School Choice Surges in the States

Published July 1, 2000

“What is the problem [in American education]? We have not devised a method to make learning occur at a universally high level. And that’s what the voucher people argue. They argue that is because public schools have a monopoly on revenues and customers. So we sought to break the monopoly without losing the accountability by promoting school choice, charter schools and other alternatives.”
President Clinton, responding to a question from Richard Colvin of the Los Angeles Times at the Education Writer’s Association meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 14, 2000.

Whether President Clinton’s actual contribution to the promotion of school choice is a net positive or negative is open to debate, but in reality the school choice movement has been driven by innovations at the state level, not by encouragement from the federal level. And 1999 was a year when programs to give parents more choice over the selection of their child’s school made significant strides, according to The Heritage Foundation’s latest state-by-state review of school choice, School Choice 2000: What’s Happening in the States, written by Heritage education expert Nina Shokraii Rees.

Charter schools continued to boom in 1999, with more than 400 new schools opening nationwide to bring the total to nearly 1,500 independently run schools educating more than 250,000 students. Florida became the first state to offer students in failing schools a “money-back guarantee” whereby they could receive a publicly funded scholarship to attend a better public, private, or religious school. Illinois enacted a K-12 education tax credit of up to $500; Connecticut’s Republican governor John Rowland wants to do the same for parents in his state.

Researchers from James Madison University and the University of Virginia released a report showing that charter schools provide a level of competition that spurs nearby public schools to improve their performance. Also, Kim Metcalf of Indiana University reported that Cleveland scholarship students showed a small improvement in language and science scores. Support for vouchers among public school parents rose from 41 percent in 1994 to 60 percent last year, according to an annual poll conducted by Phi Delta Kappan.

As perhaps “the most interesting phenomenon in education reform during the past decade,” Rees points to the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a $100 million endowment created by entrepreneurs Ted Forstmann and John Walton. The Fund awards half-tuition scholarships to low-income students for use at private and religious schools, with the low-income parents responsible for coming up with the balance of the tuition. In 1999, the Fund received more than 1.2 million applications for 40,000 scholarships–more than 30 applications for each scholarship available.

School Choice 2000 provides a report for each state, detailing the state’s progress towards school choice, recent reform efforts, contact information, and public education statistics such as graduation rates and per-pupil expenditures.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.