Executive Summary: School Choice in America 2009: What it Means for Children's Futures

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Executive Summary: School Choice in America 2009: What it Means for Children's Futures

November 4, 2009 3 min read Download Report
Lindsey Burke
Director, Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education
Lindsey Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues.

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 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. 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 children with even basic education and safety.

Congress and state legislators should enact policies that will ensure that every family has this opportunity.

School Choice in America. Researchers have found that such programs increase academic achievement, student safety, and parental involvement. School-choice policies have a positive impact on school systems by increasing efficiency through competition and by saving taxpayer resources.

So far in 2009, four states -- Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and Iowa -- have implemented policies that expand private-school-choice options to families.

In Arizona, Lexie's Law will allow students currently enrolled in special-needs or foster-scholarship programs to complete the school year thanks to corporate tax credits for donations made to the scholarship program. Individuals are now able to deduct contributions from their paychecks, which will make it easier for people to plan their donations. In Florida, the state's tax-credit program for contributions to organizations that provide scholarships to low-income children was expanded in 2009, and now also includes foster children. Indiana has a new scholarship tax-credit program, and Iowa expanded the tax-credit program to include corporations in addition to individuals.

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 (where the highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program is being phased out) all experienced setbacks. These setbacks illustrate that there continues to be resistance to school choice.

Public elementary and secondary schools in the United States fail to educate millions of children who pass through them each year. Low academic achievement as evidenced through national assessments, low graduation rates, and the resulting negative impact on life outcomes are reasons for concern. The "achievement gap" between white and black students persists, and children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds continue to be poorly served by America's public schools.

What Congress and State Policymakers Should Do. To improve educational opportunities for all children, federal, state, and local policymakers should expand school choice options for American families.

Specifically, Congress should:

  • Reform major federal programs like Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to allow states to let parents choose the right school for their child and let federal funding follow the child;
  • Restore state and local control in education by offering an alternative to No Child Left Behind (NCLB); and
  • Reauthorize and expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

State and local leaders should:

  • Strengthen private-school choice;
  • Lift caps on charter schools and pass strong charter-school laws, that guarantee multiple authorizers, autonomy, and limited restrictions on charter growth;
  • Expand other public-school-choice options;
  • Expand online learning opportunities;
  • Create and expand education savings options for parents; and
  • Protect homeschooling.


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 options. 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, 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.


Lindsey Burke
Lindsey Burke

Director, Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education