What Is Educational Choice, and How Does It Work?
Simply put, private educational choice programs allow parents to pursue the educational options that work best for their children, regardless of means or where they live. They empower parents to choose by providing funds that can only be used for their child’s education. The money goes directly to the families, and they spend it as they see fit; the money follows the child. Wealthy families already exercise choice by moving into good school districts or paying tuition to private schools.
There are currently 66 private educational choice programs operating in 28 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. But not all programs are the same.
There are four basic ways of delivering private educational choice. An overview of each type – and the benefits they offer – is below. Remember that most states have different names and branding for their programs so if a program exists in your state, you can read more details about it by clicking this website by our friends at EdChoice: School Choice in America Dashboard.
The Four Basic Ways of
Delivering Private Educational Choice
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)
ESAs allow parents to customize an education to best fit the needs of their child. They can be funded by tax credits or public funding, but they are different from other models because parents receive funds into an account that they can use for multiple things. For example, parents can pay for private school tuition, books and learning materials to use at home, online instruction, and special education-related services. Some ESAs even allow saving for college tuition. This model best accommodates the needs of many families during the pandemic as it offers maximum flexibility.
Publicly Funded Scholarships
Publicly funded scholarships are often referred to as “vouchers,” and they give parents the freedom to send their child or children to a private school of their choice by getting funds directly from the government. Parents can use the scholarship as partial or total payment to the private school they select.
Tax-credit scholarships also provide funds so that parents can send their child to the school that works best, but in this type of program the scholarships come from private money. They are awarded by private scholarship-granting organizations (often referred to as SGOs or STOs), which are funded by private donations from individuals or corporations who receive a tax credit for their donations.
Individual Tax Credits and Deductions
Personal tax deductions or credits are given directly to parents for the cost of tuition paid to either a private school or for other education-related expenses they pay out of pocket. Since the cost of tuition often far exceeds parents’ tax bills, tax credits and deductions typically do not allow enough people to participate, and this type of program does not create a genuine alternative. To address this problem, some states use “refundable tax credits.” If you qualify for a refundable credit and the amount of the credit is larger than the tax you owe, you will receive a refund for the difference.
It is important to distinguish between private educational choice programs and charter schools, magnet schools, and open enrollment. These options provide many parents much-needed choices within the public school system. Charter schools are public schools operated by private individuals or companies, which can innovate and experiment more than traditional public schools are able to. Magnet schools and open enrollment allow parents to choose a different public school than the one they were assigned. While these options are needed alternatives, they are not the same thing as private educational choice programs, which allow families to choose outside of the system when they need to. When we refer to “educational choice,” we refer to private educational choice programs.
We know all this information can be overwhelming – and we haven’t even gotten into all the differences in programs across the country! Deciding which type of private educational choice program to bring to or expand in your state is an important first step – but IJ is here to help. We have a team of lawyers who have drafted educational choice programs and defended their legality in court for 30 years. This expertise will help support you in your fight and let you focus on what’s most important: joining with other families and making your voices heard. It always helps to know as much as you can and to be as prepared as possible, but you already know the answer to the most important question: What works best for your family?
What are the next steps?
Every grassroots campaign will be different, but there are also common themes that you can expect. In general, getting a private educational choice program from idea to reality involves the following steps. What step are you on in your state?
- Familiarize yourself with educational choice – you can’t fight for something you don’t understand.
- Start recruiting close to home by identifying parents you already know.
- When you’ve created a core group of parents, hold a meeting to go over goals, expectations, and assignments.
- Identify partner groups – there’s power in numbers!
- Expand your network into a large enough group to make an impact at the state capitol.
- Formally launch your group.
- Identify legislative champions in the state House and Senate.
- Keep everyone motivated and keep the discussion going by spreading the word on social media and by hosting community-wide meetings and events.
- Host your Day at the Capitol.
- Monitor the bill process, attend and testify at committee hearings, and be in the media.
- Lobby for votes.
- Win at the state capitol!
- Continue to support and grow the program.
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The Facts About Educational Choice
We can’t sugarcoat it: This work will be hard – the fight for educational choice can be very intense. But there’s good news: Parents can fight this battle – and win!
In Florida, for instance, the fight seemed daunting, especially after the state Supreme Court ruled against its voucher program in 2006. But parents organized and fought for choices, and Florida now has multiple tax-credit scholarship programs, two voucher programs, and a newly passed education savings account. Similarly, when an Ohio mother was told her son would never be able to hold a job or have a normal life, she decided that wasn’t good enough – and her efforts led to the Jon Peterson Scholarship, a program in Ohio that allows children with special needs to attend a school that works for them. Other choice programs in the state have expanded over the years as well.
