are also providing greater educational choice for families. Most states now offer some form of online learning -- from remedial course work to Advanced Placement classes -- providing access to courses that would otherwise be inaccessible to many students. Participation in online learning programs is growing at an estimated rate of 30 percent annually, and during the 2008-2009 school year, there were more than 1 million course enrollments. According to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, 44 states offer online learning to students. During the 2007-2008 school year, 75 percent of public school districts offered virtual education through fully online or blended courses.
The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is an example of an online learning program that provides a popular and effective learning alternative to a growing number of students in the Sunshine State. FLVS is a state-led, supplemental school, where most students attend traditional public schools, but supplement their course work with classes through the virtual school. The Florida Virtual School enrolled about 84,000 students in 168,000 courses during the 2008-2009 school year. From July 2008 to February 2009, the FLVS hired more than 300 new full-time teachers. The Florida Virtual School is also producing academic results for students. A report by Florida TaxWatch Center for Educational Performance and Accountability found that students in the Florida Virtual School outperformed their peers in traditional public school on the Advanced Placement (AP) exam. FLVS students scored an average school of 3.05 on AP exams versus an average score of 2.49 for public-school students.
Education Savings Accounts. Education savings accounts (ESAs) and tax incentives for contributions to such accounts provide another measure to enhance parental choice in education. The federal Coverdell Education Savings Account program allows parents to contribute to a tax-free account for K-12 or higher-education expenses, including summer school, tutoring, and public-school enrichment, as well as toward private-school tuition. The Coverdell program was established in 1997 and expanded in 2001, allowing parents to contribute up to $2,000 annually to accumulate tax-free interest.
To date, no state has yet offered a state tax deduction or credit for contributions to Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. However, 32 states offer tax deductions or credits for contributions made by individuals to "529 plans," which allow families to save and earn interesttax-free for eligible higher-education expenses. States could give families more savings options by offering similar tax incentives for contributions made to ESAs, which allow savings for both K-12 and higher-education expenses.
Private-School Choice Progress 2008-2009
Private-School Choice: Developments in 2008. School-choice policies garnered significant attention in state legislatures across the country in 2008. According to the Alliance for School Choice, parental school-choice bills were introduced in 44 states during the 2007-2008 legislative session. School-choice bills passed one legislative chamber in five states -- Maryland, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Virginia; a school-choice bill passed two legislative chambers in six states -- Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Utah. School-choice legislation has been enacted in Georgia and Louisiana.
In 2008, two states created new school-choice programs. In Georgia, Governor Sonny Perdue signed into law the Georgia Tax Credit for Private School Costs and Scholarship Donations program which allows both individuals and corporations to receive tax credits for donations to Georgia Student Scholarship Organizations, which provide scholarships to children to attend a private school of choice. In Louisiana, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed the Louisiana Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program into law. The private-school-choice program provides scholarships for low-income New Orleans children in kindergarten through grade three to attend a private school of choice. In 2008, Louisiana also passed the Elementary and Secondary School Tuition Deduction program, which provides Louisiana families tax deductions for educational expenses incurred at public or qualified private schools.
Private-School Choice: Developments in 2009. So far in 2009, four states -- Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and Iowa -- have implemented policies that expand private school choice options to families.
Arizona . In July, Governor Jan Brewer signed legislation that allows students currently enrolled in either the special-needs scholarship program or the scholarship program for foster children to maintain their scholarships. Governor Brewer signed Lexie's Law, which will allow students currently enrolled in the program to complete the school year thanks to corporate tax credits for donations made to the scholarship program. This created a new revenue source using tax credits for children who had been eligible for state-funded scholarships served by these programs. In July Governor Brewer also signed legislation that now allows individuals to deduct contributions directly from their paychecks, which will make it easier for people to plan their donations and, therefore, will likely strengthen the tax credit program.
Florida. In Florida, the state's tax credit program for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations that provide scholarships to low-income children was expanded in 2009. A new budget provision passed by a bipartisan coalition of state legislators will now allow insurance companies to also take the dollar-for-dollar tax credit. The scholarship program was expanded in 2009 to extend participation to foster children.
Indiana. In June 2009, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels signed a new scholarship tax-credit program into law. The program provides tax credits for donations to scholarship-granting organizations that provide scholarships to children to attend a private school of their choice. The scholarships will be available beginning in 2010.
Iowa. In Iowa, the state's tax-credit program, which provides tax credits to individuals for contributions to scholarship-granting organizations, was expanded. The Iowa legislature expanded the tax-credit program to include corporations in addition to individuals.
School-Choice Setbacks in 2009
Unfortunately, not all of the past year's developments were positive for the parental school-choice movement. School-choice programs in Arizona, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia all experienced setbacks.
