Taking Stock of the School Choice Movement

Published May 1, 2003

Last year the school choice movement made progress in the courts, in statehouses, and in research, setting the foundation for an ambitious legislative agenda in 2003.

Specifically, during 2002:

  • The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that voucher programs do not violate the Constitution even when participating schools are overwhelmingly religious.
  • More than 40 proposals to authorize vouchers, tax credits, or charter schools were introduced in state legislatures.
  • In Congress, a bill to grant low-income parents a tax deduction for education expenses was approved by the House Ways and Means Committee.
  • The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed in January 2002, granted students in more than 8,600 low-performing schools nationwide the right to transfer to higher-performing schools.
  • The President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education recommended that parents of special-needs children should be provided with options for their education.

Current School Choice Programs

These achievements crown a decade and a half of legislative activity that has vastly increased the options available for parents to choose the best schools for their children. Since 1987, the number of states providing publicly funded vouchers or tax incentives rose from two (Maine and Vermont) to 10 (Maine and Vermont, plus Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin).

In 2002, Iowa and Tennessee joined 37 states and the District of Columbia in enacting a law to establish charter schools. That year, the number of charter schools increased by 14 percent, bringing the total to approximately 2,700 schools. Of these, approximately 50 are “virtual charter schools” providing education services via the Internet.

Also, there was significant growth in the number of states offering parents a choice of schools to attend within the home district–intra-district school choice–and the option of transferring out of the district altogether–inter-district choice. Meanwhile, the home-school movement grew steadily to as many as 2 million children in grades K-12.

Additionally, private scholarship organizations have been active for more than 10 years, providing partial or full scholarships to schools of choice for more than 100,000 children. More than 100 privately funded organizations have invested $500 million in the future of America’s children.

Research Supporting School Choice

Significant research in the past two years confirms earlier findings that vouchers can improve the academic performance of at-risk students, promote parental involvement and satisfaction, and foster accountability in public school systems. One such study by Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, and Mathematica Policy Research Inc., found African-American students who participated in a privately funded voucher program for three years had scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills 9.2 percentile points higher than the scores of students who remained in the public schools.

Charter school research during the same period reveals charter schools are typically smaller than traditional schools, serve predominantly at-risk populations, and show achievement gains after two years.

The performance of home-schooled students is exceptionally high. On average, home-schooled students at the elementary school level perform one grade level higher than their peers in traditional schools; in high school, they perform four grade levels above the national average. Nearly all home-schooled students participate in at least two extracurricular activities such as dance, sports, music, and volunteerism.

Opinion Supporting School Choice

School choice polled well in 2002. A July 2002 poll by Zogby International Polling found 76 percent of respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” supported “providing parents with the option of sending their children to the school of their choice–either public, private or parochial–rather than only to the school to which they are assigned.”

A 2002 National Opinion Poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found 57.4 percent of African-American respondents favored a voucher system when asked, “Would you support a voucher system where parents would get money from the government to send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of their choice?”

Support for choice also was strong among Members of Congress–at least as far as their own children were concerned. According to a Heritage Foundation survey, among members of the 107th Congress, 47 percent of representatives and 50 percent of senators who have school-age children were sending their children to private schools. Many of the same policymakers who exercise choice in their own children’s education voted to block legislation that would have given lower-income families the range of options they enjoy.

Legal Advances for School Choice

On the legal front, the school choice movement enjoyed a major victory in June 2002, when the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program. The court ruled a parent’s use of public money to underwrite tuition at private and religious schools does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Reform advocates still must contend with state-level constitutional provisions, including discriminatory “Blaine amendments”–vestiges of a nineteenth century anti-Catholic movement–that prohibit tax money from flowing to religious institutions. Although some courts have used these state-level amendments to strike down voucher programs, as a circuit court did recently in Florida, other courts–such as the Wisconsin Supreme Court–have upheld choice programs despite the existence of Blaine provisions in the state constitution.

Thirty-seven states have Blaine-type language, and 29 have prohibitive “compelled support” provisions, a type of constitutional language that dates back to colonial times and was intended to prevent governments from compelling individuals to contribute to or attend a state-designated church.

Public interest law firms such as the Institute for Justice have initiated legal actions to ensure state constitutions are interpreted as consistent with the First Amendment–that is, neutral with regard to religion.


In all, 2002 was an eventful year for the school choice movement. Building on this foundation in 2003, legislators in states and in Congress have introduced new school choice legislation. There are many different models, including tax credits for expenses or contributions to scholarship funds, vouchers for poor students, universal vouchers, and vouchers for disabled students. Several of the state bills have seen legislative action.

Krista Kafer is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

See “Progress on School Choice in the States,” by Krista Kafer, published on March 26, 2003 by The Heritage Foundation. It is available on the Web at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Education/bg1639.cfm.

The 20-page report is also available in Adobe Acrobat’s PDF format through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for document #12069.