At its most basic and uncontroversial, school choice is a reform movement focused on affording parents the right to choose which school their child attends. That said, the concept and the issues surrounding choice are anything but uncontroversial.
Private school choice—which allows parents to use government-funded vouchers to send their children to private schools—touches on an array of tough questions about parents’ and students’ rights, church-state separation, and, as some people see it, the very survival of public schools. By comparison, public school choice, in its various forms (see Types of School Choice), gives parents the option of transferring their children out of lower-performing public schools to higher-performing public schools.
Intradistrict choice: Allows parents to select among schools within their home districts. Interdistrict choice: Allows parents to select from schools not only in their home districts but also schools across district lines.
Controlled choice: Requires families to choose a school within a community but choices can be restricted so as to ensure the racial, gender, and socioeconomic balance of each school.
Magnet schools: Public schools that offer specialized programs, often deliberately designed and located so as to attract students to otherwise unpopular areas or schools.
Charter schools: Publicly sponsored schools that are substantially free of direct administrative control by the government, but are held accountable for achieving certain levels of student performance.
Voucher plans: Federal funds that enable public school students to attend schools of their choice, public or private.
Today, many people are looking to research to sort out the positives and negatives of choice programs. School choice advocates contend that giving parents choice creates healthy competition among schools, providing schools with an incentive to improve. Based on the ideal of the free market, the school must meet the needs of the consumer [parents and students] in order to stay in business. Following that theory, if a school does not meet the needs of its students, parents and students should have the option of seeking better education opportunities elsewhere. The Center for Education reform, which supports school choice and vouchers, suggests that competition from choice sparks widespread public school reform (2002).
Competition between schools, choice supporters also say, will lead to increased school accountability. And, increased school accountability, in turn, will encourage individual schools to experiment with different educational approaches in order to find those that work best for the students they serve (Raywid, 1992). As a result of experimentation, advocates say, schools will step away from a one-size-fits-all education model. They also contend that offering parents the right to choose increases parental involvement in schools (Aguirre, 2000).
In addition, school choice supporters contend that it helps low-income students. As Howard Fuller, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and a supporter of school vouchers, sees it: “The only people who are trapped in schools that don't work for them or their parents are the poor. We've got to create a way where the poorest parents have some of the options” (Garrett, 2001).
Unlike more affluent families, poor families cannot choose to buy homes in communities that have good schools, and some studies have found that choice programs have positive effects on low-income families (Greene, 2000; Witte, 1999). A study of Florida's McKay Scholarship Program also claimed that choice was particularly beneficial to special education students (Salisbury, 2003).
But while promoters of school choice herald the autonomy it affords parents, and the potential it has to increase parents' involvement in their children's education, opponents question which families will be in the position to make informed decisions about their children’s educations. Some researchers are concerned that certain types of parents are more likely to exercise choice and leave their neighborhood schools, reinforcing social-class inequality (Fuller, Elmore, and Orfield, 1996).
While proponents tout increased school accountability as a byproduct of school choice reform, opponents find the economic-based free-market theory to be problematic in the public education realm (Henig, 1997). Essentially, they do not believe that allowing schools to fail will help the system overall.
As one critic of school choice argues, choice will cause the system to fail the children who are not lucky enough to remove themselves from a low-performing school and will therefore “pit student against student and family against family in the struggle for educational survival” (Cookson, 1992).
Opponents also worry about the potential loss of financial support for failing schools. If students move from a failing school in one district to a school in another district, the original district will lose valuable per-pupil funding. The loss of funding at the district level can hurt the already struggling school, one study found (Lyons, 1995).
Some opponents of school choice also question whether it can be successfully implemented, especially in urban systems. “A student’s leap from one sinking school will (not) culminate automatically in a safe landing somewhere else,” writes Randy Ross, the chairman of the Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform in Los Angeles. In many large urban school districts, students who want to opt out of failing schools will have few other choices (Education Week, December 2002).
Choice proponents can claim a recent victory. A June 2002 landmark ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court held that a state-enacted voucher program in Cleveland did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government establishment of religion (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002).
In addition, the passage of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 officially introduced public school choice into federal law. Specifically, the regulation states that parents with a child enrolled in a school identified as in need of improvement can transfer him or her to a better-performing public school or public charter school (No Child Left Behind Act, 2002). In 2003, the federal government awarded $1.3 million in grants to three pro-voucher education organizations to disseminate more information to the public about the choice provisions in the law.
Public school choice is gaining popularity at the state level. Education Week’s Quality Counts 2004 report found that 44 states (compared to 32 states the year before) had open-enrollment programs in place, and 40 states and the District of Columbia allowed charter schools.
Although debate on the merits of private school choice rages on, some researchers contend that choice has become ingrained in the psyche of American public education and is here to stay. A recent report by The National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education (2003) suggests the need to shift the choice debate from whether choice is good or bad to how it can be employed effectively, through adequate funding and targeting of efforts.