Arizona. While Arizona expanded its education tax-credit program, its special-needs scholarship program and scholarship program for foster children were overturned, dealing a significant blow to parental school-choice in the Grand Canyon State. The Supreme Court ruling in Arizona highlights the significant legal challenges that private-school-choice policies face in some states. In an effort to block funding to Catholic schools in the late 1800s, Maine Senator James G. Blaine proposed amending the U.S. Constitution to prohibit money from going to "sectarian" schools. Although the amendment failed, many states amended their own constitutions to disallow state education dollars to support religious education. According to the Institute for Justice and the American Legislative Exchange Council, "the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the Blaine Amendments' 'shameful pedigree' of religious and anti-immigrant discrimination, and the Arizona Supreme Court described them as 'a clear manifestation of religious bigotry' in upholding a tax-credit scholarship program." Blaine amendments are contained in 37 state constitutions.
Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) experienced setbacks in 2009. As part of Governor Jim Doyle's biennial 2009-2011 Wisconsin state budget enacted in June, the maximum voucher amount that parents may receive was reduced by 2.5 percent to $6,442. Despite attempts by the Democrat-controlled state legislature to cap enrollment at 19,500 children, the governor's budget maintained the current 22,500 cap.
District of Columbia. In March, the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009was signed into law, and included language that requires the scholarship program to be fully re-authorized by Congress and authorized by the D.C. city council. In May, Representative John Boehner (R-OH) introduced the Preserving D.C. Student Scholarships Act of 2009(H.R. 2556), which would reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. The bill, which has seven co-sponsors, was referred to the House subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Post Office, and the District of Columbia in June. In July, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) introduced the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act of 2009 (S. 1552) to re-authorize the scholarship program.
Local support for the scholarship program is strong. According to a July 2009 survey by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and The Heritage Foundation, three-quarters of D.C. residents have a favorable view of the scholarship program. A full 79 percent of parents with school-age children are against ending the scholarships.
In June, a majority of the members of the D.C. city council signed a letter sent to Mayor Adrian Fenty and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The letter expressed the city council's strong support for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, and its desire to see the program continue.
But as of August 2009, no new students may be admitted into the program, phasing out the scholarships over the coming years. As a result, the U.S. Department of Education withdrew the scholarships of 216 previously admitted children.
The Benefits of School Choice
A growing body of research on school choice has emerged, thanks to the proliferation of school-choice programs across the country. Researchers have studied the impact of school-choice policies on students, families, and school systems, and have found that such programs increase academic achievement, student safety, and parental involvement. In addition, school-choice policies have a positive impact on school systems by increasing efficiency through competition, and by saving taxpayer resources.
Parental Satisfaction. School choice has repeatedly been shown to increase the level of parents' satisfaction with their children's education. In August 2008, the U.S. Department of Education released an evaluation of parent and family involvement in school, with a particular emphasis on parental satisfaction. The report, based on a survey of parents after the 2006-2007 school year was completed, found considerably higher levels of satisfaction among parents with children in chosen public schools and private schools than among parents with children in assigned public schools.
Eighty-two percent of parents in private schools and 63 percent of parents in a chosen public school reported being "very satisfied" with their children's school, as opposed to just 55 percent of parents with children in assigned public schools. Similarly, 84 percent of parents whose children attend private schools and 67 percent of parents whose children attend chosen public schools were "very satisfied" with their school's academics, compared with just 58 percent of parents whose children attend assigned public schools. With regard to school discipline and order, only 58 percent of parents whose children attend assigned public schools reported being "very satisfied," compared to 83 percent of parents whose children attend private schools and 63 percent of parents of children in chosen public schools.
In December 2008, researchers at the University of Arkansas released findings from an evaluation of satisfaction among parents of students in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. The qualitative assessment found that families were overwhelmingly satisfied with the scholarship program. Parents reported satisfaction because they had the autonomy to choose their children's school, and because of their children's newfound success.
Academic Achievement. Researchers have also demonstrated the positive effect of school choice on children's academic achievement. As part of the legislation creating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, Congress mandated an evaluation of the program's effectiveness. In March 2009, the U.S. Department of Education released results of the federally mandated evaluation. According to the evaluation, which examined student progress over three years, voucher recipients had made significantly more progress in reading than their peers who were not awarded a scholarship. The evaluation found that scholarship students were 3.1 months further ahead in reading than their peers who had not received a voucher.
