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The idea of using public funds for private schools in the form of vouchers was put forth in the 1960s by economist Milton Friedman as a way to bring choice and market forces into the business of education. While vouchers are the most hotly debated way for a state to provide families with educational choice, other alternatives such as charter schools, open-enrollment plans, tax credits, and other innovations are also in place around the country.

Vouchers – the subject of debate

Voucher programs allot a certain sum of money to students who choose to forgo the public school system and enroll in private schools. In addition to the Cleveland program at issue in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, there are much-publicized voucher programs operating in Florida and Milwaukee.

Proponents claim voucher programs give families new options and force schools to demonstrate results. Surveys show that the majority of families using vouchers are pleased with the perceived options, but it is unclear whether vouchers actually result in improved student achievement.

While recent studies in Milwaukee suggest that achievement improves only 1 percent to 2 percent under a voucher system, evidence shows potentially more promising results for minority students. Besides concern about the limited improvement in achievement, opponents cite three objections. First, with over 80 percent of private schools religiously affiliated, many people believe that vouchers create church-state entanglement, the concern canvassed in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

Opponents also complain about the school’s lack of accountability. Making the schools accountable, however, creates a potential catch-22. Accountability would require regulating potentially unwilling private schools and would be costly-$48 billion nationwide, according to Stanford Professor Henry Levin. If states do not regulate schools, however, they risk opening the doors to abuse. For example, six Florida for-profit voucher schools have come under fire for abusing students, failing to provide materials, underpaying teachers and falsifying applications for state funds.

Last, opponents fear that voucher programs will aggravate existing inequalities. In response to this concern, most existing programs have been targeted to help minority and low-income students. Perhaps more significantly, however, vouchers risk inequality by draining funds and talent from public schools. The American public shares this concern–seven out of 10 surveyed oppose a voucher program that would result in less money for public schools.

Charter Schools – Trading regulation for accountability

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are subject to less regulation but are potentially held to a higher standard of accountability than most other public schools. Still public in nature, charter schools must be open to all students and meet state standards, but enjoy more freedom in their use of public funds in areas such as teacher hires and learning material purchases.

This innovative form of public education has gained broad political support over the last 10 years. In 1991 there was only one charter school in the country; today there are more than 2,300 charter schools serving over 575,000 students. Formed with the permission of the relevant school boards and state legislatures, charter schools can be converted public or private schools or started from scratch. Ten percent to 20 percent are run by for-profit companies.

Supporters praise the options that charter schools give to families and hope that the freedom from bureaucratic micromanagement will allow these schools to innovate and concentrate on producing results rather than following procedures. Most charter schools are still in their infancy, but results to date have been mixed. RAND Corporation’s recent report Rhetoric Versus Reality concluded, “None of the studies suggests that charter-school achievement outcomes are dramatically better or worse on average than those of conventional public schools.”

Open-enrollment policies – real choice … sometimes

Perhaps the purest mechanism for providing families with educational choices is simply allowing parents and students to choose their school. These open-enrollment policies allow students to enroll at any school in a given district or sometimes even across districts.

Unfortunately, there are two frequent problems with this approach. First, most policies allow movement only to schools with extra space, which in many areas does not exist.

The second difficulty involves transportation. Frequently, students must find their own transportation to the new school, which all too often keeps disadvantaged students in their failing schools while more privileged students go elsewhere.

When a community tries to provide transportation, it is quite costly: Pinellas County, Fla., plans to spend $7.5 million to $8.9 million for school choice transportation this year. In short, while open-enrollment practices seem to provide choice within the framework of traditional public schools, they do not necessarily improve educational settings for disadvantaged students.

Transportation Costs Under No Child Left Behind


Under the No Child Left Behind Act, a school that has been identified for improvement as of January 7, 2002 must provide school choice at the beginning of the 2002-2003 – unless the school makes its second year of adequately yearly progress based on its 2002 assessment results. If a student exercises the option to transfer to another public school, the school district has certain obligations to provide the student’s transportation to the new school with federal funds. The school district’s obligation for choice-related transportation and supplemental education services is equal to 20 percent of its Title I, Part A allocation.

For more information, please read U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s dear colleague letter to education officials.


Tax credits – the passive voucher

Tax credits provide one alternative to vouchers. Current education tax credits allow deductions for some educational expenses. This creates a subsidy, or passive voucher, the size of which depends on one’s tax rate. Such tax credits exist in Illinois, Arizona and Minnesota. At the federal level, Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) work like Roth Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), allowing a savings account to earn interest tax-free. Expanded as part of the 2001 federal tax cut, the program now allows parents to set aside up to $2,000 per year to be used for educational expenses, including private-school tuition. Supporters claim tax credits encourage educational planning and give families an incentive to devote resources to education. Opponents, however, criticize the fact that tax credits are both used more frequently by, and give a larger per-dollar benefit to, upper-income families.

Other options – a world of choice

In addition to these large-scale policies, other school choice options continue to exist and grow. Alternative schools that are based on the Montessori and Waldorf traditions have thrived since the late 1960s, and magnet schools provide public school options for specific groups of students. Meanwhile, nearly a million students nationwide will have some home schooling. High school students in particular are increasingly presented with options for taking classes online or in partnership with colleges and universities. Thus, while the voucher debate rages, it is clear that a wide array of options offer more educational choice without the controversy of sending public funds to private education.

For more information on school choice visit:
RAND Corporation. Rhetoric Versus Reality.
Margaret Hadderman. Trends and Issues: School Choice.
The Heritage Foundation. School Choice 2001.

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