By John Martin, CNN
More than likely, when you were growing up there were three education options: your neighborhood public school, private school, and maybe homeschooling. Since the early 1990s, the options have expanded to include virtual schools, charter schools and school vouchers, among others. Those are the kinds of options being celebrated by the organizers of National School Choice Week through more than 300 events around the country this week. More than 25 governors have issued proclamations supporting School Choice Week in their states.
School choice is a multi-faceted concept that encompasses several education options, including the ability to enroll a student in a charter school, online school, homeschool or to receive school vouchers. If you've heard these terms before, you know that there is a debate over these options. If you’ve got five minutes, here’s a primer that will help to break down some of the components of school choice.
Charter schools are public schools that are given independence from some local or even state rules. In return for this flexibility, the chartering organization usually must meet certain benchmarks. A charter school could, for example, request a waiver that allows the school to handle hiring its own staff, a function that occurs at the central office in many larger districts.
The charter school concept is relatively new. The first American charter school, City Academy High School, opened in 1992 in Minnesota. During the last decade, enrollment in these types of schools rose from 340,000 in 2000 to more than 2 million students this year. Today most charter schools have hundreds of students on their waiting lists.
Supporters of the charter school concept point to data that show that parents are more satisfied with charter schools than with traditional public schools. Critics say satisfaction isn't enough and that most charter schools simply don't perform any better than other public schools when it comes to educating children. Data shows mixed results; students at some charter schools perform better than those at traditional public schools, while others perform as well or worse. Advocates for the charter school movement say that bad charter schools would close when parents refuse to enroll their children in underperforming schools. But instead of market forces causing shut-downs, state and local regulators are finding themselves closing the under-performers.
The inventor Thomas Edison may be one of the most famous homeschooled children in American history. A poor student, young Edison was removed from school by his mother, who taught him at home. The homeschooling option serves around 1.5 million students in America today, and where they live determines how much regulation they face. Some states require that standardized test scores be submitted, while others don't even require notification that a student is being homeschooled. The most common reasons for homeschooling include religious reasons, concerns about the school environment and dissatisfaction with instruction at the local school. Advocates say that at least one study shows that homeschooled students are at least as ready for college as their peers, but even these supporters admit that data on performance is sparse.
The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, wants more restrictions on homeschooling. The NEA's position states that homeschool instruction should be conducted by licensed educators, that local school districts should determine grades and credit toward graduation, and that homeschooled students should not be allowed to participate in local public school extracurricular programs.
Vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and personal tax credits
The majority of local public education funding comes from local taxes usually in the form of property taxes. Some tax credit programs allow parents to claim deductions for educational expenses, including private school tuition. Other programs allow individuals or businesses to earn a tax credit when they fund private school scholarships. School vouchers allow parents to control some or all of the tax they pay for public education. These funds can then be designated for their child's school – either a private institution or a different local public school.
Supporters of vouchers and tax credits say these programs allow more students, including low-income scholars, to enroll in private schools. They contend that public schools have to improve when they are forced to compete with private schools for funding. Critics contend that vouchers funnel public funds into private enterprises, leaving local schools with less money. Also, vouchers for private school often don't fully cover expensive private school tuition, so critics of the practice say that low-income families don't benefit while wealthy families receive a taxpayer-funded discount.
Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Andrew Campanella of National School Choice Week. Check back with us, and also feel free to leave your comments below.