School Choice

The phrase school choice covers a wide variety of political, policy, and practical student enrollment options available to educators who manage the public school K–12 systems throughout the United States. Traditionally, American elementary and secondary education has been organized along the principle of students attending their local neighborhood public school with the option that students can attend private schools at their family's or their own expense. Public sector school choice developed in the late twentieth century with the advent of MAGNET SCHOOLS, schools with special curricula, schools for children with special needs, and schools requiring entrance examinations.

Criticisms of public education intensified after the 1980s because critics believed that public education failed to provide a rigorous educational environment for too many of students. These critics pointed to the relative poor performance of many American students on standardized tests when their scores are compared to the scores of their international peers. Many argued that public education ought to be deregulated and become more competitive, because competition promotes accountability, standards, and transparency. Deregulation challenges the traditional concept of the COMMON SCHOOL as locally based and as such, is a controversial policy alternative. Those opposing deregulation argued that as a policy option, deregulation was less likely to produce increased student learning than smaller class size, improved curricula and professional development for teachers and principals.

There are basically three types of school choice: intraand inter-district public school choice; CHARTER SCHOOLS; and SCHOOL VOUCHERS. The first option, intra-and inter-district public school choice, allows students to attend public schools other than their neighborhood schools, either within a school district or across district lines. Public school options are widely available in most states and do not provoke political controversy. The second option, charter schools, involves public schools that are specially chartered by the state or a chartering agency and are freed from many of the regulations that affect regular public schools. There were approximately 2,400 charter schools in the United States by 2003, scattered across thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia. There is wide political support for charter schools, while at the same time, many charter schools struggled because of resource limitations. The third option, voucher, is a mechanism by which public monies are transferred to private schools by giving to parents a voucher that may be redeemed at a private school of their choice. By 2003 publicly funded voucher plans existed in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. Of all the school choice options, vouchers are the most controversial because they transfer public money to private schools and because they can be used to support religious education. However, in 2002, a U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that it was constitutional for public monies to be spent on private schools even if the schools are religious in nature.

Deregulation of public education, especially in the form of charters and vouchers, raises a number of policy issues. Will school choice plans lead to more equitable access or will school choice plans further stratify education? Is school choice related to improved student learning? What evidence is there that school choice leads to more innovative educational opportunities? How economical are school choice programs, especially in an era of declining resources?

In the early twenty-first century, scholars and researchers studied school choice systematically, but there was little consensus about answering the questions raised above. There has been some evidence that while some students benefit from attending a school of their choice, from a systems perspective; school choice tends to favor the middle class, thus leading to increasing educational stratification. The evidence concerning school choice and student achievement was mixed with little convincing data upon which to draw a firm conclusion. There also has been some evidence that public school choice and charter schools have allowed for educational innovation although these innovations have not yet transformed the traditional nature of public education. The economics of school choice have been hotly debated, but it is clear that many charter schools have failed because of the lack of financial support.

See also: Education, United States; Private and Independent Schools.


Chubb, John E., and Terry M. Moe. 1990. Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Cookson, Peter W., Jr. 1994. School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Henig, J. R. 1994. Rethinking School Choice: The Limits of the Market Metaphor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.