School choice, in its broadest sense, is a simple idea: that families should be able to choose what school their children attend.
Some proponents of school choice argue that families should not be bound to their neighborhood public school if that school is failing their children. Others argue that students should not be bound to a one-size-fits-all educational model and instead should be able to choose from a variety of educational options to find a school that best fits their individual needs.
Many supporters argue that affluent families have always had school choice: their wealth gives them the ability to choose either to live in communities with excellent public schools or to opt for private schools. Proponents argue that expanding options like vouchers and charter schools therefore extends that privilege to disadvantaged students who otherwise would be stranded in dismal schools in poor neighborhoods.
Moreover, school choice advocates argue that affording parents the option to freely choose their children’s schools will ultimately benefit school systems as a whole. Under a choice-based system, supporters argue, schools will be forced to compete for students and thus have an incentive to either improve or face declining enrollment and eventual closure.
But many observers are skeptical that a free-market model will improve American education. Critics of choice-based models often agree that students should not languish in failing neighborhood schools. But they argue that instead of spending public money on offering students a way out, those funds should be used to improve the neighborhood schools. Skeptics also frequently argue that the benefits of school choice often pass over the neediest students, stranding them in traditional schools that become even more starved for resources as public dollars are diverted to choice-based alternatives.
Educational choice takes many forms in school districts around the United States. Many districts have instituted programs that allow families to enroll in schools across school zone or district lines. Magnet schools, which are typically specialized programs that draw students from across zone or district lines and often are designed to draw students to unpopular areas or schools, are another common option found around the country.
But two types of educational options currently dominate the political debate over school choice: charter schools and vouchers.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools managed by private groups rather than by a traditional school district.
Those private entities – which range from groups of teachers to large non-profit or for-profit management organizations that oversee dozens of schools – set up a contract or “charter” with state or local education agencies. Under the terms of their charter, the groups are allowed to open schools that are often free from many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools. In exchange for that flexibility, the schools must meet set academic targets for success. If a school does not meet its academic goals, it can be shut down.
The idea of charter schools originated in the late 1980s with former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker. The labor leader imagined a new model of school run by small groups of parents and teachers set free to run innovative schools free of bureaucratic burdens. Working with Shanker, legislators inMinnesota passed the United States’ first charter school law in 1991. The schools have since spread across the nation.
Academic research on charter schools paints a very mixed picture of their success in raising student achievement. The largest study of charter schools around the United States, conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, found that nearly half of charter schools in the 15 states researchers examined performed no better than their traditional public school peers. But other studies show that the best charter schools can significantly boost achievement, especially for low-income students.
And opponents of charters argue that the schools are often given an unfair advantage over traditional public schools. Skeptics suspect that charters often benefit from enrolling students whose parents are involved enough in their children’s educations to seek the schools out, leaving students without motivated parents stranded in struggling public schools. Teachers unions around the country frequently express skepticism of charters, which are often exempt from collective bargaining requirements. Other critics point out that around the country, charters tend to enroll disproportionately small numbers of special education students and students with disabilities. And in some areas, charters are accused of exacerbating patterns of segregation.
By 2010, 40 states and the District of Columbia had passed laws allowing the establishment of charter schools. Of the ten states without a charter law, several are in the South:Alabama,Kentucky andWest Virginia.
In addition, Mississippi’s charter law, which charter advocates consider the weakest in the nation, only permits charter schools that are conversions of traditional public schools that have failed to meet state standards for three years in a row. The Republican majority in the Mississippi legislature is currently pushing legislation to allow new start-up charter schools to open. That proposal looks likely to pass, although the details of how the schools will be funded, where they will be allowed to open, and whether there will be a cap on the number of schools allowed have yet to be determined.
Similarly, Republican legislators in Alabama are pushing for that state to pass a law allowing charter schools to open. That measure is likely to pass, because Republicans control the state legislature. But it will likely be strongly resisted by Alabama’s powerful teachers association, which argues that charter schools sap resources from traditional public school districts.
Georgia is currently locked in a battle over who should decide what charter schools should be allowed to open and where. In 2011, the state’s Supreme Court overturned the Georgia Charter School Commission, an appointed state board that had been given the power to approve and fund charter schools that had been previously rejected by their local school boards.
School vouchers are programs that use taxpayer dollars to fund students’ private school educations. The first modern voucher program was introduced in Milwaukee in the early 1990s, and other programs soon followed in states like Florida, Georgia and Louisiana.
Right now, 12 states and Washington, D.C. offer voucher or scholarship tax credit programs. Georgia, for example, allows taxpayers to donate a portion of their tax return to private schools who then use the funds to provide scholarships to attract low-income students. The state also has a voucher program that serves special needs students.
Vouchers are among the most controversial education policies and are almost always hotly debated wherever they are proposed. Supporters invoke all of the arguments supporting school choice. Vouchers give needy students an opportunity to access the highest-quality education available, they say.
By contrast, opponents argue that the programs leech taxpayer dollars away from already-strapped public school systems. Other critics question whether public funds should be used to send students to schools that are not required to meet state and federal accountability standards. Vouchers that fund students’ parochial school tuition also raise thorny constitutional questions about whether public dollars should fund religious education.
After being hotly debated throughout much of the 1990s, school voucher proposals faded in public prominence during the 2000s. But in 2011, legislatures around the country and particularly in the South began to re-consider voucher programs in record numbers.
Many of the 30 proposals introduced in state legislatures in 2011 failed, including proposals in Mississippi and Texas, after legislators resisted adding programs in tough budget times. Georgia lawmakers also rejected a proposal to expand its voucher program to children of military families and students in foster homes.
Currently the highest-profile voucher program under discussion has been proposed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The proposal will create the most expansive voucher programs in the nation: any low-income family in the state whose child attends a school that received a C or lower in the state’s rating system would be eligible for a grant to use towards private school tuition.