Five minute primer: School choice
January 24th, 2012
07:45 AM ET

Five minute primer: School choice

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
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.

Filed under: Charter schools • Issues • Policy
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. JenniferK

    My daughters went to public school for several years. My husband went to the school unannounced, to drop of lunch to my daughter that she forgot. He stopped by her classroom and our daughter is at the front of the class, reading, and telling classmates to settle down and listen. My husband waited outside the door, wondering when the teacher would show up. He peeked into the teacher's lounge, and there was the teacher, texting on her phone. My husband waited for 45 MINUTES to see just how long the teacher would be in there. My daughter, was in charge of her 2nd grade class all that time. That "teacher" left 2nd graders UNSUPERVISED with my poor daughter in charge. They were TAKING ADVANTAGE of MY daughter!! She was being USED as a babysitter, instead of learning! And we call THIS quality public school education??? My daughters are both in charter school now, and they are being challenged instead of having their time wasted, and they are certainly not being taken advantage of, or used as babysitters. We have made sure of that. What was the end result of my girl being used as a babysitter? My husband was told not to come to school unannounced again. Um, no, I don't think so.

    January 28, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  2. Kelly Marlow

    @Working Class Mom...allow me to introduce you to a parent from an affluent section of metro Atlanta where public schools are supposedly high-performing and private schools are scarce, far away and financially out of reach for even those of us with big salaries. My children needed a public charter school option because their "high performing school" had them watching television during class time! How is that a quality education??? EVERY child deserves access to a quality public education and these start-up charter schools are the means to the end. If we could trust the regular public schools to get it right, there would not be so much fear over these school choices. Your statistics are incorrect. Our PUBLIC education system is failing and falling further behind in the global scheme every year. School choice is THE answer for our family because we can't sit in a traditional school and watch T.V. and expect there to be change!

    January 28, 2012 at 6:47 am |
  3. jean

    The governor of Louisiana announced last week his plan to fix education in the state. His plan calls for the state to provide vouchers to the poor children (half of the state's students, incidentally) to attend private schools. The plan doesn't include middle class children, those whose parents earn too much to qualify for assistance but too little to afford the private schools. Do all children deserve a quality education? Of course they do, but in this case the middle class will be expected to subsidize an education for the poor children that the middle class can't afford for their own.

    January 24, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
  4. Working Class Mom

    Michelle Malkin, The Heritage Foundation, ALEC – these are the people that support "school choice" week. Right wing conservatives that, under the guise of school choice, want to privatize education and put public funds into private pockets. Where is school choice in affluent communities? It doesn't exist and you don't see parents crying for it there – why? Because their only choice – a traditional public school, is high performing. That should be the choice for EVERY student – a high performing public school. 3/5 charter schools fail, 1/5 perform on the same level as low performing public schools, and the 1/5 that do succeed only see a 1-2% increase in test scores. Until we have equitable funding of all public schools we won't see improvement. Charter schools are just a scam and school choice week is the propaganda used to sell that scam.

    January 24, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Tcat

      Public schools are failing our kids and have been for the last 30 years. Part of the reason why they are failing our kids are because of people like you who are more interested in politicizing education than actually educating kids.

      This is why I support school choice. Get the decision of educating my child out of the hands of politicians and political activist (left and right) and back in the hands where it belongs – with the parents.

      January 24, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
      • aflarend

        What exactly is your evidence for a failing public school system that is independent of socioeconomic class, meaning that poverty is not a major factor? Public schools must take all kids in their district. They cannot only take the promising ones.
        If you look at those international test scores, you will find that our standing changes radically for the better if you look only at students who are not living in poverty. PISA studied the effect of public and private schools and found internationally that there was no academic advantage in a private school that was not explained merely by the higher socioeconomic status of the parents of private schools.
        Private schools seem to succeed more because their students are fed, clothed, sent to bed and given countless signals (both overt and subtle) that education is important. That is about socioeconomic status, not the school. Given the huge range of students that our public schools educate, the public school should be applauded for all they do with students.

        The voucher law proposed in my state of PA does not require the voucher students to take the PA state standardized exams, which are the most cited measure of school performance accountability so we cannot make comparisons to see if the voucher system actually works. So it seems like the proponents of the vouchers are too scared to put any real accountability measures in the bill. Probably because they have seen the list of the lowest performing schools in PA and have seen that there are private schools on the list…and those schools be eligible to receive public school voucher money.
        As far as parents voting with their feet on charter schools, it just does not happen. Most parents do not even know that according to NCLB, 100% of the students must pass the state standardized test in 2014 or the school will be labeled as failing. Most parents still send their students to the charters that are failing until the state closes them down.

        January 24, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • Michele Pierce

      Michelle Malkin, ALEC and The Heritage Foundation? Really is that all you have to counter act that our Public Schools are failing? I am so glad to have parents like Kelly Marlow around, to educate me and other parents on how to fight to keep our Charter Schools. I would say that at our school, we have a wide variety of socio-econcomic levels and not all of us are Right wing Conservative Republicans, which I am, but I technically lean more towards Libertarian if you want to get right to the point. If you look at most of your members of Congress, Senate and your State's legislator's you will find the majority send their kids to private schools. What does that say about our public school system? I for one am tired of being told, that this is how your child is going to be educated and you do not have a choice. I do!!!! I want to add Neal Boortz to your list, but he is a Libertarian and I finally took a small piece of his advice, I may not be able to work three jobs right now to put my kids in private school, but dammit I will give my children the best education I can and I have by choosing to put them in a charter school. My B/C student now makes Straight A's and is being challenged more than ever. My Special Education student is doing well and thriving at the same Charter School!!!! Every parent and child should have a choice and not be forced to put their kids in a government mandated educational system.

      January 28, 2012 at 11:51 am |