Five Steps to Full School Choice

Published September 1, 1998

Bolstered by the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent ruling, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program now offers a working model for the broadest form of school choice, one that allows parents to choose among public, private, and religious schools without financial penalty. Although Milwaukee leapt to the forefront of the school choice movement in a single bound, lawmakers considering measures to expand educational choice must in fact consider five underlying policy issues. Those policy issues provide a sequence of five steps leading from no school choice to full school choice.

Today, No Choice

Under the system presently in place in most school districts across the country, parents essentially have no choice of school for their child. Once the parents have decided where to live, the local school board–not the parents–defines the attendance areas that assign a child to a specific school.

Because the options for transfer between district schools are strictly limited, and because tuition is charged for transfer to out-of-district or private schools, there is a financial disincentive for parents to select another school if their child’s assigned school is unsatisfactory. Facing such a disincentive, parents effectively have no choice.

At work here is a “school choice” policy that affords choice to elected or appointed school board officials, not parents. Last year, for example, the board of Township High School District 214 in Illinois voted to bar all student transfers between its five suburban high schools, even though transfer requests–parental choice in action–had been granted routinely in previous years.

Step 1: Parents Choose Schools

The first shift towards school choice occurs when school district policy permits intra-district choice. Parents are permitted to enroll their child in any of the public schools within the school district in which they reside. Intra-district school choice is available, for example, in New York City, where it has been operational for many years, and also in Florida, where the Schools of Choice program was instituted last year at the county level.

Although this first step to school choice appears to be a small one, it establishes a key principle: Parents have the right to choose a school for their child. Once that right has been established, the school choice question becomes a matter of degree. Just how far should the parent’s right to choose be extended: to out-of-district government schools? charter schools? private schools? religious schools?

Step 2: Funding Follows the Child

When parents are given the right to choose schools beyond the confines of the school district in which they reside–inter-district choice–resources must be allocated not merely between schools, but also between districts. When inter-district choice policies allow children to enroll in schools outside of their home district, as they can in such open enrollment states as Minnesota, a mechanism for transferring education tax dollars between districts must be established. Schools that accept out-of-district students should not be expected to raise local taxes to pay for the schooling of students transferring in.

Inter-district choice, or open enrollment, establishes a second key principle: The funding follows the child. Exactly where that child is permitted to take his or her funding becomes the next issue to be addressed.

Step 3: No More Government School Monopoly

As public schools that are taxpayer-funded but privately managed and operated, charter schools represent an important bridge between district-operated government schools and privately operated independent schools. Now authorized in thirty states plus the District of Columbia, charter schools herald the end of the government school monopoly because they provide taxpayer funding for public schools that are independent and privately managed. Unlike students enrolled in traditional public schools, however, students at charter schools attend by choice, not by assignment.

Charter schools establish in law the two key school choice principles identified above, and add a third: The delivery of taxpayer-funded education does not require government operation of the schools by the government.

Step Four: Choice Including Private Schools

Extending school choice to include private, independent schools is a major philosophical and political step for some. But in terms of public policy, it represents only a small step beyond charter schools, a change in degree rather than kind. Parents are permitted to choose not only a taxpayer-funded, privately operated public charter school for their child, but also a taxpayer-funded, privately operated independent school.

The states of Maine and Vermont have long operated “tuitioning” programs that include private schools among the choices available to parents. In Maine and Vermont towns without a high school, parents choose a public or private high school for their child and the town pays the cost of tuition, whether the school is in-state or out-of-state.

Step Five: Choice Including Religious Schools

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in June that school choice programs extended to religious schools meet constitutional muster, so long as parents–not government officials–choose the school, and so long as funds flow to religious schools only as the result of those parental choices. The Wisconsin court ruling is consistent with recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and also with the high court’s 1983 decision in Mueller v. Allen, which upheld the constitutionality of Minnesota’s tax deductions for religious schooling expenses.

Ironically and coincidentally, while Minnesota parents added religious schools to their school choice menu in 1983, Maine legislators voted that year to exclude religious schools from the state’s tuitioning program. That vote, which ended eight decades of full school choice in the state of Maine, is facing a court challenge as a denial of parents’ constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].