Progress on School Choice in the States

Report Education

Progress on School Choice in the States

July 10, 2003 About an hour read Download Report
Krista Kafer
Krista Kafer
Former Senior Education Policy Analyst
Krista is a former Senior Policy Analyst in the Education department.

Progress on school choice in the statehouse and courtroom during 2002 set the stage for an ambitious 2003 legislative agenda in many states and the U.S. Congress. Most significantly, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that voucher programs do not violate the U.S. Constitution, even when participating schools are overwhelmingly religious.1 Before the one-year anniversary of the Court's decision, Colorado Governor Bill Owens signed into law the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program, which will provide vouchers to low-income students in low-performing school districts. The Maryland legislature enacted a charter school law.

Meanwhile, the body of research supporting choice has grown considerably. This research, the Supreme Court's landmark legal opinion, and increased legislative activity on choice provide a foundation for new programs that will empower parents to choose the schools that best meet their children's needs.

Nationwide, the school choice movement has made significant gains. As of May 26, 2003:

  • In six states--Colorado, Florida, Maine, Ohio, Vermont, and Wisconsin--students may use state or district-funded scholarships to attend a private school of choice.2
  • Six states offer tax credits or deductions for education expenses or contributions to scholarship programs.
  • Forty states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school laws.
  • Fifteen states guarantee public school choice within or between districts. (Other states have choice programs that are optional for districts, target only specific populations, and/or require that parents pay tuition.)3
  • Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have privately funded scholarship organizations that provide tuition assistance to more than 60,000 students.4
  • In all 50 states, home schooling is legal. As many as 2 million students are homeschooled nationwide.
  • Twenty-one states have comprehensive dual enrollment programs that enable high school students to attend college classes for high school and postsecondary credit at minimal or no expense to the student.5

Progress at the Federal Level

Since President George W. Bush announced a voucher plan for the District of Columbia and other communities in his fiscal year (FY) 2004 budget, several prominent D.C. leaders have voiced their support for vouchers, including D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz. In an interview with The Washington Post, Mayor Williams explained, "We've got a model we've been using for 140 years. I think it's time to try something else." Kevin P. Chavous (D), member of the D.C. Council and chairman of its Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation, backs vouchers as part of a proposal to increase support for charter schools and traditional schools. According to Chavous, "No school bureaucracy will reform itself internally. It only comes through pressure. And the most effective form of pressure is choice."6

In January 2002, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to compile a list of all schools that have failed to make adequate yearly progress toward meeting state standards for two consecutive years. In 2002, children attending 8,652 schools nationwide that were deemed "failing" under the provisions of this legislation were eligible to transfer to better-performing schools. Students enrolled in schools that had failed for three years were eligible to obtain supplemental services such as tutoring.

Some states and districts, however, are not providing public school choice or supplemental services for all eligible students as mandated by the Act. They cite insufficient capacity within their public school systems as the obstacle to compliance. In New York City and Albany, New York, parents of students in failing schools filed a lawsuit when the school districts did not make the educational opportunities required by the Act available to their children.7

In July 2002, a presidential commission recommended expanding educational options for students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), stating that "The Commission views parental empowerment as essential to excellence in special education. Increasing parental empowerment, coupled with public accountability for results, will create better results for children and schools."8 The commission reasoned that "Parental and student choice is an important accountability mechanism and IDEA should include options for parents to choose their child's educational setting."9

Although thousands of children with disabilities throughout the country are being educated in private schools at public expense under the IDEA, many children do not have this option. For a student to be placed in a private school, the members of his or her Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team--which includes the child's teachers, administrators, specialists, and parents--must agree that the child would be served more appropriately in a private program. The options are limited by the team's decisions, which may seem arbitrary to frustrated parents.10

On April 30, 2003, U.S. Representative Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced an amendment to the IDEA reauthorization legislation (H.R. 1350) to give states the flexibility to establish innovative parental choice programs for students with disabilities. While the amendment failed to pass, there are still opportunities for similar legislation in the Senate.

Existing School Choice Programs


An Arizona law enacted in 1997 allows individuals to receive a tax credit of up to $500 and married couples to receive a credit of up to $625 for donations to a private tuition scholarship program. Individuals may also receive a credit of up to $200 for donations to public school extracurricular activities.11

On January 26, 1999, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld the tax credit plan, finding the program to be neutral with regard to religion and beneficial to low-income families who have been "coerced into accepting public education."12

From 1998 to 2002, the tax credit program generated $56 million that financed nearly 36,000 scholarships.13 More than 80 percent of the scholarship recipients were from lower-income families. A Cato Institute report found the credit to be revenue-neutral. Because the scholarships cost less than the per-pupil expenditure at the public schools, the system saves money when students who had been educated at public expense transfer to less costly private schools, offsetting the revenue loss of the tax credit.14


Starting in 2004, the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program will provide vouchers to low-income students in districts that are designated by the state as "poor-performing." The vouchers will be worth 37.5 percent of the district's per-pupil costs for kindergarteners, 75 percent for elementary and junior high school students, and 85 percent for high school students. Only students who participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program and who were enrolled in a Colorado public school the previous year will be eligible to participate.

Additionally, in grades 4-12, only students who failed the state assessment or college entrance exam will be eligible. Participation is capped at 1 percent of a district's enrollment in 2004-2005, and the cap will rise yearly to a maximum of 6 percent in 2007-2008 and thereafter.15


Florida has three school choice programs: Opportunity Scholarships, McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities, and a tax credit for donations to scholarship funds for poor students.

