The Bottom Line School Choice (Part 1): An In-Depth Look

[Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part article. Part 2 can be read here.]

The Council of Economic Advisers, an agency within the Executive Office of the President, published an in-depth report in October 2020 titled, Expanding Educational Opportunity through Choice and Competition. The report defines school choice in each of its forms and outlines how competition is a key driver in raising the quality of education offered to students. Additionally, the report provides empirical evidence demonstrating how school choice breaks down educational opportunity barriers for students from low-income families, minority groups, and those with disabilities.

History of School Choice

School choice, referring to “policies, legislation, and organizations that foster alternatives to residentially assigned district public school (DPS) education,” entered the U.S. education arena in the early 1990s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the past 30 years, school choice offerings have expanded to such things as charter schools, magnet schools, and homeschooling — as described in further detail below. The coronavirus pandemic has further accelerated parents seeking alternatives for their children from their assigned DPS.

Milwaukee, Florida, New Orleans, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. have led the way with school choice measures. As a result of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans dove headfirst into charter school expansion. Today, New Orleans is the “only all-choice school system” in the United States, meaning students are not bound by any kind of school district zoning assignment. However, choice programs are not yet widespread or readily available to the masses. Therefore, they currently only provide a small dose of competition for DPSs and in some geographical locations, none at all.

Facts & Figures

Choice programs exist in both private and public education arenas. Private choice programs include vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts. Whereas charter schools, magnet schools, and open enrollment policies fall within the category of public choice programs. Additionally, homeschool and virtual schools are options for families who are able to provide student supervision and learning support. Here is a quick snapshot of each type of program which serves as an alternative route for students from their assigned traditional public school.


  • Vouchers provide funding for parents to use toward covering the cost of private school tuition for their students.
  • As of 2018-2019, Washington, D.C. and 17 states had voucher programs.
  • Washington, D.C. and seven states give vouchers to low-income families.
  • There are 11 states that give vouchers to students with disabilities.
  • Vouches serve 188,000 students.

Tax-Credit Scholarships:

  • Tax-credit scholarships grant private funding for students to attend private schools or to use toward other educational expenses.
  • State income tax credit is given to individuals and businesses who donate money to nonprofit scholarship organizations.
  • Each state sets limits regarding the maximum tax credit that can be awarded.
  • These scholarships are focused on serving low-income families, students with disabilities, and students from low-performing schools.
  •  As of 2018-2019, 18 states had tax-credit scholarship programs.
  • Tax-credit scholarships serve 275,000 students.

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs):

  • ESAs are scholarships parents can use to pay for a variety of educational expenses such as private school tuition, homeschool costs, special education expenses, dual enrollment, etc.
  • Money can be saved for future college expenses.
  • As of 2018-2019, five states had ESAs.
  • They are generally restricted to students with disabilities.
  • Arizona additionally offers ESAs to students from low-income families, students from low-performing schools, adopted or foster care children, military children, etc.
  • ESAs serve 18,700 students.

Charter Schools:

  • As independent public schools, charter schools are free to govern their operations, hiring, budget, curriculum, educational offerings, and more.
  • They are held to higher accountability standards than traditional public schools.
  • Charter schools can be independent or part of a management organization such as Knowledge is Power Program (better known as KIPP) or Charter Schools USA.
  • A no-excuse philosophy and often enforcement of strict discipline, longer school days, and student uniforms characterize these schools.
  • They are known for providing intensive tutoring to students.
  • Student enrollment has increased by 600% from 2001-2017.
  • Low-income and minority students make up a large percentage of charter school student populations.
  • Charter schools enrolled 3.1 million students during the 2017-2018 school year.

Magnet Schools:

  • Public schools offering specific emphasis such as science, performing arts, math, etc., are termed magnet schools.
  • Application is part of the admissions process, and the lottery system is used when the number of applicants exceeds the enrollment allocation.
  • Some have attendance zones and fill seats from a combination of students living inside and outside of those zones, while other magnet schools do not have any type of attendance zone criteria for admission.
  • Magnet schools enrolled 2.7 million students during the 2017-2018 school year.

Open Enrollment:

  • Open enrollment allows students to enroll in a public school other than their assigned DPS.
  • Intradistrict open enrollment allows students to enroll in other public schools within their district.
  • Interdistrict open enrollment allows students to enroll in other public schools beyond their district.
  • Currently, 34 states have at least some districts that can opt to offer open enrollment.


  • Homeschool can come in a variety of forms but is officially categorized by students attending fewer than 25 hours of a public or private school each week.
  • There were 1.7 million homeschool students in 2016.
  • The number of homeschool students has skyrocketed this fall due to the majority of DPSs across the country failing to reopen for in-person instruction.

Virtual Schools:

  • Students completing courses online or a combination of online and on-campus (referred to as hybrid learning) and considered enrolled in a virtual school.
  • There were 280,000 students enrolled in a virtual school as of 2017.
  • Currently, the majority of K-12 students are receiving their DPS instruction through online delivery for all or part of each given week. It is important to note that these students did not opt for virtual schooling, nor were they determined good candidates with the necessary skills. Instead, they were forced to receive their schooling virtually by their DPS.

Who Has Access to School Choice?

Out of the roughly 56.6 million K-12 students in the United States, as of 2019, 5.6 million attended private schools. Homeschool students totaled 1.7 million in 2016 — however, Spring 2019 numbers during the coronavirus pandemic school closures show up to 2.5 million. That leaves 48.5 million students within the public school setting. As of 2018-2019, the above outlined private choice programs of vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and ESAs were only extended to 481,700 — or 1% of these students. Regarding public choice programs of charter schools and magnet schools, 5.8 million had this educational option as of 2017-2018 — or less than 12% of those enrolled in a public school.

With the exception of magnet schools, students from low-income families, minority students, and those with disabilities are by small degree given these alternative education avenues from their low-performing DPS. What about the remaining more than 87% of students? Those 42.2 million plus students do not have school choice unless their parents can afford expensive private school tuition, or at least one parent can stay at home to provide the necessary supervision and academic support for homeschool learning.

Would it not be more equitable to extend options to more than just the affluent population or 12.96% of disadvantaged students? Yet ironically, those championing equity most fiercely tend to adamantly oppose school choice.

[Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part article. Part 2 can be read here.]

The American Center for Transforming Education promotes the expansion of public support for families to choose the schools they believe will best serve their children, whether traditional public schools, public charter schools, private schools, homeschooling, or virtual schools. To learn more about our work, please visit our Parental Choice webpage.

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