Trends in the Use of School Choice

Published July 1, 2003

An increasing number of families, particularly those with lower incomes, are participating in public school choice programs and sending their children to schools other than their assigned schools, according to a May 2003 survey report from the U.S. Department of Education.

The report, Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 1999, examines data from the 1993, 1996, and 1999 administrations of the National Household Education Survey, which gathers a comprehensive set of information that includes the types of schools parents choose and their levels of satisfaction.

Researchers Stacey Bielick and Christopher Chapman found the percentage of students attending a public school of choice (which they refer to as “public, chosen”) rose from 11 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 1996, but showed no further increase in 1999. A public school of choice is one that is not assigned and may include another school within or outside of the district, a magnet school, or a charter school. Other non-public choice alternatives include private schools, both faith-based and secular, and homeschooling.

Overall, the vast majority of U.S. children do not attend choice schools. In 1999, almost three out of four children (76 percent) attended public schools to which they were assigned by their local school district, down from four out of five (80 percent) in 1993.

Choice Increases Parent Satisfaction

Having a choice makes a difference in parent satisfaction. Parents of students in private schools or public schools of choice were more likely to be very satisfied with their children’s schools, academic standards, teachers, and discipline than were parents of students attending a public school to which they had been assigned. On average, parents of private school students were most satisfied.

“Regardless of whether students attended public, chosen or private schools, parents were more satisfied with their children’s schools than were parents whose children attended assigned schools,” conclude Bielick and Chapman.

“The fact that private school parents are more satisfied with their schools is not surprising,” noted Joe McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education. “Those schools have to meet parents’ expectations of what a school should be or they go out of business. The market demands performance.”

A Low-Income Trend

The trend towards public school choice was most prevalent among students from low-income families. The proportion of students from families earning less than $10,000 a year attending assigned public schools declined by 9 percent between 1993 and 1999. The number of such students attending public schools of choice rose by the same amount.

Among families earning more than $75,000, the percentage of students using assigned public schools remained at about 70 percent during the survey period. In addition, the number of families choosing private schools was stable–about 7 to 8 percent for religious schools and 2 percent for secular private schools.

The survey also found:

  • The use of public and private schools of choice was higher in urban areas;
  • Black students had a higher rate of enrollment in public schools of choice than did white or Hispanic students in grades 1-12;
  • Parents who chose private schools were more likely to have a college degree and more likely to be involved in school activities;
  • Parents who used private, religious schools were more likely to expect their children to graduate from college than parents of public school students.

Homeschooled students were generally from white and two-parent households. When compared to privately schooled students, homeschoolers were less likely than private school students to be from families earning more than $75,000. Fewer homeschoolers live in the northeast or in urban areas.

“Findings from this report suggest that public, chosen schools, grouped together across the Nation, are attended by students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, family incomes, community types, and among students with disabilities,” the researchers noted.

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

For more information …

The May 2003 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 1999, by Stacey Bielick and Christopher Chapman, is available from the NCES Web site at