School choice is a term for pre-college public education options that describes an array of programs offering students and their families voluntary alternatives to publicly provided schools, to which students are generally assigned by the location of their family residence. The most common in the United States, by both the number of programs and by the number of participating students school choice programs, are scholarship tax credit programs, which allow individuals or corporations to receive tax credits toward their state taxes in exchange for donations made to non-profit organizations that grant private school scholarships.[1] In other cases, a similar subsidy may be provided by the state through a school voucher program.

Other school choice options include open enrollment laws (which allow students to attend public schools outside the district in which the students live), charter schools, magnet schools, virtual schools, homeschooling, education savings accounts (ESAs), and individual tax credits or deductions for educational expenses.


In 1955, Milton Friedman proposed using free market principles to improve the United States public school system. The practice had been that children were assigned public schools based on where their parents live, which were funded by state and local taxes. Friedman proposed that parents should be able to receive those education funds in the form of school vouchers, which would allow them to choose their children's schools, including both public and private, and religious and non-religious options.[2] In 1996, Friedman and his wife, Rose Friedman, founded the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (now EdChoice).[3][4][5]

School vouchers in the United States were first proposed by Ronald Regan and used on state tuition grants provided by Virginia's 1956 Stanley Plan, which financed white-only private schools known as segregation academies.[6] Other states followed until the practice was disallowed by Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1964).[7]


Scholarship tax credits

Main article: Scholarship tax credit

States with scholarship tax credit programs grant individuals and businesses a full or partial credit toward their taxes for donations made to scholarship granting organizations (SGOs; also called school tuition organizations). SGOs use the donations to create scholarships, which allow students to attend private schools or out-of-district public schools that would otherwise be too expensive for many families. These programs currently exist in fourteen states in the United States: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia.[8][conflicted source?]


Main article: School voucher

Vouchers allow students to attend a private school of their choosing, secular or religious.[9][conflicted source?]

Charter schools

Main article: Charter school

Charter schools are independent public schools that are exempt from many of the state and local regulations governing most public schools. These exemptions grant charter schools some autonomy and flexibility with decision-making, such as teacher union contracts, hiring, and curriculum. In return, charter schools are subject to stricter accountability on spending and academic performance. Most states (and the District of Columbia) have charter school laws, though they vary in how charter schools are approved. Minnesota was the first state to have a charter school law and the first charter school in the United States: City Academy High School, opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1992.[10] The prevalence of charter schools has increased with the support of the Obama administration. Under the administration, the Department of Education provided funding incentives to states and school districts to increase the number of charter schools.[11]

Somewhere between 22 and 26 percent of Dayton, Ohio, children are in charter schools,[12][failed verification] the highest percentage in the nation.[13]

Magnet schools

Main article: Magnet school

Magnet schools are public schools that often have a specialty like science, technology, or art. Unlike charter schools, magnet schools are not open to all children; some magnet schools require a test to get in. Magnet schools are an example of open enrollment programs, which refer to district or statewide programs that allow families to choose public schools other than the ones they are assigned. Intra-district open enrollment programs allow school choice within a district, while inter-district open enrollment allows families to choose schools outside the district.[14]


Main article: Homeschooling

Home education or homeschooling is education taught in a child's home or provided primarily by a parent or under direct parental control. Informal home education has always taken place, and formal instruction in the home has at times been popular. As public education grew in popularity during the 1900s, the number of people educated at home using a planned curriculum dropped. In the last 20 years, the number of children being formally educated at home has increased, particularly in the United States. The laws relevant to home education differ throughout the country: in some states, the parent needs to notify the state that the child will be educated at home, while in others, the parents are not allowed to educate at home unless at least one parent is a certified teacher and yearly progress reports are reviewed by the state. According to the United States Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, about 1.8 million children were home educated in 2012.[15]

Inter-district enrollment

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts allows the school committees of public school districts to have open enrollment policies. Towns in Massachusetts represented by the "School Choice Receiving District Status" (open enrollment status) of their public high school district for the 2016–2017 academic year. Towns represented in blue have school districts with an open enrollment policy for kindergarten through high school. Towns represented in purple have school districts with open enrollment only for specific grades. Towns represented in red have school districts with a closed enrollment policy.[16]
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts allows the school committees of public school districts to have open enrollment policies. Towns in Massachusetts represented by the "School Choice Receiving District Status" (open enrollment status) of their public high school district for the 2016–2017 academic year. Towns represented in blue have school districts with an open enrollment policy for kindergarten through high school. Towns represented in purple have school districts with open enrollment only for specific grades. Towns represented in red have school districts with a closed enrollment policy.[16]

