School Choice

School Choice: Everything (Almost) You Need to Know

As more states consider changes to their education systems, we hear the term school choice more frequently in the news. This article discusses school choice, what it means for families, and frequently asked questions.

What is school choice?

From a historical perspective, parents have traditionally had very little input on where their children studied if they attended public schools. The family would be assigned to a school district based on their address. And this also determined which public school the student would attend, even if there were multiple elementary or middle schools within the same district.

While there may have been some flexibility for parents to voice their preferences, for the most part, the entire experience was based on the school district. This changed in the last decade of the 20th century when school choice programs were introduced.

School choice options were implemented to address underperforming schools, frequently found in low-income and disadvantaged communities. Under the public school model, children in these areas had no other option for education if they lived in a defined school district. And this led to widespread disparities in educational achievement. Students in underperforming districts often received a substandard education simply based on where they live. Therefore, these flexibilities were implemented to address some of the educational disparities in many school districts and give parents greater control over their child’s academic future.

School choice is a broad term encompassing a wide range of initiatives that allows public funds (i.e., tax funds) to be allocated directly to families who can then decide the best educational plan for their children. The parents can then enroll the child in one of many schools or educational settings tailored to meet their unique challenges and needs.

School Options

While each state has individual provisions related to school choice, some of the schooling options often included are:

  • Charter schools
  • Homeschools/In-home education
  • Public schools
  • Private schools
  • Online and digital schools
  • Micro schools
  • Magnet schools

These options may vary from one state to another based on the type of school choice model it has adopted.

What are the school choice funding options?

School choice has been implemented in various ways to give parents greater control over their children’s academic future, and each state’s provisions may be unique. However, some common school choice models include the following:

Education savings accounts (ESAs)

ESAs function as government-authorized savings accounts with tax funds for families that withdraw their children from public school. Each family usually receives an amount proportionate to their child’s – or children’s – anticipated expenses if they attended a public school. The school district usually determines this figure as the average cost per student. Parents can then access educational savings accounts to withdraw funds to cover tuition and fees at alternative educational institutions.

Individual tax credits and deductions

Unlike ESAs, tax credits are not directly funding educational expenses. Instead, they allow parents to receive a tax credit against their state tax liability for approved education expenses. Examples of approved expenses include private school tuition, books, supplies, computers, tutors, and transportation.

School vouchers

School voucher programs set public funding aside to help parents fund expenses for private school education. Like with ESAs, each participating family would receive a proportionate share of funds that would typically go to the school district if their child were enrolled in public schools. But the funds are in the form of a voucher rather than an account. This voucher can then be used to pay for partial or full tuition for their child’s private school, which may include religious schools. School vouchers can often help low-income families afford to send their children to nearby private schools. The school voucher system is a popular option, with sixteen states currently funding school vouchers.

Tax-credit education savings accounts

Tax-credit ESAs are savings accounts where taxpayers receive tax credits when they donate to nonprofit organizations. Families can use these funds to pay for education-related expenses. Only two states – Kentucky and Missouri – currently have tax-credit ESAs.

Tax-credit scholarships

With 21 states currently offering tax-credit scholarships, this is currently the most popular school choice model nationally. Tax-credit scholarships let taxpayers receive tax credits when they donate to nonprofits that provide scholarships for private schools.

School choice frequently asked questions

Since school choice is a hot topic with high stakes, families often have many questions. While responses to some questions may vary depending on where the family resides, some questions can be addressed more broadly.

  • Who usually participates in school choice programs?

Rates of participation may vary depending on what school choice model is in place. However, many low-income and disadvantaged families participate in school choice programs since school choice options attempt to break the connection between housing (where you live) and access to good education resources (beyond the public school system). Additionally, students with independent education plans (IEPs) and those with special needs can often benefit from school choice programs.

  • How are school choice programs funded?

Well-designed school choice programs allocate an individual’s proportionate share of public school funding collected by taxes to be used to flexibly meet their educational needs. However, the unique variables in each program may vary depending on what model is in place. Some detractors believe that since public schools often receive slightly less funding when school choice options are in place, there will be a negative impact on the quality of education for remaining students. However, this has not been found true as these systems actively encourage all schools – including public schools – to meet the needs of their students better.

  • Are there accountability standards for non-public schools?

Accountability is analyzed by families when school choice options are pursued. This means it is up to the family to decide whether their chosen school meets their child’s needs better than a public school alternative.

As you can see, there is no one-size fits all approach to school choice options – and that’s the point. Rather, they aim to let families determine the best approach and simply make funding available to support those choices, which can greatly benefit students who can take advantage of school choice options!

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