The A+ Plan provides Opportunity Scholarships to students in schools that have failed to achieve state assessment benchmarks twice within a four-year period. The plan allows these students to carry their state per-pupil dollars to another public school or a private school. Of the 1,611 students using the Opportunity Scholarships during the 2002-2003 school year, 702 used their vouchers to attend a private school, and the rest are attending other public schools.16

During the 2002-2003 school year, approximately 8,200 disabled students used McKay Scholarships to attend another public or private school.17 The McKay Scholarship program, enacted as a pilot program by the Florida legislature in 1999 and expanded statewide in 2001, provides vouchers to special-needs students if their parents are dissatisfied with their academic progress.18

In addition, 15,000 students statewide are using scholarships under Florida's corporate income tax credit program during the 2002-2003 school year. Under this program, which was approved by the state legislature in 2001, corporations can receive tax credits for scholarship-fund donations of up to 75 percent of the amount of their corporate income tax bill. The tuition scholarship organizations give low-income students scholarships worth $3,500 or the full cost of tuition, whichever is less, to attend a private school or a $500 voucher to attend a public school in another school district. Income thresholds apply.19


In 1999, the Illinois legislature approved a tax credit plan for education expenditures (S.B. 1075). The law provides an annual tax credit of up to 25 percent of education-related expenses--including tuition, book fees, and lab fees--that exceed $250, up to a maximum of $500 per family.20

After the law's enactment, opponents brought two lawsuits against the credit. The plaintiffs lost in both circuit and appeals courts, however, and in 2001, the Illinois Supreme Court refused to reconsider the two district appeals court rulings that upheld the tax credit.21


In 1987, the Iowa legislature enacted a law providing tax credits and deductions for education expenses. Under the original law, families earning less than $45,000 could deduct up to $1,000 per child from their state income tax liability for education expenses. Taxpayers using the standard deduction could take a tax credit of up to $50 for education expenses for each child.22 The law was amended in 1996 and again in 1998, and all families may now take a tax credit of 25 percent of the first $1,000 spent on their children's education.23


Maine has been paying for students to attend private schools since colonial times. A century ago, the state enacted the town "tuitioning" law that serves students today. Under the law, school districts without public schools allow students to attend public schools in other districts or nonsectarian private schools.24 In 1981, the legislature enacted a law preventing students from selecting religious schools.25


Since 1955, Minnesota families have been able to deduct education expenses from their state taxes.26 In 1997, the legislature enacted legislation giving Minnesota families who earn $33,500 or less a refundable tax credit of up to $1,000 per student (up to $2,000 per family) for education expenses, excluding tuition. The law increased the maximum deduction to $1,625 for expenses associated with elementary school education, including tuition, and up to $2,500 for junior high school and senior high school expenses.27


Enacted in 1995, the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program provides elementary school students with vouchers worth up to $2,250 for tuition at a private school of choice.28 Although the number of vouchers was increased from 4,523 in the 2001-2002 school year to 5,523 for the 2002-2003 school year, officials say they had to turn away more than 1,100 Cleveland parents who applied for vouchers because there were not enough to meet the demand.29


In 2001, the Pennsylvania legislature approved an education tax credit program that permits corporations to receive credits of up to $100,000 for contributions to organizations that provide scholarships to private schools or grants to public schools for innovative programs. The state may award a maximum of $30 million in tax credits per year. Scholarship recipients must meet income eligibility guidelines.30


Since 1869, Vermont has operated a tuitioning program for students in school districts without a public school.31 Students may attend a public school in another district or an approved nonsectarian private school. As was the case in Maine, students in Vermont could attend religious schools during the first 100 years that the program was in existence. An estimated 7,147 students participated in the program during the 2001-2002 school year.32


More than 10,000 students participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Established in 1990 and expanded in 1995, the program provides vouchers to Milwaukee families with incomes that are at or below 175 percent of the poverty level to enable their children to attend private or religious schools of choice. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the program in 1998, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision.33

Privately Funded School Choice

Thanks to such private foundations as Children First America (CFA) and the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF), the number of privately funded scholarships enabling low-income public school students to attend a private school of choice continues to grow. These scholarship organizations have been active for over 10 years and have served more than 100,000 children. During that period, approximately 100 privately funded organizations have invested $500 million in the future of America's children, providing vouchers that range from $1,500 to $5,000 per year. Because vouchers typically do not cover the entire tuition, some financial commitment from the parents is usually required.34

Children First America has played a central role in developing many of the scholarship programs and continues to provide support for new and existing scholarship organizations. CFA also provides information on parental choice to parents; local, state, and federal elected leaders; and the general public.35

The Children's Scholarship Fund, founded in 1998, is a multimillion-dollar foundation that matches funds raised in communities throughout the country. The CSF provides scholarships to nearly 34,000 students at 7,000 schools. In 2001, Worth magazine named it one of "America's 100 Best Charities."36

Charter School Developments

Maryland recently joined 39 other states and the District of Columbia in enacting a law to establish charter schools. The first charter school opened its doors in 1992 in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2002, Wyoming and Indiana opened their first charter schools, and the number of charter schools increased by 14 percent, bringing the total to approximately 2,700 schools. The states with the most charter schools in 2002 included Arizona, with 465; California, with 427; Florida, with 227; Texas, with 221; and Michigan, with 196.37

The number of "virtual charter schools" that implement educational programs via the Internet is also on the rise. There are approximately 50 virtual charter schools throughout the nation.38

A U.S. Department of Education report released in June 2001 confirmed existing research indicating that public schools and school districts respond positively to the formation of charter schools. Challenge and Opportunity: The Impact of Charter Schools on Districts reported that districts improved their services and operations in response to competition from charter schools.39 Heralding this new report, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige stated:

Charter schools offer meaningful options for parents and their children--particularly for those children who would otherwise be left behind in low-performing schools. The good news is that charter schools do not just help the students they serve directly, they also prod the entire system to improve.40

Research over the past two years has found that charter schools are typically smaller than traditional schools, serve predominantly at-risk populations, and show achievement gains after two years. Specifically:

