School choice encompasses many models of K-12 education, including public magnet schools, charter schools and homeschooling. Yet, over the years, the school-choice issue that has dominated national debate is vouchers and voucher-like initiatives: These give families public funds for tuition, fees and other expenses, to pay for private (including religious) schools and, in some cases, homeschooling.
There’s a number of reasons the last few years have been so fruitful for advocates of school choice and vouchers in particular.
At the national level, in 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Carson v. Makin that Maine could not exclude religious schools from a state tuition program. That ruling slightly expanded a previous case, the Supreme Court decided in 2020, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. In that case, the justices ruled that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships to students attending private schools.
And last year, the Arizona legislature approved vouchers for all K-12 students in the state, making it the first state to offer universal school vouchers regardless of income or any other factor.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic happened alongside many parents’ disillusionment at how their public schools succeeded in pivoting to remote learning. Add into the mix some parents’ concerns over how public schools teach – or are perceived to teach – about race and gender, and the last few years were a bonanza for the school-choice movement. Many parents looked for alternatives. Over the past few years, there has been a small increase in private and Catholic schools and a huge boost to charter schools and homeschooling.
“The educational choice movement has done everything possible to build the best surfboard for parents. This was the right wave,” Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the advocacy group EdChoice, told The Hechinger Report when referring to the pandemic. “The timing was perfect – unfortunately perfect.”
The school-choice movement has historically waxed and waned. The 1954 landmark school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education was a major impetus; it only required public schools to be integrated, and many white families turned to private schools as a way to evade the mandate. Directly following the ruling, for example, Virginia adopted a voucher program, one soon emulated by other Southern states.
On the other side of the political spectrum, in the 1960s, liberals and Black Nationalists saw school choice as an opportunity to better educate poor children and children of color, by establishing their own private schools; the Mississippi Freedom Schools are among the best-known examples.
Around this same time the free-market economist Milton Friedman emerged as a big proponent of vouchers for educational services, an economic position that remains salient today.
Nonetheless, traditional public schools dominated the landscape until the 1980s when the conservative Reagan administration and other Republicans began pushing vouchers, which led to a burgeoning charter school movement.
“Charter schools for Democrats especially were seen as kind of an appeasement, a middle-ground option between traditional public schools and vouchers,” said Douglas Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University and national director of the National Center on Education Access and Choice.
Modern School-Choice Programs
The first modern private school voucher program and the longest-running in the country began in 1990 for Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County schools under the auspices and with the strong support of then superintendent and longtime civil-rights activist Howard Fuller.
There are now 73 school-choice programs nationwide, according to nonprofit EdChoice’s 2023 annual report, “The ABCs of School Choice.” The number has grown steadily over the last three decades, but especially quickly in the past three years. EdChoice is pro-school choice, but its data is relied on by researchers on both sides of the issue.
Not every state is jumping on the school-choice bandwagon. Former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and school-choice proponents this year failed to push through an initiative in Michigan that would have created one of the largest voucher-like systems in the country.
The word vouchers is often used broadly, but the programs vary, and a state can have more than one.
Broadly, these are the differences among voucher programs:
- Scholarship programs are the most common type of voucher; the state provides a set amount of public money to families to attend a private school. The amount is typically based on a per-pupil amount.
- Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are private savings accounts funded by the state government and managed by parents. The amount deposited is also typically based on the state’s per-pupil amount.
- Tax credit programs allow parents to receive full or partial tax credits when they donate to either nonprofit-managed education savings accounts or to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships.
Who is eligible for the programs can be limited by income, geography and other considerations, such as special needs. EdChoice and the Education Commission of the States have conducted a state-by-state comparison of school-choice programs.
Covering School Choice
A great deal of research has been conducted on the impact of school choice on student achievement, some of it rigorous and some intent on pushing the political agenda of advocates and opponents.
Two key areas school-choice researchers examine are the competitive effect and the participant effect, Harris said:
- Competitive effect refers to whether vouchers will adversely affect public schools by causing them to lose revenue and their best students. Research has generally shown no negative effects, Harris said; in fact, vouchers may have a slight positive effect on public schools by pushing them to improve.
- Participant effect refers to what happens to the students who use vouchers in terms of achievement – test scores, retention rates and graduation rates – compared with non-voucher students.
Test scores, for example, are “complicated for several reasons,” Harris said. “One is that public schools don’t necessarily align with what private schools are teaching.” So if the research uses “a public school test, it’s going to give an advantage to public schools. If they use off-the-shelf norm-referenced tests, which the private schools tend to use, it’s going to give the private schools that advantage.”
It’s important to look beyond the school or state program itself to whether people can really take advantage of choice, experts say.
For example, transportation is a key issue; if school buses or other ways to get children to school aren’t available – or if the rides are dauntingly long – then students really aren’t getting a choice, said Jane Lincove, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. She has long studied the impact of school choice in post-Katrina New Orleans.
What Reporters Can Learn From Arizona
All these questions – transportation, how easy it is for families to navigate school-choice portals, how much state oversight there is – are what makes Arizona, which now has the largest school-choice program in the country, so important.
The program was originally for students with disabilities to access services outside public schools. It then expanded to military families, students in failing schools and other populations.
In June 2022, the state passed legislation that allowed all Arizona K-12 students to receive vouchers. Since the law went into effect, the number of students receiving vouchers has grown from around 12,000 to 48,000, with most typically receiving $6,000 to $7,000; however, depending on the child’s needs, a family can receive upwards of $30,000, said Yana Kunichoff, part of the K-12 education reporting team at The Arizona Republic.
Kunichoff has written stories and conducted investigations on the difficulty of finding any performance data on ESA students, including race and socioeconomic background, test scores or graduation and retention rates – because the state doesn’t collect it.
“When covering voucher programs, the language of school choice is often framed around empowering the most vulnerable learners,” she said. “But it’s really challenging to know that when almost no information is available.”
Since the voucher law passed, she said, more private schools have popped up; the state already has a large number of charter schools.
“I really think people should watch Arizona – it’s a stark example of what school choice looks like when it’s instituted with few limits,” Kunichoff said. “Among those concerned about its growth are ESA parents themselves who have special education students in the program and say the program’s massive expansion and the growing pains that came along with it are hurting their children’s access to education.”
Additional Resources: Both Sides of the Debate
Here’s further reading by two well-known academics in the school choice arena: