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Don’t Believe the Hype: School Choice is Alive (And Growing)

• Cara Candal

Teachers, students and their families gather on the steps of the South Carolina Capitol to celebrate school choice.

Headlines in recent months might leave you thinking that school choice is dead.

Washington, D.C., has seen a small decrease in charter enrollment. States are refusing federal charter school grants and passing laws that make it easier for districts to curtail charter school growth. And let’s not forget the landmark case that the Supreme Court heard just last week, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. That case exists because Montana, citing its Blaine Amendment, would rather prevent low-income families from using government funds to access any private school than allow students to take government funds to faith-based private schools.

So, is school choice against the wall? Not according to the data. Demand for and use of school choice programs has been steadily (and in some cases dramatically) increasing.

Parents Have More Educational Options Than Ever Before

A 2019 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) finds that while district school enrollment increased very slightly (roughly 1 percent) between 2000 and 2016, charter school enrollment increased more than 500 percent during the same time period. Homeschooling, too, saw a remarkable uptick at the same time; the number of families taking advantage of this choice option nearly doubled from 0.9 to 1.7 million.

Although enrollment in private schools has decreased slightly in the same period, programs that enable students to access private education with government funds have expanded. The vast majority of those programs—51 in total—are for low-income students and students with special educational needs.

Milwaukee established the nation’s first private school program in 1990. By 2019, 26 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., had private school choice programs. Twelve states now have voucher programs which, like Milwaukee, allow parents to use the funds that government would have provided to a district school to attend a private school of their choice. Eighteen states have tax-credit programs, which encourage donations to scholarship-granting organizations that, in turn, provide funds to students to attend private schools. More recently, six states have enacted education scholarship accounts. These programs allow parents to use government funds for multiple educational purposes—everything from private school tuition to approved educational therapies and even tutoring. And these numbers don’t represent the full breadth of private school choice, as many states have more than one program. Florida alone has five.

Demand is Growing

Why has private school choice caught fire in the states? Just as with charters and homeschooling, private school choice programs can provide the kind of customized education experience that parents and students want and, increasingly, demand.

Florida, which has one of the most robust school choice environments in the country, may be the best example of this. Florida’s tax-credit scholarship (FTC) currently serves over 100,000 students with tens of thousands more on waiting lists. In 2019 the legislature enacted a new voucher program, the Family Empowerment Scholarship, in part to meet the demand parents demonstrated for the FTC. Some speculate that Florida’s most recent gubernatorial election hinged on school choice.

Parents that have educational options—especially those that wouldn’t have them without government support—are loath to let anyone take them away. And many other parents want these opportunities for their own families.

Students and families have a variety of needs, and the U.S. education landscape is responding to that diversity.  School choice isn’t dead. It is alive and taking on a variety of forms, allowing every family to customize the educational experience so that every child, regardless of income, has the opportunity to flourish.

About the author

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.