  • The 2000-2001 evaluations of the Public Charter Schools Program, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, found that charter schools are smaller than traditional public schools, enjoy strong parental involvement, and serve diverse populations of students.41
  • Results from the Center for Education Reform's 2002 Survey of American Charter Schools show that charter schools, in addition to educating children who are poorly served by traditional public schools, are both cost-effective and innovative.42
  • In a recent study, Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby found that increased school choice raises school productivity and student achievement within the public school system. Hoxby's report found that competition from charter schools in Michigan and Arizona, and from Milwaukee's voucher program, has compelled public schools to raise their productivity, as measured by students' achievement gains.43
  • According to a 2002 California State University study, California Charter Schools Serving Low SES Students: An Analysis of the Academic Performance Index, the state's charter schools were more effective than traditional public schools in improving the academic achievement of low-income and at-risk students. Charter schools in which at least half of the students participated in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program improved at a rate of 22 percent, while academic achievement in traditional public schools improved at a rate of 19 percent. Moreover, charter schools in which 75 percent of the students participated in the lunch programs improved at a rate of 28 percent, compared with 24 percent in the other public schools.44
  • A report released by the Georgia Department of Education in 2002 shows that the state's charter schools are outpacing their traditional counterparts. Compared with their counterparts in traditional public schools, more charter school students passed the state's proficiency tests in all five subjects. Furthermore, fewer charter school students repeat grades or drop out of school.45

Home Schooling

The home-school movement has grown steadily over the past two decades.46 As many as 2 million children in grades K-12 were homeschooled during the 2001-2002 school year. The home-school population is growing at a rate of 7 percent to 15 percent a year.47 From 1999 to 2002, the number of African-American home-schooling families increased nearly tenfold. African-American families now comprise nearly 5 percent of the total number of home-schooling families.48

On average, home-school students have higher academic achievement than students in public or private schools. Home-schooled elementary school students tend to perform one grade level higher than their peers in traditional schools. By high school, they are achieving four grade levels above the national average.49 Nearly all home-schooled students participate in at least two extracurricular activities such as dance, sports, music, and volunteerism. In fact, the average home-school student participates in five such activities.50

Barred from the National Honor Society, home schoolers have started their own honor society, Eta Sigma Alpha. Founded in 1999 by Joanne Juren, a former public school teacher and administrator, the society has 20 chapters nationwide.51

Winning in the Courts

In June 2002, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, ruling that the use of public money to underwrite tuition at private and religious schools does not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution as long as parents make the decision regarding where the voucher is used.52 The Cleveland program provides vouchers for tuition or tutoring fees at public, private, secular, and religious schools.

Given the range of options and the freedom parents have to choose among them, the Court concluded that the Cleveland program is neutral with regard to religion, even though most parents used vouchers to send their children to religious schools. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist stated, "We believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private choice, consistent with Mueller, Witters, and Zobrest, and thus constitutional. As was true in those cases, the Ohio program is neutral in all respects toward religion."53

This momentous decision removes the constitutional cloud from policy consideration, enabling state legislators and Congress to consider, on their merits, new programs to give parents greater choice in the schooling of their children.

Other important state-level constitutional battles remain in play as the courts interpret state constitutional provisions, including discriminatory "Blaine amendments" that prohibit tax money from flowing to religious institutions. Vestiges of a 19th century anti-Catholic movement, state-level Blaine amendments have been used by some courts to strike down voucher programs, while other courts have upheld choice programs despite the clause. Thirty-seven states have Blaine-type language, and 29 have prohibitive "compelled support" provisions. This type of constitutional language dates back to colonial times and was intended to prevent governments from compelling individuals to contribute to or attend a state-designated church.54

The following are among the significant developments in the courts during 2002.

  • Undeterred by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on the Cleveland voucher program, a Florida circuit court struck down the state's voucher program in August 2002.55 Supporters of vouchers, including Governor Jeb Bush, have challenged the decision. The state has appealed the circuit court's decision, and the judge has allowed the program to continue while the case makes its way through the courts.56
  • On July 18, 2002, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional a Washington State policy that prohibits students who use state higher education scholarships to earn a degree in theology. The court declared in Davey v. Locke that "a state law may not offer a benefit to all...but exclude some on the basis of religion."57 The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.58
  • In June 2002, the Washington Supreme Court overturned a previous trial court decision and ruled that the state's Educational Opportunity Grant (EOG) Program does not violate the state constitution when college students use grants for tuition at religiously affiliated colleges. Washington's Blaine amendment prohibits public-sector funding of sectarian institutions. The state interpreted this provision to prohibit students from using state aid to attend religious K-12 schools or colleges. The court ruled that the Blaine amendment did not apply to higher education. However, it did not consider whether the Blaine amendment itself violates the U.S. Constitution, which requires that government programs must be non-discriminatory toward religion.59
  • The Institute for Justice is representing six families in Maine who have filed suit against a 1981 statute that removed religious schools from the state's century-old voucher program. Under Maine's tuitioning law, students who live in rural towns without a public school may attend a public school in another town or a private school. Until 1981, students had been allowed to attend sectarian schools under the program.60 Maine's constitution does not have a Blaine amendment.
  • On March 2003, a number of Vermont residents filed suit against the state regarding its tuitioning policy, which enables students in rural towns without public schools to attend private schools. Since 1961, Vermont law has prohibited parents from using the tuitioning policy to send their children to religious schools. Plaintiff Dr. Blane Nasveschuk had to pay tuition for his sons to attend Mount St. Joseph's Academy, although students in nonsectarian schools could take advantage of the tuitioning policy. Dr. Nasveschuk was joined in this suit by two other families who also live in tuitioning towns but must pay for their children's education in schools with a religious affiliation. The Institute for Justice is representing these families.61

Research Revealing the Benefits of Choice

Lawmakers can now make decisions informed by a growing body of evidence that choice often improves the academic performance of at-risk students, promotes parental involvement and satisfaction, and fosters accountability within public school systems. Significant research over the past two years confirms earlier findings that choice improves the educational experience of students.