These fights are tough, but the reward is great. Most educational choice programs enjoy majority support, especially when people learn the facts about how they work.
Your opponents will be powerful, organized, and sometimes mean. Many of them see choice programs as a threat to the public education system, or even a threat to public school teachers’ jobs. You should expect two main attacks to be lobbed every time you start fighting for choice. Opponents will say that (1) educational choice programs hurt students, and (2) choice programs drain money from public schools, and the state simply cannot afford to allow choice.
The reality is very different. Educational choice is about children: giving families the options that work for them, whether that’s public, private, or something else. Most of the research (linked throughout the text below) shows that increasing educational options for families benefits students from both private and public schools. And in most cases, expanding educational choice actually saves states money.
The research shows that educational choice programs either have a positive impact on state budgets over time or no impact, and almost every study of how these programs impact public school test scores shows either no impact or that scores get better after a choice program is passed. There is more information on the research at the end of this guide, but you should know up front that the research is overwhelmingly on your side.
That said, the fight will not be easy just because you have the facts on your side. Powerful unions have millions of members who pay dues to them. And while some individual union members might not be opposed to educational choice, unions are well-funded and typically stand united in their opposition to these programs. Meanwhile, they will often have newspaper editorial boards and columnists on their side. The perception that you and your allies are targeting public schools or state budgets will probably be widespread, and you should be prepared to confront it.
Once you start making progress toward expanding choice in your state, opponents will fill the capitol building with public school teachers wearing the same color t-shirts to show a united front, insisting that parents like you want to harm public education or even take their jobs away. It is likely that public school administrators will support teachers who – although charged with educating your children – stage strikes and sick-outs during this time and go to the capitol to rally against educational choice legislation.
Meanwhile, you and your fellow parents will have to make sacrifices to take off work to be present at the capitol when the teachers are. You can expect, at least sometimes, to be outnumbered at rallies and capitol visits. Do not let this defeat you! Just because the opposition is louder and bigger in numbers does not mean they have the better story or that they are right.
It’s important, though, to realize that not all opposition to educational choice is the same. Many well-intentioned educators and members of the public oppose it based on misinformation that you can help counter. It’s important not to assume that just because someone opposes educational choice that their motives are bad or that they are an enemy – sometimes, simply having a conversation can help dispel misunderstandings and bring someone to your side.
When you have conversations with opponents, the discussions will probably look something like the three categories below. For the first two, it is extremely important to realize that many people making these arguments come from a place of good faith and want the best for students – just like you do – so understanding where they’re coming from is critical.
Concerns over public school funding. Opponents claim that educational choice programs harm public school funding, but these fears are unfounded. For one, inflation-adjusted spending per public K-12 student has gone up by 280 percent since 1960 – that means total spending has almost tripled during that time. What’s more, when a student leaves a public school because their family moved, their previous school stops receiving the tax dollars that went toward educating them—and there is nothing controversial about that. Public schools are funded according to the expenses they incur.
A significant amount of funding for public schools is drawn from local budgets, such as from property taxes, and educational choice programs are typically funded with state dollars. In practice, this means much of the funding for public schools isn’t impacted at all when the state passes an educational choice program. States can fund public education needs while allowing choice for parents. And that’s not to mention that these programs tend to generate savings for state taxpayers over time.
Concerns about public school students. Another common argument is that choice simply takes the most successful students out of public schools, and those who are left behind struggle. The fact is, many families want to use educational choice because their children are already struggling in public school – maybe they have special needs, need more individualized attention, or just learn differently from their peers. Or families may choose a private school for better extracurriculars or smaller class sizes that help their children learn. Educational choice is focused on the overall environment that helps children learn best. And studies have shown that public school test scores are not harmed by an educational choice program. It is important to realize that educational choice is not anti-public school; it is just the belief that parents should be able to choose what works best for their family. The person you’re talking to probably cares deeply about children, just like you do, and breaking through the misinformation requires assuming goodwill.
Objections from friends and political leaders. There is a good chance that not everyone in your life or that you admire in politics agrees with you on the need for educational choice. You will face opposition from progressives and conservatives, from people you know and people you don't. The greatest opposition will come from people who are big believers in public education and wrongly believe that means opposing any alternatives. Although many of these people are on the “left” side of the political spectrum, the same viewpoints exist among people on the “right” as well, especially in rural areas where public schools are the center of everyday life. Sometimes, opposition even comes from wealthy families who can afford private schools for their own children but don't want educational choice sending the “wrong” kind of students to join their private schools. This issue really isn’t a left or right-wing issue – it’s a family issue. And it’s okay not to agree with everything your friends or even your political leaders believe, but it’s important to understand where people are coming from.
