School Choice and
Government-Funded Vouchers

THE RIGHT FOR PARENTS to select which public school their child attends varies from region to region. The most recent national survey of school choice, Public School Choice Programs, 1993-94 was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. In the western US, nearly half of all school districts (47.2 percent) gave parents parents some form of choice in selecting their children's school, while only one in seven districts in the Northeast (13.3 percent) offered school choice. The Midwest and the South had choice rates of 41.8 percent and 29.5 percent respectively. Choice-related legislation has occured in the majority of U.S. states since then, so these percentages will undoubtedly rise in the next national survey. As can be seen below, districts offered a range and combination of choice opportunities, including choice programs within their district, outside of their district, or enrollment in magnet school programs.

Percentage of School Districts With Various School Choice Programs, 1994
of Region
Parent Choice
Within School District
Parent Choice
Beyond School District
School Choice
Overall 13.8 28.8 7.8
Northeast 5.5 9.6 4.2
Midwest 15.1 34.8 7.7
South 10.4 24.0 7.7
West 24.1 41.8 12.1

Additionally, participation in school choice programs when available varied from location to location. In districts where choice programs were available, parents were more likely to send their children to school within their districts or to magnet schools, while they were significantly less likely to send their children outside of the district:

Percent of students in choice districts
who enrolled in various choice programs
of Region
Enrolled Within
School District
Enrolled Beyond
School District
Enrolled in
Magnet School
Overall 24.5 1.6 8.0
Northeast 75.2 1.2 20.6
Midwest 10.4 2.1 9.5
South 24.8 1.4 4.8
West 11.3 1.6 4.5

Now that parents have successfully pushed for the right to form charter schools in most states, much attention is turning to the debate over school vouchers. Many politicians embrace the broad notion of school choice in which parents can choose to have their children sent to another public school if they are unsatisfied with their current school. The debate has now moved on to offering vouchers in which dissatisfied parents may receive a state or federally funded voucher to pay for private school education. To the frustration of many public school educators, many states are now experimenting with school vouchers for secular private schools. This year, the state of Florida pushed the envelope even further by passing a law allowing school vouchers for religious private schools. The law is designed so that students who attend the lowest ranking schools in the state (based on standardized tests) may receive vouchers to attend private schools, no matter if they are secular or religious schools. Says Florida Governor Jeb Bush in his A+ Plan for Education:

Help failing schools and give parents more choice if they do not improve. Schools with added challenges need our help and attention. They need our best teachers, our strongest partnerships, and our most determined parents. Schools performing at a failing level will be given two years to improve during which they will receive assistance from the school district and the Department of Education. If the school fails to improve beyond an F in those two years, it will be subject to State Board of Education sanctions currently provided in law. The Bush-Brogan plan proposes that parents will be offered an opportunity to send their children to a higher performing public school or private school of their choice. Opportunity scholarships to higher performing public schools or private schools will result in a cost saving for the school district and the state. We owe our children a quality education. If the schools they are required to attend cannot provide one, then they should be free to choose another school.

To date this option has only been applicable to several thousand students who attend less than a dozen Florida public schools. In July 1999, 62 students at two year-round schools - A.A. Dixon Elementary School and Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy near Pensacola - became the first students to sign up vouchers. Ranging from $3,000 to $25,000, depending on the special needs of each student, these vouchers would allow the students to attend their choice of four Catholic schools and one Montessori school (a progressive secular academy). If the program is successful Governor Bush plans to expand the program to include schools that perform better than the lowest ranking schools.

Critics have long argued that government-funded vouchers for religious schooling violates the separation of church and state. The Florida voucher program is the most likely candidate for an examination by the US Supreme Court. By August 1999, two suits had been filed against it - one by two Florida families with the support of the NAACP and ACLU (Holmes v. Bush); and one by the Florida Education Association/United, the Florida chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union. Leaders from the union predict that the two suits will merge into a single action against the state.

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