Frequently Asked Questions About Educational Choice

Is Educational Choice Constitutional?  

Doesn't Educational Choice Drain Resources from Public Schools?

Does Edcuational Choice Help Students Do Better in School?

Are Educational Choice Programs Held Accountable?

Will Educational Choice Turn a Private School into an Overregulated Public School?

Is Educational Choice Constitutional?

If a school choice program is well designed, it probably is! The U.S. Supreme Court answered this question resoundingly in 2002, when the Court handed down its decision upholding the constitutionality of Cleveland's voucher program. By a 5-4 vote, the justices made it very clear that when an individual uses public funds to make a private choice-in this case when a parent uses a voucher to send his or her child to a private school, whether or not the school is religious-that use of public funds does not violate the First Amendment. As Chief Justice William Rehnquist explained in the majority opinion, voucher programs such as Cleveland's are "neutral in respect to religion (because they) provide assistance directly to a broad class of citizens, who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice."

This landmark decision is in line with a long series of Supreme Court decisions. For example, in 1983 the Court upheld Minnesota's income tax deduction for educational expenses, including private-school tuition. In 1993, the Court unanimously upheld the use of public funds by a blind student pursuing a divinity degree at a religious college. Moreover, the Court did not strike down the GI Bill or Pell Grants, both of which are voucher programs allowing postsecondary students to attend the public or private school of their choice, including religious colleges.

Although recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings favor vouchers, some state constitutions have language prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars to support religious schools. However, as the Institute for Justice argues, "many court decisions interpret state constitutions to parallel the First Amendment. If so, the recent First Amendment cases discussed above should control state constitutional interpretation. If the state constitutional provision is more restrictive, advocates may have to challenge such restrictions under the federal constitution."

In the end, whether or not voucher or school choice legislation is constitutional depends on how well the bill is designed. If parents make a truly private choice of which school their child attends, if there is no financial incentive to attend a religious school over a nonreligious school, and if the program does not allow undue government interference with religious schools, chances are that the bill will be looked on favorably by the Court.

Conclusion. Rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court strongly favor school choice. Because parents make a truly independent choice of where to send their children to school, there is no violation of the U.S. Constitution if the parents freely choose religious schools. These questions and answers are used with permission from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. More information is available at Friedman Foundation.

Top of Page

Doesn't Educational Choice Drain Resources from Public Schools?

Absolutely not! No state or city that has school choice has seen its public-school budgets go down. When Milwaukee's school choice program was founded in the 1990-1991 school year, its public schools spent $6,316 per student; by 2003-2004 that amount had risen to $10,375. Cleveland's public school spending rose from $6,616 in 1996-1997, when its choice program began, to $10,420 in 2003-2004. And these figures include only the portion of school budgets known as "current expenditures"; figures for total education spending would be even higher.

Why have cities that have school choice seen such large increases in per-student spending? Believe it or not, school choice is one of the reasons. The claim that choice drains money may sound plausible; schools are funded on a per-student basis, so fewer students means less money. But a growing body of research finds exactly the opposite: school choice programs actually improve public-school financing. School choice gives the public-school system more money to educate each student. That's the fundamental reason school choice saves money-private schools do a better job at about half the cost.

The amount of money spent on the voucher or the scholarship for each participant in a school choice program is less than what would have been spent on that student if he or she had remained in public schools. That means states save money that can be plowed back into their education budgets and spent on the students who remain in public schools. The average public school spends about $10,000 per student, whereas the average private school charges about $6,000 in tuition. That's the fundamental reason school choice saves money-private schools do a better job at about half the cost.

A 2007 study by Friedman Foundation senior fellow Susan Aud confirmed that school choice saves money for state budgets and for public schools. She found that from 1990 to 2006, all existing school choice programs together saved a net total of $22 million for state budgets and $422 million for local public-school districts. Every program was at least fiscally neutral.