A May 2003 survey by the U.S. Department of Education shows that more families, particularly those with lower incomes, are participating in "public-school choice," sending their children to schools other than their assigned schools. The number of students attending a public school of choice rose from 11 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 1996 and 1999. Further, the National Center for Education Statistics found that parents of students in private schools or public schools of choice were "more likely to say they were 'very satisfied' with their children's schools, teachers, academic standards, and order and discipline" than were parents of students attending a public school to which they had been assigned.62

According to research conducted by Harvard University professor Paul Peterson, the academic achievement of low-income African-American students who received scholarships offered by the School Choice Scholarships Foundation (SCSF) rose significantly.63 African-American students who participated in the program for three years had scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills that were 9.2 percentile points higher than the scores of students who remained in the public schools. Students who participated in the program for fewer than three years also experienced gains.64

In September 2002, the U.S. General Accounting Office released a report that examined research findings regarding 78 privately funded voucher programs. Several studies showed that families using vouchers were more satisfied with their children's new schools with regard to such factors as academics and safety. Parents using privately funded vouchers reported that their children's schools communicated with them more frequently and had a more positive environment than did the public schools. Other studies documented the academic gains of African-American students who had received vouchers.65

In 2001, Harvard and Georgetown University researchers released a study comparing the academic experience of students using privately funded vouchers through the Washington Scholarship Fund with that of similar students in a control group who remained in public schools. Their findings on academic and social indicators were significant: Parental satisfaction was higher for parents of scholarship students. The report also found that students in private schools did more homework, were safer, and had greater respect for teachers. Significantly, African-American students using the vouchers scored 9 percentile points higher on national math and reading achievement tests than their peers in public schools.66

A 2001 RAND Corporation review of existing literature on voucher and charter programs found that the voucher programs produced positive or neutral achievement benefits, resulted in higher parental satisfaction, and hold the potential for increases in school integration. Because choice programs have been small and limited, RAND researchers caution against using them to make predictions about the impact of large programs. Rather, they suggest, "A program of vigorous research and experimentation is called for, but not one confined to choice programs. Better information on the performance of conventional public schools and alternative reform models is needed as well."67

In October 2002, Manhattan Institute scholars Jay P. Greene, Ph.D., and Greg Forster, Ph.D., released a new study that focuses on the impact of school choice on the academic achievement of public school students in Milwaukee and San Antonio. After controlling for demographic characteristics such as race and income level and differences in expenditures, the authors found increased academic achievement in public schools that had been exposed to competition from private school scholarship programs and charter schools.68

A 2002 analysis of the voucher programs in Maine and Vermont (the oldest in the nation) found that choice increases productivity. In these states, students in towns without public schools may attend private schools at public expense. Schools located in areas where there was high competition in attracting students (and their per-pupil funding) had a strong incentive to improve performance. Such schools exhibited higher levels of achievement than did those in areas with less competition.69

Research conducted in 2002 by Duke University professor Thomas Nechyba suggests that a citywide voucher program could alleviate neighborhood income segregation by attracting higher-income families to poorer areas. Their relocation to low-income neighborhoods would increase property values and improve the tax base, thereby generating greater revenues for the public schools. Thus, benefits flow not only to students using vouchers, but also to students who remain in the public school system. In this way, vouchers can contribute to neighborhood revitalization and public school improvement while increasing the freedom of parents to choose the school that best meets their children's needs.70

A 2001 analysis of the Florida A+ program, conducted by Jay P. Greene of the Manhattan Institute, found that vouchers provided a strong incentive for schools to improve. In Florida, schools receive grades ranging from "A" to "F," based on the proportion of students who pass the state's proficiency tests. Students who attend schools that receive a failing grade twice within a four-year period can receive a voucher to attend another public or private school of choice. Greene found that schools receiving an "F" improved when they were faced with the prospect of vouchers.71


Winning in the Court of Public Opinion

A poll conducted in July 2002 by Zogby International Polling on behalf of the Center for Education Reform found that 76 percent of respondents "strongly" or "somewhat" supported "providing parents with the option of sending their children to the school of their choice--either public, private or parochial--rather than only to the school to which they are assigned." When asked specifically whether they were "in favor of or against allowing poor parents to be given the tax dollars allotted for their child's education and permitting them to use those dollars in the form of a scholarship to attend a private, public, or parochial school of their choosing," 63 percent of respondents favored the proposal. Rates of approval were higher among minority respondents.72

Even a 2001 survey conducted for the National Education Association (NEA), a union that has actively opposed vouchers, found that 63 percent of those surveyed supported President Bush's plan to give parents of children in failing schools a voucher to send their children to another public, charter, or private school. According to Representative John Boehner (R-OH), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce:

Americans support giving parents the power to do what they think is best for their children's education. The President's plan gives this power as a last resort to the parents of children trapped in chronically failing schools after those schools have been given every opportunity to change. A solid majority of Americans support this approach.73

Support for choice also is strong among Members of Congress--at least as far as their own children are concerned. According to a Heritage Foundation survey, among members of the 107th Congress, 47 percent of Representatives and 50 percent of Senators who have school-age children were sending their children to private schools. The percentage of Members practicing private school choice in 2001 was higher than in Heritage's previous surveys, particularly in the House of Representatives. It was also much higher than the percentage of the general population (approximately 10 percent) that sends their children to private schools.74

Despite the rising popularity of private schools among Members of Congress, however, many of the same policymakers who exercise choice in their own children's education voted to block legislation that would have given lower-income families the range of options that they enjoy. Had these Members voted on choice legislation in a way that was consistent with their own practices, such legislation would have passed.75

