What Is ‘School Choice’?
School choice refers to the right of parents and guardians to choose which school their kids attend, usually supported in some way, such as through a voucher program. Public schools are paid for with tax dollars, from state income tax to sales tax to the extra real estate taxes, which vary from one school district to the next. Without school choice, parents can choose to send their kids to the public school in the district in which they live, or pay to send them to a private school while still paying the taxes for the public school as well.
Under a voucher program, however, the tax dollars set aside for education at the state level are returned to the family. These voucher programs allow for those tax dollars to be used by families at private schools to make their tuition-free or more affordable for families that typically could not afford to send their children there. School vouchers ultimately redirect federal funding for public education towards private education since the federal government sets aside hundreds of millions of dollars each year to reimburse voucher initiatives at the state level.
As an example of a voucher program at work, a state like Indiana would estimate the average cost for a child to attend public school to be $3,300 a year. Families could then apply to school voucher programs funded with the help of the federal government to receive that $3,300 from the state and put it towards the cost of tuition at a private school of their choice.
Ever since school voucher programs began in the early 1980s, critics have called out the initiatives for competing and attempting to privatize public education, segregating schools, and for giving private schools leeway in terms of their education standards in comparison to public education. At the same time, supporters of voucher programs cite the weakening of teachers’ unions, new competition between public and private schools, and reduced dependence on federal funding as the real reasons behind criticism of school choice.
According to data, conservative Republicans tend to support school voucher programs. In contrast, liberal Democrats tend to oppose school voucher programs, instead supporting the expansion of public school funding and resources while ending government support for private schools. Many Democrats also point out that money for these voucher programs will often go to religious private schools, which they see as an encroachment of the separation of church and state. They also claim these programs incentivize low-income and impoverished families to send their kids to potentially become unduly influenced by religion in exchange for a better chance at a successful life for their children.
Voucher programs have proven to be mostly successful in improving both enrollment and graduation rates between elementary and high school, though their success with regards to academic results varies. Often, the competition that naturally arises between private and public schools will even cause the academic performances at public schools to increase to keep up with their funding being redirected to competitors. Economists generally agree that school vouchers provide positive outcomes for society. They overwhelmingly agree that it especially helps low-income minority families by allowing their children to transfer out of the poorly performing schools often seen in inner-city neighborhoods.
The negatives of voucher programs often arise from the lack of additional support and social services that tend to come from public schools (e.g., meal programs, disability protections). School choice also increases the chances of “brain drain” occurring, where more intelligent children transfer out of public schools into private schools, continuing the cycle of low performance and mediocre graduation rates in low-income neighborhoods. Voucher programs also ultimately cut public education spending by redirecting the money to private schools, leading critics to believe that supporters of those programs want to see the government fail at an essential job.