School choice

From Academic Kids

School choice is the slogan of a U.S. movement to give parents more say in which primary and secondary schools their children attend. The movement hopes that increased choice will cause more fierce competition between different schools, and thereby raise the overall quality of education.

School choice proponents differ in the extent to which they advocate privatization. Some don't advocate it at all, wishing only to allow parents greater choice between different public schools within a district. Others seek to blur the distinction between public and private schools by granting parents the option either of spending vouchers at private (or possibly religious) school or of getting tax credits for doing the same. Usually, those who advocate these latter schemes suggest that public schools not receive funding for those pupils who did not choose to attend. A few school choice proponents call for the complete elimination of government funding of education, amounting to total privatization.

See Charter schools for another American idea for providing school choice options to parents.


Arguments in favor

The proponents of this idea say that if parents were given a choice about where public money should go, they would pick the better schools and the under-performing schools would have to improve or lose public funding. Proponents claim that school choice is a good way to improve public education at low cost, by forcing schools to perform more efficiently.

Another argument is based on cost-effectiveness. Moe and the CATO institute (see references, below) cite public statistics for the U.S. costs and quality of education that show private education usually costs between one quarter and one half of public education while giving superior outcomes. Boston schools spend $7,300 per enrollee each year, Washington D.C. $9,500 per enrollee, and New York City, $7,350 per enrollee. These figures are larger than all but the most expensive private schools (See the CATO link).

In areas with these expenditures, many public schools are unaccredited, while private schools are fully accredited in order to retain students and avoid regulatory difficulties. In many large public school districts, administrators do not publicize accredition for this reason. (See Moe, or ask accrediting organizations in your area)

One other argument is that, since the U.S. public schools have a monopoly on poor families, a voucher system would allow these students to opt out of bad schools and acquire a better future.

Arguments against

Critics argue that tax breaks and vouchers would take away money from the schools that most need financial assistance and that taking money away from them would make those schools' position even worse. Some also note that private schools are not obligated to take just any students; many have entrance exams, and only admit those who score well. Thus, there is some concern that private schools would take the best students, leaving the most disadvantaged in a school system which is unable to improve and saddled with the hardest children to teach. Even if private schools aren't allowed to participate, critics note, this might prompt a two-tiered public education system, in which those students with motivated parents leave for good schools, while less-advantaged students languish. There is also a concern that some of this public funding would go to religious schools and that this might conflict with the separation of church and state.

Legal standing of vouchers in the US

In the U.S., the legal and moral precedents for vouchers may have been set by the G.I. bill, which includes a voucher program for university-level education of veterans. The G.I. bill permits veterans to take their educational benefits at religious schools, an extremely divisive issue when applied to primary and secondary schools.

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), the Supreme Court of the United States held 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 basically free to enact voucher programs that provide funding for any school of the parent's choosing.

The Court has not decided, however, whether states can provide vouchers for secular schools only, excluding sectarian schools. Proponents of funding for parochial schools argue that such an exclusion would violate the Free Exercise Clause. However, in Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), the Court held that states could exclude majors in "devotional theology" from an otherwise generally available college scholarship. The Court has not indicated, however, whether this holding extends to the public school context, and it may well be limited to the context of individuals training to enter the ministry.

Vouchers in use today

In France

The French government heavily subsidizes most private primary and secondary schools, including those affiliated with religious denominations, under contracts stipulating that education much follow the same curriculum as public schools and that schools cannot discriminate on grounds of religion or force pupils to attend religion classes.

This system of école libre (Free Schooling) is mostly used not for religious reasons, but for practical reasons (private schools may offer more services, such as after-class tutoring) as well as the desire of parents living in disenfranchised areas to send their children away from the local schools, where they perceive that the youth are too prone to delinquence or have too many difficulties keeping up with schooling requirements that the educational content is bound to suffer. The threatened repealing of that status in the 1980s triggered mass street demonstrations in favor of the status.

In the US

Voucher systems for primary schools have also quietly operated in some New Hampshire school districts since education became mandatory in the 19th century. In addition, in 2003 the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a voucher plan for public schools in the District of Columbia. The plan will be included in the omnibus spending bill and sent to President Bush. It is expected to become law.

Vouchers in the U.S. for underprivileged children are viewed as experiments, and the issue has yet to be conclusively decided.

In Chile

In Chile, there is a voucher system in which the state pays private schools directly, based on average attendance. These schools show consistently better results in standardized testing than public schools, with 35% of all students attending such schools.

See also

Regarding vouchers in Chile, respected researchers (Dr. Martin Carnoy of Stanford, Patrick J. McEwan among others) have found that when controls for the student's background (parental income and education) are introduced, the difference in performance between public and private subsectors is not significant. Alejandra Mizala (University of Chile) and Pilar Romaguera (University of Chile) have found that there is greater variation within each subsector than between the two.


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