District of Choice is a program in California created in 1993, which allows any California public school district to enroll students outside district lines.[17] To participate in the program, district governing boards declare themselves a District of Choice and set a quota for how many transfer students to accept to participate in the program. School districts cannot discriminate among students to enroll, but can limit them through an unbiased lottery system. The program was created in response to several parents' concerns over the lack of choice of schools to enroll their children. As of 2016, 47 school districts and 10,000 students participate in the program, serving five percent of school districts and 0.2 percent of students in California.[18]

Education Savings Accounts

ESAs allow the parent to withdraw their child from a public or charter school, and receive a direct deposit of public funds into a government-authorized savings account. These funds are often distributed in the form of a debit card that can be used to pay for various services, such as private school tuition and fees, online programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education services, and other approved learning materials and services. ESAs can also pay for a combination of public school courses and private services.[19][conflicted source?]

Tax credit/deduction for educational expenses

Some states allow parents to claim a tax credit or deduction as a means to provide relief for certain educational expenses. These can include private school tuition, textbooks, school supplies and equipment, tutoring, and transportation. Currently, Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have these programs.[20]

Individual tax credit and deduction option

This form of choice reduces the income tax for parents, so approved educational expenses can be more economical, which include private school tuition, supplies, computers, books, tutors, and transportation.[21]

Online learning

Online learning allows students to work with teachers and their courses over the internet. It can be paid for by accessing ESAs and vouchers.[9]

Customized learning

This form of curriculum is a student-tailored form of education, and can have various combinations. For example, course choice programs, public school courses, and special education therapies can all be integrated into a student's curriculum. There are a myriad of possibilities, especially as learning innovations continue to occur.[9]



The goal of school choice programs is to give parents more control over their child's education, and to allow parents to pursue the most appropriate learning environments for children. For example, school choice may enable parents to choose a school that provides religious instruction, stronger discipline, better foundational skills (including reading, writing, mathematics, and science), everyday skills (from handling money to farming), or other desirable traits.[22][23]

Supporters of voucher models of school choice argue that choice creates competition between schools for students. Advocates argue that this competition for students encourage schools to create innovative programs, become more responsive to parental demands, and increase student achievement.[24] Caroline Hoxby suggests that this competition increases the productivity of a school, and describes a productive school as being one that produces high student achievement.[25] Others suggest that this competition gives parents more power to influence their child's school in the school marketplace. Parents can also punish schools by leaving the 'bad' school for a better, more highly ranked school.[26] Parents look for schools that will advocate for the needs of their child, and if the school does not meet the needs required for the child, parents can find a more suitable school.[27]

Another argument in favor of school choice is based on cost-effectiveness. Studies undertaken by the Cato Institute and other libertarian and conservative think tanks claim that privately run education both costs less and produces superior outcomes compared to public education.[28][29][30]

Others argue that since children from impoverished families almost exclusively attend D- or F-ranked public schools, school choice programs would give parents the power to take their children out of poorly-performing schools assigned by zip code and seek better education elsewhere. Supporters say this would level the playing field by broadening opportunities for low-income students—particularly minorities—to attend high-quality schools that would otherwise be accessible only to higher-income families.[22][31]

Proponents also argue school choice programs improve mental health. One study found that states that adopted charter school laws experienced a decline in adolescent suicides, and that private schooling reduces the likelihood of adults reporting mental health issues.[32] Its supporters also believe it can reduce the negative effects from bullying because families could choose to send their kids to a different school if they are experiencing bullying.[33]

The Organisation Internationale pour le Droit à l'Education et la Liberté d'Enseignement (OIDEL; English: International Organization for the Right to Education and Freedom of Education[34]), an international non-profit organization for the development of freedom of education, maintains that the right to education is a fundamental human right that cannot exist without the presence of state benefits and the protection of individual liberties. According to the organization, freedom of education notably implies the freedom for parents to choose a school for their children without discrimination on the basis of finances. To advance freedom of education, OIDEL promotes a greater parity between public and private schooling systems.[35]

The Walton Foundation has also held charter school investment conferences featuring Standard & Poor's, Piper Jaffray, Bank of America, and Wells Capital Management.[36]