In a Senate hearing on the scholarship program, education researcher Patrick Wolf, who authored the federally mandated evaluation, noted that his evaluation used the most rigorous research method possible:
To ensure that parent motivation does not bias studies of school choice programs, researchers over the past decade have focused on evaluating them using experimental research designs called Randomized Control Trials (RCTs). With an RCT design, a group of students that all qualify for a voucher or scholarship program and whose parents are equally motivated to exercise school choice are subject to a scholarship lottery. The students who win the lottery become the experimental "treatment" group. The students who lose the lottery become the experimental control group. Since only a school voucher and mere chance distinguish the treatment students from their control counterparts, any subsequent difference in student outcomes for the treatment students can be reliably attributed to the voucher intervention... Because of the rigor of experimental designs they are often dubbed the "gold standard" for policy evaluations and are widely used to evaluate the efficacy of medical drugs and procedures prior to such treatments being made available to the public.
Wolf went on to explain in the hearing that if the trends seen in the evaluation continued, a child entering the program in kindergarten would, over the course of his or her academic career, be reading two and a half years ahead of a child who did not receive a scholarship.
The evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program adds to the growing empirical evidence that suggests that vouchers improve participating students' academic achievement. In a 2008 article for the Brigham Young University Law Review, Wolf examined the literature on the efficacy of school vouchers. Wolf states, "Of the ten separate analyses of data from 'gold standard' experimental studies of voucher programs, nine conclude that some or all of the participants benefited academically from using a voucher to attend a private school. The evidence to date suggests that school voucher programs benefit many of the disadvantaged students and parents that they serve."
Positive Effect of Competition. Competition created by school-choice programs produces positive gains for public schools, not only for those students participating in a choice program. Academic and empirical studies have demonstrated academic improvement of public schools as a result of the competitive pressure placed on those systems by school choice programs.
Education researchers Jay Greene and Marcus Winters examined evidence on the impact of the McKay Scholarship Program in Florida, which provides scholarships to students with disabilities to attend a private school of their parents' choice. The McKay Scholarship program was examined to determine the impact of the voucher program on the math and reading scores of those disabled students who remained in the Florida public school system. The authors' findings suggest that exposure to the McKay Scholarship Program "increased the ability of public schools in Florida to produce education gains for disabled students." Furthermore, the authors found that "rather than being harmed, public schools respond to the challenge of exposure to school choice by improving the education they provide."
In February 2009, education researcher Greg Forster conducted a review of every available empirical study concerning the effect vouchers have on academic achievement in public schools. Forster found that vouchers have a positive impact on public schools, and that "no empirical study has ever found that vouchers had a negative impact on public schools." He determined that the positive benefit to public schools is due to the fact that "competition from vouchers introduces healthy incentives for public schools to improve."
Positive Fiscal Impact. School-choice programs have also been shown to save money for the districts and cities in which they are implemented. The Friedman Foundation estimates that school-choice programs across the country saved $422 million for school districts and trimmed state budgets by $22 million from 1990 to 2006. On average, the amount provided to students for scholarships to private schools is lower than what it costs to educate them in public school, saving money for states and school districts, that allow children to transfer out of their assigned public schools. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program awards scholarships of $7,500, while $15,800 is spent on each pupil in traditional D.C. public schools.
Why School Choice Is Necessary
Public elementary and secondary schools in the United States fail to adequately educate millions of children who pass through them. Low academic achievement as evidenced through national assessments, low graduation rates, and the resulting negative impact on life outcomes are reasons for concern.
Test Scores. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP),the term basic "denotes partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at a given grade." The U.S. Department of Education reports that 18 percent of fourth graders and 29 percent of eighth graders scored "below basic" in math in 2007 on the NAEP. Similarly, 33 percent of fourth graders and 26 percent of eighth graders scored "below basic" in reading in 2007.
In the United States, the "achievement gap" between white and black students persists. For example, 23 percent of white fourth grade public school students scored "below basic" in reading, compared to 54 percent of black fourth graders. In 2007, 19 percent of white eighth grade students scored below basic in math, compared to 53 percent of black eight graders.
Children from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds continue to be ill served by America's public schools. In the 2007-2008 school year, 50 percent of fourth-grade students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches scored "below basic" in reading, compared with 21 percent of students not eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Graduation Rates. In addition to subpar academic achievement, dropout rates from the U.S. public school system are also indicative of a system that is failing to meet the needs of its students. Graduation rates in some of the nation's largest cities are below 50 percent: In the Los Angeles, California, Unified School District, only 47 percent of students graduate; in Atlanta, Georgia, only 48 percent of freshmen graduate in four years; and in Detroit, Michigan, a mere 43 percent of students graduate high school.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that nationally, 73.2 percent of students graduated from high school during the 2005-2006 school year. Graduation rates were considerably lower among minority students. During the 2005-2006 school year, the average freshman graduation rate was 61 percent for Hispanic students and 59 percent for black students -- a rate considerably lower than that of their white peers, who had an 81 percent graduation rate. Graduation rates among minority students have an impact on future economic success, with dropouts imposing tremendous societal costs and burdens on taxpayers. Employment rates hover around an astonishingly low 30 percent for black male high school dropouts between the ages of 22 and 30.
