General Education

What Is School Choice? An Overview for Parents

What Is School Choice? An Overview for Parents
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Molly Pennington, PhD profile
Molly Pennington, PhD January 13, 2015

You’ve probably heard about school choice. Find out what it is, what the experts say about it, and whether — and how — it can help your family.

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As the parent of school-aged children, you may have heard the term school choice come up in school board meetings, in news stories, or even on the playground.

If you're like me, or if you don't live in or near a major metropolitan area, you may not know exactly what the term is about, what your choices are, or if you even have any at all. Growing up in Oregon, I went to my local public school, and I'm confident that I received a fine education there. By the time I was a parent myself, I was living not in a relatively small district, but in the city of Pittsburgh. Suddenly, sending my son to a public school was a choice fraught with issues. No one had told me that you needed to get on a magnet school list years in advance. Because I was a graduate student, my neighborhood selection and transportation options were limited. The school district in Pittsburgh, like many in major metropolitan areas throughout the U.S., had long been in crisis.

My son was just the kind of student who should have benefited from the flexible options of school choice. Instead, he attended a succession of schools: our neighborhood school (it soon closed), a private parochial school (it was too strict and formal for his temperament), and a magnet school (it was too far away to continue that commute) — and he even did a stint in cyber school (it was too solitary). As a parent, I had a lot of choices, but it was difficult to find one that was viable long-term. We finally ended up moving to a small district outside of Pittsburgh, where we've been happy with the public schools. Those years in Pittsburgh were drastically different from my own childhood experience in public school.

As my son’s experience shows, these days you can't always rely on the school that is the closest to where you live. The major reform to solve that problem is known as school choice. Because of all of the options and the competing interests in school reform movements, school choice is often controversial and leads to contentious discussions. This overview seeks to help you untangle the various issues that arise in discussions of school choice.

What Is School Choice?

School choice emerged as a reform movement to help solve many of the issues plaguing public school districts, such as dismal test scores, lack of resources, large class sizes, and behavior problems among student populations. It used to be the case that students were just assigned to public schools in their neighborhood districts. With school choice, families began to have alternative options that could better serve students’ needs. School choice became a part of federal law in 2001 with the No Child Left Behind Act. The law essentially says that if a student is enrolled in a school officially recognized as “in need of improvement," parents have the right to choose an alternate school. Now that school choice is burgeoning across the nation, especially in metropolitan areas, parents may have the option to choose among many different types of schools.

One reason that school choice is such a hot-button issue is that it's strongly linked to economic factors. When parents opt out of their neighborhood districts, they take resources with them — and those resources get allocated to their new school choices. Furthermore, school districts themselves become a competing marketplace, vying for students and the government funding they bring. School choice is controversial, and the well-being and individual needs of students are at the heart of the debate.

# What Advocates Say

School choice purports to give all children the chance to thrive in a school best suited to their individual needs. Advocates of school choice believe that students and parents are better served by having a variety of education options available, and that school choice allocates resources to schools that are most effectively instructing students. Proponents also argue that school choice levels the playing field between wealthy and low-income districts. They welcome the idea of schools as products, a view that offers parents the options and flexibility afforded to consumers.

# What Critics Say

Opponents of school choice argue that such a system actually undermines low-income districts and families. They question the viability of flexible choices, especially where transportation is concerned, and the inevitable waiting lists that often accompany enrollment options. Opponents also note that the students most in need of excellent schools are often situated in the most desperate districts. And their parents, for a multitude of reasons related to work, education, income, or other disadvantages, may not have the ability to research and make use of the available options.

Other detractors oppose the government funding of private, parochial schools — which are often a part of school choice, especially through voucher systems (discussed below). Some advocates and critics alike lament that school choice isn’t always a viable option because not all schools have slots available to students from other districts, even when they have a mandate to welcome transfers.

What Are the Different Types of School Choice?

School choice options vary from state to state. Here are some of the more common options available. Keep in mind that each option is in lieu of your public district school, the one usually assigned based on proximity to your home address.

# Magnet schools

Magnet schools typically have one primary focus, such as the arts or STEM subjects. They are open to students from the entire district and attract those who share an interest in the school’s area of focus (rather than a common neighborhood).

# Charter schools

Charter schools are public schools that are independently operated. They are exempt from many state regulations, but in exchange, they are held to more stringent accountability standards. Most of them must adhere to state assessment standards.

# Vouchers

Vouchers are tuition subsidies that parents can use to help fund tuition if they choose a private school. Typically, the money allocated for public education is diverted to the voucher, either in full or in part.

# Tax Credits

In some cases, you can receive a tax credit if you donate money to a nonprofit business or school that provides education scholarships. With individual tax credits, some parents receive tax relief for approved education-related expenses.

# Open Enrollment Programs

In these programs, students can choose a school, either within or beyond their district (depending on the policy), if they deem it better than their own local school.

# Education Savings Accounts

Tax dollars for public education may be put in a private savings account for a student's parents. The use of this money has certain restrictions, but the funds can be applied to tuition, tutoring, or even college-related expenses.

# Homeschooling

Each state has its own regulations for homeschooling. In some cases, students are required to take standardized tests. In others, parents have control over the curricula.

# Online Schools

Students learn through online modules and have interactions with teachers and other students via the Internet.

What Does School Choice Look Like? An Example: Detroit

School choice options are more readily implemented in urban areas, largely due to the socioeconomic factors endemic to city neighborhoods and infrastructure. Detroit's struggles are well-documented, and not surprisingly, it's a "high choice" district. As part of the city's school reform, Detroit implemented a massive overhaul of the public schools through a large charter school system. Many studies on school choice have focused on Detroit, which has admittedly faced more challenges than a typical metropolitan area. In these studies, Detroit's many charter schools were seen as businesses vying for customers. And parents, especially those who were disadvantaged, weren't equipped to make sense of the choices that best benefited their children. Researchers recommended greater accountability and the creation of a task force to regulate the system and put the focus more closely on parents and their children.

On the surface, school choice seems like an amazing solution to educational quality, access, and equity issues. In some cities and for some families, it is. Unfortunately, despite its best intentions, there are also students (and parents) who do get left behind.

Further Reading

Here are some resources to help you navigate school choice and research how it applies to your specific district:


Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. (2004, August 3). Issues A–Z: Choice. Education Week. Retrieved January 2, 2014 from Education Week.

Lake, R., Jochim, A., & DeArmond, M. (2014, November 13). Fixing Detroit's 
Broken School System: Improve Accountability 
and Oversight for District and Charter Schools. Retrieved January 2, 2015 from Education Next.

Lake, R., Jochim, A., & DeArmond, M. (2014, July 1). Making School Choice Work. Retrieved January 2, 2015 from Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Lake, R. (2014, November 13). What's Next for Detroit's Troubled Schools? Retrieved January 2, 2015, from Education Next.

Pons, M. (2002, April 1). School Vouchers: The Emerging Track Record. Retrieved January 2, 2015, from National Education Association.

Rawls, K. (2012, January 24). The Ugly Truth About “School Choice." Retrieved January 3, 2015, from Salon.