Minority Support for School Choice

Potentially powerful and growing support for school choice is found among minority parents. A 2002 National Opinion Poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 57.4 percent of African-American respondents favored a voucher system when asked, "Would you support a voucher system where parents would get money from the government to send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of their choice?"76 An earlier poll by the Joint Center found that, while 69 percent of black elected officials oppose vouchers, 60 percent of the black populace supports them and that 70 percent of blacks under the age of 50 support vouchers.77

A July 2001 poll by the Latino Coalition and Hispanic Business Roundtable found that 73 percent of Hispanic adults surveyed supported the following statement: "The government should provide taxpayer-funded vouchers to help low-income families send their children to a better public, private, or church-run school." An even larger percentage of respondents supported giving all parents a $1,000 tax credit for educational expenses, including tuition.78

A June 2002 poll conducted by Black America's Political Action Committee (BAMPAC) found that 63 percent of African-American parents would like to transfer their children from their current public schools to a public charter school or private school. More than half of the respondents gave their children's public school a grade of "C" or lower. BAMPAC President Alvin Williams declared that "African-Americans are becoming increasingly frustrated with the public school system and its failure, in many cases, to provide a quality education for their children. This just shows us that the idea of choice is widely supported by the African-American community."79

In September 2000, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) began a public information campaign to highlight the importance of choice for children in inner-city communities. The campaign featured a compelling slogan: "School choice is widespread unless you're poor." BAEO Chairman Howard Fuller supports the view that giving minority parents vouchers to take their children out of failing schools is the best way to close the racial achievement gap.80

In 2001, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (CREO) was formed to address the education crisis among Hispanic youth. Faced with high dropout rates, illiteracy, and teen pregnancy among Hispanic youth, CREO advocates increased education options to improve the academic achievement of all Hispanic children.81

Parental Support for School Choice

The following parental testimonies are reprinted with permission from the American Education Reform Council.82 The testimonies are abridged for reasons of space.

In third grade, my son Jonathan was making A's and B's on his report card, yet when he was tested, he could not read. My son was on the honor roll, and he could not read. My husband and I wanted to enroll Jonathan in another school, but we had no real options. Our income is limited.... But, beginning in the fourth grade, Florida's new A+ Opportunity Scholarship Program let us enroll Jonathan at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Pensacola. Everybody at Sacred Heart knows Jonathan. He feels like he's somebody.... Since he started attending Sacred Heart, Jonathan gets up in the morning ready to go to school. Most importantly, Jonathan can now read.
By Cassandra, whose son Jonathan uses a publicly funded Opportunity Scholarship to attend a school of choice.
The Milwaukee program has let me choose schools that I think are best for my girls.... My daughters are excelling. I believe both of them will have a choice to go on to college because of the voucher program. Before, I thought that wouldn't happen. I have seen how options like choice, charter schools, and privately funded scholarships through Milwaukee's PAVE organization have made a difference for many other low-income families like ours. People who once felt they had little or no voice in their children's education now have a voice. Because of these opportunities, I see young African Americans doing better.
By Tony, whose daughters Chronda and Tanya attend schools of choice through the Milwaukee voucher program.
When Dylan was at the public school, the teacher was writing full-page letters every day telling me what Dylan could not do. He would come home with a full day's schoolwork, plus homework because he couldn't read the instructions. Homework became a four-hour ordeal of fighting and tears.... After he failed so many times, and he has no self-esteem and no desire to try, then he's labeled as something else and no one wants to deal with him. [At his new school] he does very well. He has learned a lot of coping mechanisms that he wasn't taught at the public school.... After just eight weeks in the private school he earned his very first, ever, perfect score on a spelling test. The skills and abilities he has attained just amaze me. I always knew he could do it, he just needed the right way to unlock that busy brain of his.
By Susan, whose son Dylan attends a school specializing in dyslexia, using a McKay Scholarship.
Kenya is a very happy child. She likes to smile. But, she is very demanding. She's mentally and physically profoundly handicapped and she can't walk, she can't talk. The public school system has been some help, but not enough. I felt Kenya was not making enough progress in public schools.... When I learned about the McKay Scholarships, I chose one of the schools that fit her needs. The McKay Scholarship gives parents a choice--a choice in their child's future. You have an opportunity to make some decisions about the services your child will receive.... She will receive much more in the private school system: psychological services, speech therapy, and more aggressive physical and occupational therapy.
By Selma, whose daughter Kenya has used a McKay Scholarship to attend a school that specializes in serving children with disabilities.
I care about my child's education. I would do anything, whatever it takes, to get her the best education possible. Ebony is a very bright child. I'm not saying that just because she's my child. I know she will grow up to be somebody very special. So when I found out she wasn't doing well in her social studies and math, I knew I had to do something. I was going to find a school that would help her do her best. I wanted to send her to a private school but I could never afford it. If you try to send your children to private school, you will have to work two or three jobs to do it, and then you won't have any time for your kids. That's why the Cleveland Scholarship Program is very important to me. When I got the letter saying she got a voucher, I was so happy I didn't know what to do. It was like someone was coming to my rescue.
By Eulanda, whose daughter Ebony receives a voucher through the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program.

Legislative Outlook in Congress

Some of the lowest levels of achievement among public school students exist in the nation's capital. Despite per-pupil expenditures of more than $11,000, 94 percent of 4th grade students in Washington, D.C., are not proficient in math and 90 percent lack proficiency in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).83 The results are similar for 8th graders. Many will never catch up. As few as 59 percent of students graduate from high school.84

Research strongly suggests that vouchers would improve the academic achievement of D.C. students. Researchers at Harvard and Georgetown University found improved academic achievement and higher parental satisfaction for African-American students who used privately funded scholarships through the Washington Scholarship Fund.85

According to the NAEP test results, parochial school students consistently achieve at a higher rate than their peers in public schools.86 Research by Heritage Foundation Analyst Kirk Johnson, Ph.D., using NAEP data confirms this trend for African-American students in the District and shows that, on average, a black 8th grader in a Catholic school outperforms 72 percent of his or her public school peers.87

Given the failure of other reforms to improve achievement and the growing recognition that additional funding alone will not improve the system, a far better approach would be to grant families in the District of Columbia publicly funded scholarships to send their children to a public or private school of choice. In 1997, such legislation was passed by both houses of Congress but was vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton.