School Safety. Not only are academic outcomes a driving factor in the need to allow parents to choose the most effective school for their children; school safety is also a key concern. This is certainly the case in the District of Columbia, where in the 2007-2008 school year, there were 912 incidents of violent crime in the public school system. More than 11 percent of children were threatened with a weapon in D.C. schools that same year -- a number well above the national average.
Social Mobility and Life Outcomes. Economist Henry Levin estimates that high school dropouts are associated with $192 billion in lost earnings and cost the United States an estimated $50 billion annually in lost income tax revenue alone. In addition, he found that a 1 percent increase in high school graduation rates for males would save $1.4 billion annually in reduced crime costs, and that high school graduates live more than nine years longer than high school dropouts.
High school graduation is a necessary prerequisite for college admission. Heritage Foundation economists Stuart Butler, William Beach, and Paul Winfree estimate that a student with a bachelor's degree will earn 70 percent more than someone with only a high school diploma. "Having a college degree is a major factor in determining who will move up the economic ladder and who will not." Failure at the elementary and secondary levels precludes students from future academic success, and results in a lifetime of financial strain.
What Congress -- and State and Local Policymakers -- Should Do
To improve educational opportunities for all children, federal, state, and local policymakers should expand school choice options for American families.
What Congress Should Do. The federal government's involvement in setting education policies should be limited. The federal government provides approximately 9 percent of education funding, with states and localities providing for the remaining funding. Despite its limited 9 percent share, and despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution does not mention "education" or grant Congress the explicit power to fund or regulate public education, the federal government has assumed an increasingly large role in education regulation and oversight.
While state and local governments should continue to have the primary responsibility for public education management and governance, federal policymakers have an opportunity to improve educational options for American students by reforming existing programs to provide more school choice options.
In order to improve American education, Congress should strengthen parental school choice. Specifically, Congress should:
Reform major federal programs like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to allow states to let parents chose the right school for their child and let federal funding follow the child, creating an incentive for schools to provide a quality education in order to attract students and putting families in charge of their educational choices;
Restore state and local control in education by offering an alternative to No Child Left Behind (NCLB). States are in a better position than the federal government to develop policies that meet students' needs and, so far, have done much more to expand school-choice options. State and local leaders are more responsive to the needs of taxpayers, making them inclined to implement policies that best meet the needs of local families. The No Child Left Behind law is likely to be considered for re-authorization in 2010, providing Members of Congress with an opportunity to reform the law significantly. Congress should reform NCLB to allow states to opt out of the agreement in exchange for increased transparency and accountability. These states would be granted greater control over how their federal education dollars are spent. The existing parental school choice option in NCLB should also be strengthened.
Re-authorize and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to provide low-income families in the District of Columbia with a lifeline out of a failing and dangerous public school system. Re-authorization of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program -- the only federally funded school-choice program in the country -- would signal general support for parental school choice in Congress.
What State and Local Policymakers Should Do. Despite growing federal involvement, states and localities still have primary authority over the funding and governance of K-12 education. For their part, state and local leaders have opportunities to change policies and give families the right to choose the best school or education setting for their children.
In order to improve American education, state and local leaders should:
Strengthen private-school choice by enacting or expanding programs like private-school scholarships, vouchers, or education tax credits for tuition or scholarship donations;
Lift caps on charter schools and pass strong charter-school laws to encourage a vibrant charter sector that allows innovation and replication of high-quality charter schools that serve students' needs;
Expand other public-school choice options to ensure that families have maximum choice within the traditional public-school system;
Expand online learning opportunities to give students more options for receiving quality instruction;
Create and expand education savings options for parents by expanding Coverdell Education Savings Accounts and by offering families incentives for K-12 education savings, such as those offered for post-secondary education; and
Protect homeschooling and implement policies that empower more families to homeschool.
More parents than ever are exercising school choice. In 2009, 23 private-school-choice programs served families in 15 states and the District of Columbia. More than 190,000 children are benefiting from school-choice policies, such as private-school scholarships, special-needs scholarships, and corporate and individual tax credits. All but four states allow public-school choice, charter schools are proliferating, and homeschooling is legal in every state. Online learning is flourishing as a viable alternative to the traditional "four walls" model of schooling, providing families with yet another educational option.
Despite these promising developments, millions of children remain trapped in low-performing and often dangerous government schools. State lawmakers, along with Members of Congress, must expand school choice to ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend a safe and effective school.
Lindsey Burke is a research assistant in domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.