NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Nuances of School Choice

February 4, 2014

Not all "school choice" is the same, says Michael McShane, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • Parents exercise one of the most popular forms of "school choice" just by choosing where to live.
  • In fact, over 60 percent of homebuyers ranked school district boundaries as a factor in their decision to purchase a home, boosting home values up to 16 percent.

But as for traditional school choice models supported with public funds, the choices vary among districts and states.

  • Some districts allow students the choice of attending magnet schools. Others allow students the choice of attending any school within the school district, while some allow people to attend schools in neighboring districts. This latter model has frustrated families who have moved to districts with good schools that are now being flooded with students from outside the district.
  • Charter schools are another option, and again, they vary. Some are very small operations while others span across multiple campuses, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools. Charters can be run by both for-profit and non-profit management organizations.
  • Vouchers allow parents to send their children to private school. Some states also provide tax credits to individuals who donate to organizations that provide scholarships to students.

States have found various ways to expand choice for students beyond the traditional public school model. Louisiana has implemented a program that allows students to take their school dollars to outside providers to participate in individual classes, for example, while Arizona has started an Education Savings Account program.

But the quality and breadth of these programs is not uniform. Some states, for example, require the local school board to authorize charter schools. Not surprisingly, Wyoming and Virginia -- states that require school board approval -- each have only four charter schools.

In Cleveland, Ohio, the voucher program is very underfunded. Voucher students receive only 29 percent of what is spent on the typical student in the state, which has left the program without too many takers.

The differences between these programs matter, and program design, management and funding directly impact the success of these programs. School choice advocates and opponents should recognize these nuances in order to improve children's education.

Source: Michael Q. McShane, "Nuances of School Choice," National Interest, January 27, 2014.


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