On June 23, 2003, Representative Tom Davis (R-VA), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, introduced H.R. 2556, the D.C. Parental Choice Incentive Act. The bill would enable low-income parents in the District of Columbia to enroll their children in private schools through a scholarship program administered by the Department of Education. The maximum scholarship is $7,500, and the total authorized for the program is $15 million. The Secretary of the Department of Education must conduct an annual evaluation of the program to present to Congress.

President Bush's FY 2004 budget includes a D.C. voucher proposal as part of a $75 million Choice Incentive Fund. The fund would provide competitive grants to states, school districts, and community-based nonprofit organizations to give scholarships to students to attend a school of choice. The District of Columbia would receive a choice grant.88 In all, the budget provides for several school choice initiatives, including a refundable tax credit for parents who transfer their child out of a "failing" school as defined under the No Child Left Behind Act. The credit would be worth 50 percent of the first $5,000 in tuition, fees, and transportation costs. The No Child Left Behind Act currently allows students in failing schools the option of transferring to another public school within the District, but many students have been denied this opportunity because of insufficient capacity within the public school system.

Funding for a public school choice program, charter schools, and magnet schools is also included in the FY 2004 budget, along with billions of dollars of new funding for other education programs, bringing the total to the largest amount ever spent at the federal level for education. Although only a very small percentage of this funding is designated to help families find better schools for their children, such programs are an important step in the right direction. They rest squarely on the foundation of previous legislative activity, current law, legal opinion, and research.

Remaining Challenges

Despite the growth of choice programs over the past few years, the vast majority of poor children remain trapped in low-performing schools. The nation spends more than $422 billion each year on elementary and secondary education,89 yet the results of the most recent NAEP tests in math, science, reading, history, and geography are deeply disappointing. Nearly 60 percent of high school seniors lack even a basic knowledge of American history, and more than half of the nation's low-income 4th graders cannot read at a basic level.90

Moreover, America's children have fallen behind many of their international peers on tests of core academic knowledge, particularly in math and science. Despite higher than average per-pupil expenditures, American 8th graders ranked 19th among counterparts in 38 countries in math and 18th in science in the most recent international comparison of proficiency, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (TIMSS-R) of 1999.91

While parental choice has made significant headway in the past few years, opponents have done their best to limit its success. As the eminent scholars of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education recently stated:

Choice-based reforms have not had a fair test. Most evidence to date suggests that they can boost student learning and parental satisfaction, but constraints have kept them from being tried in full. Opponents have hamstrung schoolchoice programs at every turn: fighting voucher programs in legislative chambers and courtrooms; limiting per-pupil funding so tightly that it's impractical for new schools to come into being; capping the number of charter schools; and regulating and harassing them into near conformity with conventional schools.
These barriers have kept choice-based reforms from receiving the proper trials they deserve, which is significant on two counts: first, by ensuring that only half-baked versions have been adopted, opponents have made it easier to claim that the reforms were tried but they failed; second, profound changes in a system--the kind of changes that choice would bring to bear--cannot arise overnight.92


This presents Congress with an excellent opportunity to expand school choice, especially for the children who need it most. Specifically, Congress should:

  • Provide vouchers to students in Washington, D.C. Congress should give children in the District of Columbia access to schools of excellence. Despite high per-pupil expenditures, children in D.C. schools continue to suffer from high dropout rates and low academic achievement. The demand for choice is evident in the city's higher-than-average charter school attendance and participation in private scholarship programs. There are hundreds of private schools in the D.C. metro area, most with tuitions that are less than the per-pupil expenditure in public schools.
  • Expand choice for students with special needs.
    The Administration should insist that Congress follow the recommendations of the bipartisan Commission on Excellence in Special Education and provide the parents of special-needs children with a variety of educational options. Though many parents are satisfied with the services their children currently receive, those who are frustrated with the quality of service in their schools or dissatisfied with their children's academic progress should be able to access alternative services, including private schools. All parents--not just those who have been able to procure a private placement through the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process--should have access to private providers. Florida's McKay Scholarship program, which provides vouchers to special education students to attend a private or public school of choice, provides a model of such a program.
  • Hold oversight hearings on choice.
    Congress should hold hearings on how well the states and districts are implementing the choice and supplemental services provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. If it becomes clear that there is insufficient will or capacity to give students meaningful public school choice, the Administration should insist that Congress enable students to receive Title I vouchers under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to use for tuition at a private school of choice.


2002 was a momentous year for the school choice movement. The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program, opening the door for new voucher programs. Progress was made in the state courts against Blaine amendments that have prohibited students from using publicly funded vouchers in schools with a religious affiliation.

New studies have added to the growing body of evidence showing that when parents are empowered to choose their children's schools--whether they choose public, public charter, private, or home schools--all students can benefit. This research has added to the growing recognition that competition produced by school choice improves the public school system.

Eleven states currently have publicly funded voucher or tax credit programs, and 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws. This year, Colorado and Maryland adopted voucher or charter school laws. Other states and Congress may yet adopt parental choice legislation before the end of the year. There will be numerous opportunities in the coming years to enact authentic education reform that empowers parents to provide their children with the best education that is available. The principles of parental empowerment and educational opportunity are shaping the education policy debate as more policymakers realize the benefits that choice holds for the nation's children.

Krista Kafer is Senior Policy Analyst for Education at The Heritage Foundation.

1. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002).

