school choice


Many educators and politicians who have lost patience with public education are turning instead to the promises of the free market to revitalize the nation's public schools. Different versions of choice โ€“ vouchers, charter schools, home schooling and other school choice programs โ€“ all encourage families to shop around for better options. The idea is that schools will compete, and therefore improve, while fighting for more applications. Most debates on school choice focus on vouchers and charter schools, whose critics claim they steal funds from public schools and have their own spotty records of success.


  • Types of schools kids attend. Of the 53 million k-12 students in school in 2000: Census (pdf)

    • 88% attended public school;

    • 12% attended private school, broken down by:

      • 49%% in Catholic school;

      • 36% in other religious school;

      • 16% in non-religious private schools (808,000 kids).

  • Number of home-schooled students: 850,000

  • Number of students in charter schools: 267,000 (The number is likely much larger today: in 2000 there were 1010 charter schools, but the NYTimes reports there are as many ast 3000 in 2004)

  • Of note: It's only one report, so our readers are advised to take it with a grain of salt, but CJ was surprised to read a recent study showing that - after factoring in student background - public school acheivement matches or surpasses private schools.

Public School Choice

Public school choice allows parents and students to choose between schools within a district (intradistrict choice) or between districts (interdistrict choice). 25 states have at least some intradistrict choice and 43 states have at least some interdistrict choice (ECS). In 2003 51.4% of students had a choice between which public school to attend and 27.3% of those students took advantage of that opportunity. In total, 15.4% of all students between grades 1 and 12 attended a public school of choice, other than the one assigned to them (NCES -PDF).

Charter Schools

Charter schools are schools set up by private organizations that make an agreement with the state about how the school should be run and what standards it must meet. These schools run independently of the state but receive state funding. If a school fails to meet the expected standards it can be closed. As of 2002, 40 states and the District of Columbia allowed charter schools (ECS) and as of April 2005 there was a total of 3,343 of them throughout the country (CER). In 2002, 267,000 students attended charter schools or .5% of the total student population (Census). However, this number has likely increased dramatically because since then the number of charter schools has tripled.

Charter School Performance

The bad news

  • A 2003 comparison of public school and charter school students by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found...

    • Number of 4th graders testing at or above proficient in reading:

      • In charter schools: 27%

      • In other public schools: 30%

    • Number of 4th graders testing at or above proficient in math:

      • In Charter schools: 25%

      • In other public schools: 31%

NOTE: A more recent study (August 2006) factored in student income and other characteristics and still found public schools coming out on top. NCES

The better news

  • However a 2004 Harvard study found that charter school students are 5.2% more likely than students in similar schools to be proficient in reading and 3.2% more likely to be proficient in math on state exams.

Also โ€“ other studies have shown that, although charter school students are generally behind, they are catching up and making do on less cash.


A voucher is a scholarship funded by the government that pays for (at least partially) a private school tuition. Six states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs (Heritage). Most programs require a student to be poor or attend a failing school to be eligible to receive a voucher. See Education Week for an overview of the contradicting studies about the success of vouchers.

  • Where the current voucher programs in the U.S. are:

    • Cleveland, Milwaukee, Florida (one of Florida's voucher programs was knocked down by the state Supreme Court - NYT) and D.C.

  • Amount vouchers pay:

    • From up to $2700 (Cleveland) to up to $7500 (DC).

  • Number of students participating in voucher programs in 2003:

    • 31,455 students in three programs (DC program is starting in 2004).

  • Eligibility:

    • Must be low income in Cleveland and Milwaukee programs. Must attend a failing school in Florida program.

  • Other voucher-like programs:

    • Minnesota and Illinois have tax-credit programs ($500-$1000);

    • Arizona has state sponsored "Student Tuition Organizations;"

    • Vermont and Maine have voucher programs limited to students who live in sparsely populated areas.

All information on vouchers came from The Institute for Justice and The Friedman Foundation. For overview of studies and debate on success on these programs, see Education Week.

Where the facts are from:

Updated 1.11.06.

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