Navigating School Choice in the US

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School choice has become a highly polarizing topic in the US over the last decade. What was once a fringe policy debated in select circles was pushed into the national spotlight by the Trump administration and the COVID pandemic. Following campaign promises to expand school choice, former president Donald Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education in 2017. A well-known school choice activist and multi-millionaire, DeVos became a critical conservative figure in advancing the agenda of school choice. During her tenure, she tried to expand charter schools and private school voucher programs while reducing the federal government’s education policy budget. Even though her agenda did not fully materialize, her actions sparked a national debate about the role of government in education, which could leave a long-term impact.

But what exactly is school choice? The term refers to several state and local programs that aim to offer parents an alternative to public schooling. School choice comes in different forms: charter schools; magnet schools; and vocational schools, which operate within the public school system but are not subject to the same obligations. There are also voucher programs, tax credit scholarship programs, and education savings accounts (ESA), which represent private options. Vouchers and ESAs are the most disputed, given that they transfer public dollars directly from public schools into financing private services.

As of 2022, there are about 7,700 charter schools with 3.6 million students enrolled in almost all states. Additionally, 31 states offer programs that provide scholarships to attend a private school or private school tuition assistance for families. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “charter schools showed an increase of nearly 240,000 students since the beginning of the pandemic –a 7% increase– while district public schools have experienced a loss of nearly 1.5 million students –almost 3.5%.” Private school choice programs also grew increasingly in the last few years. 2021 has been called ‘the year of educational choice,’ with 7 states enacting 7 new private programs and 15 states expanding 23 programs to serve more students than ever. 

The COVID-19 pandemic also played a significant role in states expanding and creating more alternatives to public schooling. Before the pandemic, private school enrollment was headed downhill. However, most schools had to close during the pandemic, creating a problem for parents who were not used to having their children at home and had to take care of them while working. But most private schools reopened sooner than public ones, and many parents who were not affiliated with the school choice movement suddenly welcomed these alternatives. 

Proponents of school choice – mostly Republicans with support from conservative advocacy groups and think tanks – claim families should be able to choose which educational institution is better for their children. Based on free market principles, they argue that competition between schools for students’ dollars will result in better student services. The premise is that public education funds should follow students to the schools that best fit their needs, not force them into a specific public institution. On the other side, opponents –primarily Democrats sitting on school boards, associations, public school districts, and teacher unions– argue that these policies create several problems for public education. For every child that leaves for a charter or private school, public schools lose out on funding but maintain the same expenses in the short term due to expected funding levels. In the long run, charter schools and vouchers effectively defund public education by reinforcing a cycle where public schools have to cut services, leading to more students finding alternatives. In addition, there is concern about the lack of accountability and transparency in private schools’ use of public funds. Finally, some critics argue that federal dollars should not go into religious schools, given the constitutional principle of separating church and state.

With a highly contested issue like school choice, it is important to guide policy with evidence.  A review of the empirical research on private school choice in the US published in 2016 had several conclusions of note. The research examined focuses on the effects of private school choice programs on student achievement, as measured by test scores, and educational attainment. Researchers were also interested in estimating the systemic effects of these programs on different outcomes, such as the risk of having more racially stratified schools due to parents selecting schools with a student composition similar to their children’s characteristics. Another systemic effect commonly analyzed is competition effects – how the performance of nearby public schools change when a new program is introduced. Overall, empirical evidence of the effects of private school choice programs suggest null to modest positive effects on test scores, depending on the characteristics of the student. Students participating in these programs are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college. Public schools that face competition from choice programs tend to perform better, especially if the threat of competition is large.

There are several areas where policymakers would benefit from having more information. A common argument by anti-school choice groups is that by making public money follow the student, these programs defund public schools. In that sense, research needs to focus on how these policies affect public schools regarding resources. Most of the research on participants focuses on students and little on how these policies affect school staff; for example, has teacher turnover been increased or decreased by school choice programs? Finally, future research can suggest the right amount of regulation and autonomy choice programs should have to promote innovation without avoiding transparency and accountability.

Given that most states already have school choice programs in place, the debate should not focus solely on whether school choice is more favorable than traditional public schooling, but on how to improve the existing policies. For example, given that school choice programs offer a potential tool for reducing racial stratification, policymakers should consider ways to ensure that these policies will have that effect. States should also modify their statutes to reflect unambiguous anti-discriminatory language to prevent private schools from using public funds to facilitate discriminatory practices.

Finally, another area that should be looked into is how to help parents choose better education options for their children. A 2008 study showed that school choice most effectively increases academic achievement for disadvantaged students when parents have easy access to test score information and quality schools. If the objective is to produce better educational outcomes, then it is not particularly helpful if disadvantaged families do not have enough information to make decisions. Therefore, efforts should be made to give simple and direct information to parents about the quality of schools in their communities to promote well-informed choices. As the actions of the Trump administration and the effects of pandemic still linger, school choice remains a highly politicized topic in the U.S. More than two decades of research tells us that these programs produce somewhat positive effects for some students, but there is much we still do not know. Future research and policy should focus on filling those gaps and strengthening the current programs rather than creating new alternatives to public schooling. The Biden administration seems to know this as they are adding restrictions on charter schools applying for federal grant money in hopes of preventing for-profit management, premature closures, and promoting community support and school desegregation efforts. We will see how this new approach plays out in the following years.

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