2. In 2002, 10,789 students participated in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program; 4,523 participated in the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program; 14,185 participated in Maine's tuitioning program (8,252 went to public schools, and 5,933 went to private schools); 7,147 participated in Vermont's tuitioning program (school breakdown not available); 1,611 received Florida's Opportunity Scholarships, 702 of which were used at private schools; and 8,200 participated in the Florida McKay Scholarship Program. The Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program, which will start in the 2004-2005 school year, could aid as many as 20,000 students when fully implemented. See Marya DeGrow, "Educational Vouchers and Tax Credits: A State-by-State Summary of Current Programs," Independence Institute, December 18, 2002; "Colorado Governor Signs School Voucher Law," The Washington Times, April 16, 2003; and Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Education Research Office, "Florida Facts," at

3. In these states, laws require districts to allow students to enroll in other schools within (intradistrict choice) or outside of (interdistrict choice) their home district. Capacity, racial balance policies, and other rules may limit transfers. In other states, state law allows public school choice, but districts are not required to participate. See Education Commission of the States, "School Choice: State Laws," December 2002, at

4. See Children First America, "Backgrounder/Overview," at

5. The definition of a "comprehensive policy" is taken from Education Commission of the States, Center for Community College Policy, "Postsecondary Options: Dual/Concurrent Enrollment," July 2001, at In other states, either dual enrollment is available on an institutional basis in the absence of a statewide policy, or the statewide policy has limitations.

6. Craig Timberg, "Williams Sheds Light on Vouchers Stance," The Washington Post, May 3, 2003, p. B1.

7. Mark Walsh and Joetta L. Sack, "Suits Contend Officials Fail to Obey ESEA," Education Week, February 5, 2003.

8. U.S. Department of Education, "A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Families," Presidential Commission on Excellence in Special Education, July 2002.

9. Ibid.

10. Press release, "Paige Principles for Reauthorizing Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)," February 25, 2003, at

11. DeGrow, "Educational Vouchers and Tax Credits."

12. Kotterman v. Killian, 972 P, 2nd 606 at 615 (1999).

13. Dan Lips, "The Arizona Scholarship Tax Credit: A Model for Federal Reform," Goldwater Institute, August 1, 2002.

14. Carrie Lips and Jennifer Jacoby, "The Arizona Scholarship Tax Credit: Giving Parents Choices, Saving Taxpayers Money," Cato Institute, September 17, 2001, at

15. See Colorado General Assembly Web site at

16. Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Education Research Office, "A+ Accountability Program Opportunity Scholarships," at, and DeGrow, "Educational Vouchers and Tax Credits."

17. DeGrow, "Educational Vouchers and Tax Credits."

18. Lisa Fine, "Florida's 'Other' Voucher Program Taking Off," Education Week, August 8, 2001.

19. Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Education Research Office, "Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships," at

20. State of Illinois, 91st General Assembly, Public Acts, at

21. Griffith v. Bower, 319 Ill. App. 3d 993 (5th Dist.), app. denied, 195 Ill. 2d 577 (2001); Toney v. Bower, 318 Ill. App. 3d 1194 (4th Dist.), app. denied, 195 Ill. 2d 573 (2001).

22. Tom Mirga, "Tuition Tax Credits Are Challenged in Iowa," Education Week, October 28, 1987.

23. "Legislative Update," Education Week, June 5, 1996, and Robert C. Johnston, "Despite Talk, Lawmakers Slow to Copy Tax Credits," Education Week, June 3, 1998.

24. Institute for Justice, "The Case for School Choice: Raymond, Maine," Litigation Backgrounder, 1997, at

25. John Gehring, "Legal Battle Over School Vouchers Returns to Maine," Education Week, September 25, 2002.

26. See Minnesota House of Representatives, Research Department, "Minnesota's Public School Fee Law and Education Tax Credit and Deduction," Information Brief, January 2003, at

27. Ibid.

28. "State Voucher Programs," Education Week, October 3, 2001.

29. Caroline Hendrie, "Applications for Cleveland Vouchers Soar After High Court Ruling," Education Week, September 4, 2002.

30. DeGrow, "Educational Vouchers and Tax Credits."

31. Libby Sternberg, "Lessons from Vermont: 132-Year-Old Voucher Program Rebuts Critics," Cato Institute Briefing Paper No. 67, September 10, 2001 .

32. DeGrow, "Educational Vouchers and Tax Credits."

33. Jackson v. Benson, 578 NW.2d 602 (Wis. S. Ct. 1998) cert. denied, 525 U.S. 997 (1998). See also Institute for Justice, "Milwaukee School Choice Case," at, and DeGrow, "Educational Vouchers and Tax Credits."

34. See Children First America Web site at

35. Ibid.

36. See Children's Scholarship Fund Web site at

37. Press release, "Growth in Charter Schools Reflects Increasing Demands for Choices," Center for Education Reform, December 20, 2002, at, and e-mail correspondence with Anna Varghese, Center for Education Reform, February 24, 2003.

38. Mary Lord, "O E-pioneers!" U.S. News & World Report, December 9, 2002.

39. U.S. Department of Education, Challenge and Opportunity: The Impact of Charter Schools on Districts, June 2001, at

40. News release, "Charter Schools Prompting Improvement in School Districts, According to Two U.S. Department of Education Reports," U.S. Department of Education, June 14, 2001.

