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#AskExcelinEd: Back to School (Choice) 101

• Cara Candal and Sam Duell

Thanks to determined families and courageous policymakers, more families than ever are going back to school this year with the ability to choose the educational setting that best fits their child’s needs. And, thanks to the just-released 2019 Education Next Poll, we also know support for educational choice is at a record high!

  • Nationwide support for charter schools is at 48%, a 9% increase from 2017.
  • Nationwide support for voucher programs is at 49%, a 12% increase from 2016.
  • Nationwide support for tax-credit scholarship programs is at 58%, a 5% increase from 2016.

Policies that Empower

More and more states are answering the calls of parents who want a greater array of educational options. Consider the following three sets of policies that enable families to choose specific school settings.

Public School Choice

Two distinct policies allow families to enroll children in the public schools of their choice:

  1. Open enrollment policies allow students to transfer to the public school district or school of their choice. Forty-seven states have open enrollment policies. These may include transfers between districts (interdistrict), transfers within districts (intradistrict) or both. They can also include magnet programs, innovation zones, empowerment zones and common enrollment systems.
  2. Charter schools are independently operated public schools that are created under a public-private partnership agreement, or contract, with an oversight body (usually the local school board). Over the past few decades, 45 states and Washington, D.C., plus Guam and Puerto Rico have adopted statutes that allow charter schools to exist.

Private School Choice

These are programs that allow families to access tuition-based private schools and other services. They typically fall into one of three categories:

  1. Tax Credit Scholarship (TCS) programs allow individuals and businesses to donate to nonprofit, in-state organizations that provide tuition scholarships to eligible students. Donors receive a tax credit from the state—often a 100%, dollar-for-dollar credit. To date, 18 states have a total of 23 tax-credit scholarship programs. In Florida, more than 100,500 students benefited from tax-credit scholarships in 2019.
  2. Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) allow parents to have the state deposit their children’s education funding into an account. They can use that funding to pay for a variety of state-approved expenses, such as private school tuition, special education services and tutoring.
  3. Finally, voucher programs allocate education funding to families, instead of schools or districts, and allow families to take those funds to schools of their choice. Fifteen states and Washington, DC, have voucher programs, and in many cases the research shows strong academic and life outcomes.

Homeschool Policy

Homeschooling is legal in every state, although some states regulate this option more than others. While the exact number of homeschooled students is unknown, the federal government estimates about 3% of students nationwide are educated at home, double the number of homeschool families 20 years ago.

About Families Using Choice

Why are families actively choosing schools other than the one assigned to them? Check out these data-based observations.

  • These families are more likely to live in urban areas and most likely identify as African American or Hispanic. According to NCES, 32% of African American families and 25% of Hispanic families place their children in public schools of choice.
  • Almost 10% of families will choose a private school for their children. If current trends hold, the number of low-income families that can access private schools will remain steady or slightly increase and fewer middle-income families will send their children to private schools.
  • Homeschoolers are more diverse than previously understood. According to a new research brief from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), 26% of homeschool students in 2016 identify as Hispanic – that represents more than 400,000 families and a large increase from 2012.

Expanding Access to Opportunity

There is much more work to be done to improve access and empower families with choice. Still, one in every five families has moved to a new neighborhood so their children can attend a specific school – an effort that requires money, job flexibility and sacrifice – but that leaves many students behind.

At ExcelinEd, we envision a day when families won’t have to change zip codes to find the best educational fit for their children. This vision requires state leaders to champion policies that enable more choice for all families. As we head into a new school year, let’s keep the families who lack opportunity top-of-mind.

About the authors

Cara Candal

Cara Candal serves as Director of Educational Opportunity, focusing on private school choice, for ExcelinEd. Cara has spent the last 10 years working in education policy as a Senior Fellow with both Pioneer Institute and the Center for Education Reform. She was also a founding team member of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE) and a research assistant professor at Boston University in the Department of Educational Leadership and Development. Cara has authored/edited more than 25 papers and three books on education policy. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Indiana University, a Masters of Arts in Social Science from the University of Chicago and a Doctorate of Education from Boston University.

Sam Duell

Before Sam joined ExcelinEd as the Associate Policy Director for Charter Schools, he was a special education teacher, a school and central office administrator, the Executive Director of School Choice at Oklahoma’s department of education and the Managing Director of OPSRC’s Education Collaborative. In every position, Sam worked creatively to meet student needs. He founded the Integrated Support Program at Fischer Middle School in San Jose, California to increase the number and percentage of students with learning disabilities who have access to the general education classroom. He was the first administrator of Oklahoma’s Statewide Virtual Charter School Board, the authorizer for online schools in Oklahoma. And he co-founded a statewide afterschool network called the Oklahoma Partnership for Expanded Learning to organize and advocate for expanded learning opportunities after school and during the summer. Sam’s current interests include charter schools and their role in a functional, thriving democracy.