Research & Commentary: The Public’s Knowledge and Opinions of School Choice

Published June 4, 2012

In the past 18 months, the number and reach of school choice programs have increased exponentially across the United States, bolstered by Republican governors and legislative majorities elected in 2010. The legislative and public relations battles have been fierce. Do typical voters and families approve of school choice efforts and want them expanded further? What information about these new options is available to parents?

While school choice programs were proliferating, parent engagement networks also became increasingly common, bolstered by nationwide attention to Parent Trigger legislation. Numerous school choice advocacy and research organizations created or updated resources to help families navigate their options and advocate more choice. These include market-standard polls revealing majorities of U.S. adults support directly attaching education dollars to each child and allowing parents to direct these funds.

However, most U.S. adults are poorly informed about the need for changes to the current system. Polls show they consider their own local public schools generally good and see other people’s public schools as mediocre or poor.

Supporters of the education status quo prefer to direct parents to the traditional parent-teacher organizations and volunteering opportunities than to give them control or even influence over their children’s curricula, teachers, schools, and school dollars. They tend to trust and give power to people credentialed in education rather than parents.

Choice advocates champion efforts to give parents better information and broader choices in education as in nearly every other aspect of life. They cite the central economic and social principle that those closest to a situation typically know the most about it and have the strongest and most direct motivations to make the wisest choice. Choice proponents support robust education freedoms bounded by rigorous accountability for taxpayer dollars.

The following documents offer more information about the public’s views of school choice initiatives, new laws, and parent-information efforts.


‘National Family Engagement Alliance’ Launched
A new network committed to engaging families in education transformation, the National Family Engagement Alliance, plans to provide resources and support to educate, equip, and mobilize individuals, families, and organizations to ensure student success, reports Education Week. NFEA will pursue its mission by creating a digital platform designed for community engagement and information sharing; convening thought leaders to craft a national agenda for family engagement; developing a clearinghouse of data and research that is user-friendly and easily understood by the public; and mobilizing participants to drive public and political will to transform education

Moms and Schools Survey 2012
A new national poll of Americans finds 71 percent of mothers support school vouchers for all families regardless of income or special needs. Sixty-one percent of moms and 55 percent of all adults polled nationally favor a school voucher system that would allow tax dollars to follow children to the school of their choice, private or public. Sixty-three percent of adults in the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice-sponsored poll graded their local public schools “A” or “B,” and 65 percent gave charter schools the same grade. In contrast, 82 percent of the same respondents graded local parochial or private schools “A” or “B.”

The Global Report Card
This initiative from education researchers at the George W. Bush Institute catalogues U.S. students’ test scores in every school district in the country and compares them to their state averages and internationally to the most highly developed nations. The data show most American students – even students in wealthy suburban districts – are falling behind their international counterparts. Most of the U.S. public does not know this, and the national consequences could be dramatic. Visitors can navigate the data easily to find whether U.S. students in general and those in their own district in particular are obtaining the skills and knowledge necessary for success.

2012 ABCs of School Choice
This handbook profiles the nation’s 34 school choice programs, outlining rules and regulations, statistical trends, and legal developments for each. The 2012 ABCs of School Choice updates an annual publication from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. It offers quick and simple stats on every voucher, education savings account, and tax credit and deduction program in the nation. The book includes an illustrated digest of statistics, reports on public opinion polls, and a list of resources and contacts for school choice advocates in every state. Nineteen school choice programs were enacted or expanded in 2011.

Suburban School Districts Falling Behind
Although wealthier suburbanites move away from cities often precisely for what they think are better schools, these schools are actually academically mediocre at best when compared with the schools of other developed nations, writes Jay Greene, a researcher and professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. This means education reform is not just for obviously awful urban schools, but needed across the country. Middle-income Americans need to start paying attention and press for change, Green writes.

When the Best Is Mediocre
What everyone knows about schools is wrong: Even the most elite suburban districts often produce mediocre results when compared with those of our international peers, conclude researchers Josh McGee and Jay Greene in a study published by Education Next. The best U.S. school districts may look excellent alongside large urban districts, a comparison state accountability systems encourage, but that measure provides false comfort. U.S. students are increasingly competing with students in other countries for economic opportunities, and a meaningful assessment of student achievement requires a global, not local, comparison. That comparison, which the two provide, results in bad news for the entire U.S. school system.

There Are No Unmotivated Parents
Parents are just beginning to realize they must be well-informed decision makers with real power to shape education for their children, writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. When given the opportunity and information to help make a good decision, parents make excellent education choices for their children. Claims that parents are unmotivated and uninvolved are myths perpetuated by the nation’s bureaucratic school system, he says. Parents with power and responsibility use them well.

Annual Privatization Report 2011: Education
The U.S. education system is transitioning from funding institutions to funding students, concludes Lisa Snell in a Reason Foundation report. The nation is moving away from a system funded by local resources and driven by residential assignment to a system where funding is driven by parental choice and student enrollment. In 2011, 15 states offered a total of 26 school voucher and tax credit programs with close to $1 billion in school funding following students to schools. More than 2 million students are enrolled in charter schools, and more than 100 cities have a charter school market share of 10 percent or more.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].