Facing numbers such as these, the teacher unions usually retort that they don't account for fixed costs. If a student leaves a public school, that school still has to spend some of the money it did before to cover costs that don't vary much with enrollment levels, such as building maintenance. But studies that examine schools' fixed costs have found that those costs aren't big enough to offset the huge savings from school choice:

  • A 2005 Clemson University study found that even after accounting for fixed costs, a proposed voucher program for South Carolina-offering $4,000 to $4,600, compared with public spending of $8,300-would save $594 million over its first five years.
  • A 2004 Utah State University study found that a proposed school choice program in Utah would save between $26 million and $144 million every year, even after schools' fixed costs were taken into account. ·         A 2005 Friedman Foundation study found that tax-funded scholarships in New Mexico would save $63 million over ten years.
  • A 2004 joint study by the Friedman Foundation and the Josiah Bartlett Center found that a proposed voucher program in New Hampshire would save $9 million annually.

Conclusion. School choice programs do not drain money from public schools. Actually, they leave more money behind to educate fewer students. No state or city that has school choice has seen its public-school budgets go down.   These questions and answers are used with permission from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. More information is available at Friedman Foundation.  

Top of Page

Does Educational Choice Help Students Do Better in School?

Absolutely! Seven studies using random assignment, the gold standard for social science, have found statistically significant gains in academic achievement as a result of vouchers, and no such study has ever found negative effects. Random-assignment methods allow researchers to isolate the effects of vouchers from other student characteristics. Students who applied for vouchers were entered into random lotteries to determine who would receive the voucher and who would remain in public schools; this method allowed researchers to track very similar "treatment" and "control" groups, just as in medical trials. Other research has also established that there are positive academic effects from vouchers.

Milwaukee has been studied twice through the use of top-quality random-assignment methods:

  • A 1998 Harvard study found that after four years of participation, voucher students gained 11 points in math and 6 points in reading, compared with the control group.
  • Another 1998 study by Cecilia Rouse of Princeton found that voucher students improved more than the control group by 8 points in math over four years. In a 2004 study, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute found that vouchers improve graduation rates:
  • In the graduating class of 2003, private schools participating in the voucher program had a graduation rate of 64 percent, whereas Milwaukee's public high schools had a graduation rate of 36 percent.
  • Even at academically selective Milwaukee public schools, the graduation rate was only 41 percent, still well below the rate for schools participating in the voucher program.

Florida

A 2003 Manhattan Institute study by Jay Greene and Greg Forster found the following:

  • Of the McKay participants, 93 percent were satisfied with their McKay schools, whereas only 33 percent were similarly satisfied with their public schools.
  • Only 30 percent of current participants said they received all the services required under federal law from their previous public schools, whereas 86 percent said that their McKay schools provided all the services they promised to provide.
  • Of the survey participants, 47 percent were bothered often and 25 percent were physically assaulted at their previous public schools because of their disabilities, compared with 5 percent bothered often and 6 percent assaulted in McKay schools.
  • More than 90 percent of former McKay participants who had left the program said that the McKay program should continue to be available for those who wish to use it.

New York
A privately funded voucher program in New York has been studied several times with random-assignment methods:

  • A 2002 Harvard study found that after three years, African American voucher students improved 9.2 percentile points more than the control group in combined reading and math scores.
  • A 2003 study by four researchers from Harvard, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins universities found that after only one year in the program, voucher students improved 4.7 percentile points more than the control group in math.

Dayton
A 2002 Harvard study using random-assignment methods found that after three years, African American voucher students receiving a privately funded voucher improved 6.5 percentile points more than the control group in combined reading and math scores.

Charlotte
A privately funded voucher program in Charlotte has been studied twice using random-assignment methods:

  • A 2001 study by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute found that after only one year, students who were offered a voucher improved 6 percentile points more than the control group in combined reading and math scores.
  • A 2007 study by Joshua Cowen of the University of Wisconsin found that students who were offered a voucher improved 8 percentile points in reading and 7 percentile points in math more than the control group.

District of Columbia
A 2007 University of Arkansas study using random-assignment methods found that D.C. voucher students had better academic outcomes than similar students who appealed for vouchers but lost a random lottery and were not offered them. However, the first-year results did not quite achieve statistical certainty, so we cannot be certain that the positive results are attributable to vouchers.