In 2021–2022 in the United States, support for school choice has been paired with "parental rights". For example, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin asserts that he won his race by tapping into culture war fights over school curricula, emphasizing parental rights to make decisions about their children’s education with the slogan, “parents matter”[37] and supporting school choice initiatives upon his entry into office.[38] As of May 2022, 72 percent of school parents favor vouchers, 76 percent support education savings accounts, and 71 percent favor charter schools in the United States.[39][40]


Teachers' unions in the United States are opposed to school choice. School choice measures are criticized as profiteering in an underregulated environment.[41] Charter authorization organizations have non-profit status; and contract with related for-profit entities with public funding.[42] Reports indicate that charters create organizational arms that profit by charging high rent,[42][43] and that while the facilities are used as schools, there are no property taxes.[43]

Some school choice measures are criticized by public school entities, organizations opposed to church-state entanglement, and self-identified liberal advocacy groups. Plaintiffs who have filed suit to challenge the constitutionality of state-sponsored school choice laws include school boards associations, public school districts, federations for teachers, associations of school business officials, unions for public school teachers, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and People for the American Way.[44]

School choice has been criticized for aiming to privatize schooling.[45]

There is evidence that school choice programs reduce housing prices in high-performing districts more than in low-performing districts.[46]

International overview and major institutional options


Main article: Education in Belgium

According to the OECD, the Flemish community of Belgium has a high-performing education system as measured by PISA scores. Most private schools are considered "government-dependent" and subject to government targets and inspections. Schools are not allowed to select students based on results of admissions tests, performance, religious background, or gender. The Flemish education system benefits from the advantages of school choice, such as the choice between teaching styles and competition, while suffering from relatively high socio-economic segregation.[47]


Main article: Education in Sweden

Sweden reformed its school system in 1992.[48] Its system of school choice is one of the freest in the world, allowing students to use public funds for the publicly or privately run school of their choice, including religious and for-profit schools.[48] Fifteen years after the reform, private school enrollment had increased from 1% to 10% of the student population.[48]


Main article: Education in Chile

In Chile, researchers have found that when controls for the student's background (parental income and education) are introduced, the difference in performance between public and private sub-sectors is not significant.[49] There is also greater variation within each subsector than between the two systems.[50]

United States

Scholarship tax credits

Scholarship tax credit programs exist in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia.[8]

The Arizona Individual Private School Tuition Tax Credit Program, in accordance with A.R.S. §43-1089[51] and §1089.03,[52] allows individuals to claim $1,053, and couples filing joint returns can claim up to $2,106 (for 2014, amounts are indexed annually).[53] Nearly 24,000 children received scholarships in the 2011–2012 school year. Since the program has started in 1998, over 77,500 taxpayers have participated in the program, providing over $500 million in scholarship money for children at private schools across the state.[54]

The Arizona program was challenged in court in ACSTO v Winn by a group of state taxpayers on the grounds that the tax credit violated the First Amendment, because the tuition grants could go to students who attend private schools with religious affiliations.[55] The suit was initially brought against the state until the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (ACSTO), one of the largest SGOs in the state, voluntarily stepped in to represent the defense with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom. The court ruled 5–4 to let the tax credit program stand.[55] In 2022, Arizona offered K-12 each student $6,000 to offset education expenses, including paying for private school costs.[56]

In April 2011, a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll found that 60 percent of American voters felt that the tax credits support school choice for parents whereas 26 percent felt as if the tax credits support religion.[57]

In Iowa, the Educational Opportunities Act was signed into law in 2006, creating a pool of tax credits for eligible donors to SGOs. At first, these tax caps were $5 million but in 2007, Governor Chet Culver increased the total to $7.5 million.[58] The Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education oversees the SGOs and advocates for school choice in Iowa.

Greater Opportunities for Access to Learning is the Georgia program that offers a state income tax credit to donors of scholarships to private schools.[59][60] Representative David Casas passed school choice legislation in Georgia.[61][62]


Voucher systems exist in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Indiana, the District of Columbia,[63] and Georgia.

School vouchers are legally controversial in some states. In 2014 a lawsuit sought to challenge the legality of the Florida voucher program.[64]

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that school vouchers could be used to pay for education in sectarian schools without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As a result, states are free to enact voucher programs that provide funding for any school of the parent's choosing.[65] In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prevent voucher program fund to be used for private religious schools simply on the basis of the school being run by a religious organization. The Supreme Court further ruled in Carson v. Makin that states could not restrict the use of vouchers against any secular private school as long as the parents had a choice of school, as this would violate the Free Exercise Clause.

See also


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