School choice is the effort of some public school supporters to encourage educational reform through competition within public schools themselves, as well as between public schools and private schools, Christian schools or parochial schools. School choice is also seen as a way to enable lower-class and middle-class parents to withdraw their children from failing public schools. As an exercise in free market education, school choice is bound up with the notion that the best schools will receive parental support, while the poorly performing schools will be easier to identify and reform. In one sense, the idea of letting parents choose a school for the children is noncontroversial, yet when school choice is defined as the use of public funds -- through school vouchers -- to pay for students to attend private schools, Christian schools or parochial schools, heated disputes arise. The school voucher program in the United States began in Milwaukee in 1990 and has since spread to other U.S. cities. Experts are divided over whether school choice actually delivers the improved educational outcomes touted by its supporters.
Politics, Government & Education
School choice, the notion that parents should be able to send their children to any public or private school of their choosing, or educate them at home, is not a new idea, even in the United States (West, 1996), though it has received increased attention since the middle of the twentieth century.
Private schools, even religious schools, generally are not controversial, having been a fixture on the American educational landscape since the founding of the country. According to Broughman, Swaim, and Feinberg, one in ten K-12 students in the United States attends a private school (Broughman & Swaim, 2006; Feinberg, 2007). According to the biennial Private School Universe Survey (PSS) conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education, 28,384 private schools enrolled 5.1 million students in 2003-2004. Among members of the 110th Congress (2007-2009), 37 percent of Representatives and 45 percent of Senators sent their children to private schools--roughly four times the national average. For members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group comprised of African American legislators, the number rose to 52 percent (Feinberg, 2007).
School choice operates in several different ways, depending on the state and the public school district. At heart, according to supporters, school choice is an attempt to separate the excellent public schools from the public schools badly in need of reform. According to Dodenhoff (2007), school choice "assume[s] the existence of a sizeable core of good schools from which parents can choose, and on which parents can believe that their time and effort are not being wasted" (p. 12).
School Choice Options
How does school choice play out in practice? First, in most states students have the option to attend a public charter school. Charter schools are a form of public school authorized by a governing body, such as a local school board, state department of education, nonprofit organization, or (in several states) a for-profit corporation. They are chartered for a period of time, with renewals based on performance. Charter schools are distinct from traditional public schools in two respects: they are free of many of the bureaucratic entanglements, and they tend to use more innovative educational techniques. Put another way, charter schools are left free to experiment in exchange for greater accountability.
Unlike private schools, charter schools are public schools supported by taxpayers, and they are not wholly free of oversight by local school boards and state and federal education agencies. Supporters refer to them as "public schools of choice" (WestEd, 2000) because it gives lower-income parents the option to send their children to charter schools instead of traditional public schools. Like wealthier parents who choose to send their children to private schools, parents without those financial resources have a choice about where their children will be educated. Another important difference is that charter schools do not charge tuition. Finally, charter schools are distinctive in that they seek to defend and improve public education, and do not challenge its legitimacy or efficacy.
Students attending charter schools might be bused, at taxpayer expense, to that school. Parents can also take advantage of busing to have their children attend another public school in a different neighborhood or even a different city. Busing has been used to send children of color into predominately white suburban schools, sometimes--as was the case in Boston in the 1970s--provoking racial tension.
Students exercising school choice might be given the option to attend a private or religious school, at least partially at the expense of taxpayers, through a voucher. This form of school choice has become the focus of considerable controversy since the 1980s.
School choice becomes especially contentious when taxpayer dollars are involved. In a seminal 1955 essay, economist Milton Friedman proposes that parents be given same-as-cash government vouchers to help them defray the costs of sending their children to the school of their choice. The idea was first proposed by Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man in 1791 (Salisbury, 2003, p. 2), but Friedman (1955) brought the idea to a wider American audience:
"Governments could require a minimum level of education which they could finance by giving parents vouchers redeemable for a specified maximum sum per child per year if spent on "approved" educational services. Parents would then be free to spend this sum and any additional sum on purchasing educational services from an "approved" institution of their own choice. The educational services could be rendered by private enterprises operated for profit, or by non-profit institutions of various kinds. The role of the government would be limited to assuring that the schools met certain minimum standards such as the inclusion of a minimum common content in their programs, much as it now inspects restaurants to assure that they maintain minimum sanitary standards" (Friedman, 1955).
As a free market economist in the tradition of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, Friedman believed that vouchers would empower parents, force failing public schools to improve, and generally better the quality of K-12 education across the country. Friedman (1955) puts it this way:
"Let the subsidy be made available to parents regardless where they send their children--provided only that it be to schools that satisfy specified minimum standards--and a wide variety of schools will spring up to meet the demand. Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible" (Friedman, 1955). Friedman went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics in 1976, and his thinking on school vouchers inspired several generations of economists, politicians, and parents to look at vouchers as a way to improve America's languishing public school system. For many parents, teachers, and politicians, supporting school choice has become tantamount to supporting school vouchers.
Changing Times in Public Schools
It took several decades before the idea of school vouchers became widely known to the general public. But by the 1970s, change was in the air. There was a growing consensus that the top-down, overly bureaucratic public school system was struggling to deliver the educational outcomes demanded by politicians, parents, and teachers. This was documented in A Nation at Risk, the sobering 1983 U.S. government report on public education. There was also the sense that one-size-fits-all education was out of sync with accumulating evidence that suggested smaller class sizes and greater community involvement in schools are crucial to producing students ready to take on the challenges of a burgeoning knowledge-based economy. Moreover, many Americans were alarmed at the disparities in the education provided to poor and lower-income students, many of whom were children of color.
Justified or not, there has since the late twentieth century been a concern that some public schools, particularly in urban areas, are failing the students they serve. Through a combination of violence, teacher apathy, and low expectations on the part of school administrators, the poor and minority students who make up the majority of the student body in many urban schools are being shortchanged. Many critics argue that parents with children stuck in underperforming schools should be offered a government voucher to help them pay the cost of a private school education. Then, given competition from private schools, failing public schools either will be forced to improve or will save taxpayer dollars by shutting their doors.
Vouchers: From Theory to Practice
Friedman's idea of school vouchers held the promise of not only improving the quality of the nation's public schools, but also of providing poor and inner-city parents an...
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