Conclusion. A large number of high-quality studies show that vouchers improve academic achievement. No such study has ever found that vouchers hurt academic achievement.

These questions and answers are used with permission from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. More information is available at Friedman Foundation.  

Top of Page

Are Educational Choice Programs Held Accountable?

Not only are private schools accountable for the job they do, they're much more accountable than public schools are. Private schools are primarily accountable to parents, who can pull their children out of a school that fails to serve them. That's a freedom that parents stuck in the public-school monopoly don't have. If a public school fails to perform, parents have no way to hold it accountable; they're out of luck.

Not only are private schools accountable to parents, but they're also accountable to the public. Private schools in every state comply with a vast array of health and safety regulations, antidiscrimination laws, and even rules covering the minimum number of school days. In addition, most private schools already undertake yearly financial audits and evaluate their students using nationally recognized tests; parents expect and demand these practices.

Private schools that participate in school choice programs are required to be safe, nondiscriminatory, and fiscally sound. These schools must also file regular reports and disclosures. Teacher unions argue that these measures are not enough; in the name of "accountability," teacher unions say that private schools should have to submit to a giant mountain of red tape and regulatory burdens if they want to participate in school choice programs. But one of the most important reasons that private schools do a better job than public schools is that they're free from those restrictions. Private schools can be creative in the classroom and more open to trying different approaches to helping students learn.

There is a big difference between the current rules governing private schools and the possible results of the teacher unions' desire to burden private schools with excessive and pointless regulations. Private schools are good largely because they are free to innovate. Forcing them to use the same standards as public schools, to take mandatory tests that are based on curricula chosen by the state rather than parents, or to comply with unnecessary red tape is bad news.        

More regulations do not always mean more accountability. Ultimately, the thing that gives the concept of accountability real teeth is the ability of parents to choose their child's school. If parents have that ability, they can take their child out of a school that isn't doing the job and find a school that will. When parents do not have that ability, their child is stuck in an assigned school, that child can be taken for granted, and the parents' concerns can be ignored.

Conclusion. Private schools are accountable to parents through choice and to the public through existing accountability rules. Piling on burdensome regulations in the name of accountability would only hamper the ability of private schools to teach students better.   These questions and answers are used with permission from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. More information is available at Friedman Foundation.

Top of Page

Will Educational Choice Turn a Private School into an Overregulated Public School?

Not if we are vigilant! One reason that private schools do so well is that they don't have to deal with the same over-the-top bureaucratic red tape as public schools do. Some people worry that school choice will endanger this freedom. They fear the teacher-union argument that if school choice is funded through tax dollars, private schools should be heavily regulated in the name of accountability. This kind of thinking could give government a green light to regulate away the very freedom that makes private schools better than public schools.

We need to continue pointing out the simple truth: private schools are already accountable. They're accountable to parents, who can pull their children out of a school that fails to serve them-a freedom that parents stuck in the public-school monopoly don't have. And private schools are also accountable to the public through health and safety regulations, antidiscrimination laws, and other state rules, as well as widespread, voluntary fiscal audits, accreditation, and testing.

The good news is that the teacher unions can be beaten. For fifteen years, union-sponsored attempts to add unnecessary red tape to the voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland have failed. Every year, opponents have tried to increase the regulations on private schools participating in these programs, and every year, parents and supporters have defeated the opponents. Instead, those voucher programs have adopted reasonable accountability rules in cooperation with school choice advocates.

But couldn't these efforts at sabotage someday succeed? That's unlikely, given that the power of the teacher unions is on the wane. If they didn't succeed in sabotaging school choice programs ten years ago, it's unlikely they will succeed now. As long as supporters of school choice remain vigilant, private schools will continue to enjoy the freedom that allows them to educate students better than public schools do.

Conclusion. Attempts to transform private schools into overregulated public schools through school choice programs have failed, and with vigilance we can continue to see to it that those attempts fail.   These questions and answers are used with permission from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. More information is available at Friedman Foundation.  

Top of Page