Policymakers continue to debate whether to expand or restrict the opportunity for all U.S. families to choose the K-12 schools their children will attend. Without fanfare, these families—especially low-income ones—have voiced their views.
A growing majority have voted with their feet to endorse school choice.
Out of slightly more than 57 million K-12 students in the United States, nearly 52 percent, or almost 29.4 million, are enrolled in a K-12 school of choice, based on my calculations.
By voting with their feet, families have hijacked the long-winded debates on school choice, taking the power to make a decision about which school a child attends away from bureaucrats, thereby empowering themselves.
Family choices today encompass many educational settings: public charter schools; private independent and religious schools; traditional district public schools, including magnet and alternative schools; home schooling; and online learning through both virtual schools and hybrid models blending classroom and online instruction.
Families exercise these choices using a variety of means: charter school laws; inter- and intra-district choice laws; the payment of private school tuition; laws providing publicly financed scholarships; home school and e-learning laws; and “real estate choice”—moving to a community for a school.
School choice using the charter strategy began in 1991 with the nation’s first charter law. According to the Center for Education Reform, as of the current school year, 40 states and the District of Columbia had charter laws and 5,453 independent public charter schools served more than 1.7 million students. In addition, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, an estimated 420,000 students are on waiting lists, potentially filling more than 1,300 new average-size charter schools.
Which families choose charter schools? Almost 62 percent of charter students are nonwhite and—based on federal criteria—48 percent are poor, compared with 47 percent and 45 percent, respectively, in traditional public schools, according to federal data.
While fewer than 3 percent of K-12 students attend charter schools, their growing enrollment in an increasing number of communities creates a competitive education marketplace in those localities. For example, 38 percent of the District of Columbia’s and 36 percent of Detroit’s students attend charters. New Orleans, the epicenter of charter activity, enrolls 61 percent of its students in charters. Sixteen communities have more than 20 percent of students in charter schools, while another 91 communities have at least 10 percent.
Charter laws are proving to be an effective policy tool for expanding school choice.
Private school choice, part of America’s schooling fabric since its beginnings, grew rapidly during the U.S. immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, there are about 29,000 private K-12 schools in the U.S.—24 percent Catholic, 51 percent other religious, and 25 percent nonsectarian—enrolling about 6.1 million children, or nearly 11 percent of K-12 students. Almost 34 percent of these schools enroll around 42 percent of private school students in urban areas and predominantly serve students from low-income families.
The primary public policies that provide mostly low-income families with public dollars to choose private schools are taxpayer-funded scholarships—or vouchers—going directly to families, and tax credits allowing donors to contribute to scholarship-granting nonprofit organizations. Today, there are 11 scholarship programs and nine tax-credit programs in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Student enrollment for the 2009-10 school year was nearly 180,000 students, up 87 percent over five years.
Traditional district schools enroll slightly more than 49 million students in about 97,000 schools across 14,500 school districts. Students and staff members constitute nearly 18 percent of the more than 308 million U.S. residents, with total K-12 expenditures accounting for almost 4.6 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product in 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Around 12.7 million of these students enroll in a school that parents admitted choosing by moving into a new school district or assignment zone (the real estate choice to which I’ve already referred).
Moreover, 46 states and the District of Columbia permit families to choose a district school outside school assignment boundaries through open-enrollment laws. These laws account for families’ enrollment of approximately 7.4 million students in schools of choice.
Families choosing a non-assigned district school cross most demographic categories, including education levels, income, family types, and regions of the country.
Finally, school choice through home schooling and online learning is expanding. In 2007, there were upwards of 1.5 million home-schooled children, nearly double the 850,000 such students there were in 1999. And, families of an estimated 1.2 million students chose to have their children take at least one online course across all the educational settings discussed here.
No doubt, the iron triangle of political, policy, and procedural barriers can make it difficult to continue expanding school choice. But political winds are shifting, with the growing likelihood that policy and procedures will change so as to catalyze more school choice. For example, strong support for charter school choice from the Obama administration has improved existing charter laws. Twelve legislatures lifted charter caps limiting growth, changed funding formulas to provide more money to short-changed charter schools, or undertook other activities to promote quality charter growth.
Moreover, a promising development on private school scholarships is the growing support for these programs by Democrats,instrumental in recent legislative victories in states such as Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana.
With a growing majority of families voting with their feet and empowering themselves by exercising school choice, the time has come for policymakers, scholars, and others to abandon the debate about whether to allow school choice. It’s growing and here to stay.
Rather, they should turn their time and energies to initiating a new K-12 education discussion that debates fundamental questions on how schools are created, managed, funded, and overseen while being accountable for results in the new marketplace of school choice.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2010 edition of Education Week as The New Marketplace Of School Choice