41. Lee Anderson, Nancy Adelman, Kara Finnigan, Lynyonne Cotton, Mary Beth Donnelly, and Tiffany Price, A Decade of Public Charter Schools, Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program: 2000-2001 Evaluation Report, SRI International, November 2002, at

42. Center for Education Reform, "Charter Schools 2002: Results from CER's Annual Survey of America's Charter Schools," October 2002, at

43. Caroline Hoxby, "School Choice and School Productivity (Or, Could School Choice Be a Tide That Lifts All Boats?)," National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 8873, April 2002, at

44. Press alert, "Achievement Gains Found at California Charter Schools: Disadvantaged Children Benefit More from Charter Schools," Center for Education Reform, March 11, 2002. For the complete study, see

45. Center for Education Reform, Education Reform Newswire, November 19, 2002, at For the full report, see

46. George A. Clowes, "Homeschooling Update," School Reform News, January 2003, p. 13.

47. See Home School Legal Defense Association, "Homeschooling Research: Frequently Asked Questions," at

48. Clowes, "Homeschooling Update."

49. Lawrence M. Rudner, Ph.D., "The Scholastic Achievement and Demographic Characteristics of Home School Students in 1998," University of Maryland, College of Library and Information Services, ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation, at

50. Dr. Brian D. Ray , Strengths of Their Own: Home Schoolers Across America, National Home Education Research Institute, 1997, at

51. Ellen Sorokin, "Home-Schoolers Start a New Honor Society," The Washington Times, January 4, 2003, p. 1.

52. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002).

53. Ibid at 652.

54. Richard Komer, "School Choice: The State Constitutional Challenge," Liberty & Law, Vol. 10, No. 5 (September 2001).

55. Michael A. Fletcher, "Florida's Voucher Law Is Struck Down," The Washington Post, August 6, 2002, p. A7.

56. Alan Richard, "Florida Sees Surge in Use of Vouchers," Education Week, September 4, 2002.

57. Davey v. Locke, 299 F.3d 748 at 754 (9th Cir. 2002).

58. Office of the Attorney General, Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, at

59. News release, "Washington Supreme Court Sidesteps Key Issue in School Aid Case," Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, June 13, 2002.

60. See Anderson v. Town of Durham at

61. Institute for Justice, "Fighting for Parental Liberty by Stopping Religious Discrimination," Litigation Backgrounder, March 20, 2003, at

62. National Center for Education Statistics, "Trends in the Use of School Choice 1993-1999," National Household Education Surveys Program, May 2003, at

63. Daniel Mayer, Paul Peterson, Christina Clark Tuttle, and William Howell, "School Choice in New York After Three Years: An Evaluation of the School Choice Scholarship Program Final Report," Harvard University, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., and University of Wisconsin, February 2002.

64. Ibid.

65. U.S. General Accounting Office, School Vouchers: Characteristics of Privately Funded Programs, GAO-02-752, September 2002, at

66. Patrick J. Wolf, Paul E. Peterson, and Martin R. West, "Results of a School Voucher Experiment: The Case of Washington, D.C., After Two Years," prepared for annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco, California, August 30-September 2, 2001.

67. Brian P. Gill, P. Michael Timpane, Karen E. Ross, and Dominic J. Brewer, "Rhetoric Versus Reality: What We Know and What We Need to Know About Vouchers and Charter Schools," RAND Corporation, RB-8018-EDU, 2001.

68. Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster, "Rising to the Challenge: The Effect of School Choice on Public Schools in Milwaukee and San Antonio," Manhattan Institute Civic Bulletin No. 27, October 2002.

69. Christopher Hammons, Ph.D., "The Effects of Town Tuitioning in Vermont and Maine," Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, 2002.

70. Thomas Nechyba, "The Unintended Benefits of Private School Choice," Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, June 2002; see also Thomas Nechyba, "School Finance, Spatial Income Segregation, and the Nature of Communities," Duke University and National Bureau of Economic Research, at

71. Jay P. Greene, Ph.D., "An Evaluation of the Florida A-Plus Accountability and School Choice Program," Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, February 2001.

72. Press release, "Poll Finds 63 Percent of Americans Favor School Choice," Center for Education Reform, August 20, 2002.

73. Press release, "New Poll for NEA Shows Majority of Americans Back President Bush's Approach to School Choice," Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, 107th Cong., 1st Sess., March 5, 2001.

74. Jennifer Garrett, "Another Look at How Members of Congress Exercise School Choice," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1553, May 22, 2002.

75. Ibid.

76. David A. Bositis, "2002 National Opinion Poll: Politics," Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 2002, at

77. Center for Education Reform, Education Reform Newswire, July 10, 2001, at For the full report, see

78. Latino Coalition and Hispanic Business Roundtable, "National Survey of Hispanic Adults," July 24, 2001, at

79. Ellen Sorokin, "Poll Finds Most Blacks Favor Charter, Private Schools," The Washington Times, July 19, 2002, p. A13.

80. Scott Greenberger, "Many Blacks Seek Choice of Schools," The Boston Globe, February 26, 2001, p. B5.

81. See Hispanic CREO Web site at

82. Testimonies may also be viewed at

83. See National Center for Education Statistics, "The Nation's Report Card State Profiles: District of Columbia," at

84. Jay P. Greene, Ph.D., "High School Graduation Rates in the United States," Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, April 2002.

85. Wolf, Peterson, and West, "Results of a School Voucher Experiment: The Case of Washington, D.C., After Two Years."

86. See U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, at

87. Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., "Comparing Math Scores of Black Students in D.C.'s Public and Catholic Schools," Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 99-08, October 7, 1999, at

88. Press release, "President Bush's 2004 Budget Will Include an Estimated $756 Million to Expand Options for Parents, Paige Says," U.S. Department of Education, January 31, 2003.

89. This is the latest figure available from the U.S. Department of Education for 2000 and includes private, local, state, and federal spending. See U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2001, at

90. NAEP assessment results provide information about what students know and can do, as well as what they should know and be able to do, on a variety of subjects. The three achievement levels for each grade (4, 8, and 12) are Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. See National Center for Education Statistics, "The Nation's Report Card," at

91. TIMSS-R 1999, "Benchmarking Highlights," Boston College, Lynch School of Education, International Study Center, April 2001, p. 3, at

92. Paul E. Peterson, ed., Our Schools and Our Future...Are We Still at Risk? Findings and Recommendations of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education (Stanford, Cal.: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), p. 14 (emphasis in original). For the full text of the book, see


Krista Kafer
Krista Kafer

Former Senior Education Policy Analyst