A 2020 study of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program—one of the nation's largest educational choice programs—showed that “as public schools are more exposed to private school choice, their students experience increasing benefits as the program scales up.” These benefits include behavioral changes like lower rates of absences and suspensions, as well as academic changes like higher standardized test scores. Strikingly, among all public school students, the ones who come from the poorest families are the most positively affected by the program.
Finally, there will be constitutional questions. We discuss this line of attack from opponents below. IJ has been on the forefront of defending against these attacks in courts around the country and the U.S. Supreme Court for decades. If constitutional questions come up, we can help you address them.
Putting it into practice
Now you know some common misconceptions about educational choice! Below we list and answer some common questions. Get comfortable with answering the tough questions in your own words and with your own experiences. Your personal perspective matters the most! Before long, knowing the facts of educational choice and sharing your experiences will be second nature. Preparation is the first step.
Why should we divert money away from public schools with these programs? And how is my state supposed to find the money for this? Educational choice programs do not “divert” money away from public schools. Whenever a child leaves a public school for any reason, the state stops sending public dollars to the student’s prior public school, because the school is no longer incurring expenses for that student. Whether or not a state has an educational choice program, public schools only receive funding for pupils actually enrolled in those schools.
Most studies show that educational choice programs either save the state money or are revenue neutral. Given that most choice programs cost taxpayers only a fraction of what it takes to educate a public school student, and because the amount of the scholarship or ESA is usually less than what the state would have paid to the student’s public school, it is no surprise that such programs have generated up to $6.6 billion in cumulative taxpayer savings at anywhere from $2,300 to $3,100 per student.
Won’t allowing choice hurt children who remain in public schools? Educational choice programs have been shown to increase academic outcomes for those that participate in the programs and for students who remain in public schools (see IJ's "12 Myths and Realities about Private Educational Choice Programs" and EdChoice's "The 123s of School Choice"). For example, numerous evaluations of Florida’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which allowed students at chronically failing public schools to obtain scholarships to transfer to better performing public or private schools, found that the program raised achievement in Florida’s worst performing public schools and that the schools facing the greatest competition made the greatest academic gains. The increased choices provided to students who were previously unable to afford to switch schools prompted changes in the institutional practices of traditional public schools, which were followed by improvements in test scores. Educational choice does not mean you have to choose between helping some students at the expense of others – everyone benefits when families can choose what works best for them.
Our public school has a great reputation and high test scores. Why do we need this? Public schools work great for plenty of children! But education is not one-size-fits-all, and many children struggle in their assigned public schools. Many factors, including class size, personalized attention, bullying, and so on, play a role in how students learn. Educational choice is about more than removing children from schools that are failing – it is also about making sure each child can be happy, healthy, and learning in a place that works best for them.
Doesn’t educational choice violate the separation of church and state if the scholarships can be used at religious schools? Educational choice programs are religiously neutral. Their benefits go to parents and students, who decide for themselves what schools to attend. The parents, freely and independently, choose what is best for their child. Because the parents can choose between all options—including religious and non-religious schools, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that there is no issue with separation of church and state. Keep reading below for more on the constitutionality of educational choice!
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The Constitutionality of Educational Choice
As soon as you begin organizing to expand educational choice, you can expect to hear from opponents, “but it’s not constitutional!” Opponents will point to provisions in their state constitutions or the U.S. Constitution that they say mean educational choice can never become a reality in your state. Legal and constitutional questions can be overwhelming, but you can stand firm in your fight because you have the law on your side.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2002 decision, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, declared that educational choice is constitutional under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue declared that states cannot discriminate against schools that participate in these programs based on whether they are religious in nature, which many private schools are.
Most parents who fight for educational choice for their families are not attorneys and shouldn’t have to become legal experts. There’s good news – you don’t have to be! IJ is ready to help make sure the program in your state is constitutional and will stand up to legal challenges. But it helps to know the basics of why these programs are constitutional. If you’re interested in learning about this, read on!
Opponents typically use the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause to attack educational choice, arguing that if parents use scholarship funds to attend a school with a religious affiliation, then the government has “established” a religion. The Constitution says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]
In the Zelman case, the Supreme Court ruled that Cleveland’s publicly funded scholarship program did not violate that part of the Constitution because of two essential characteristics – and other educational choice programs that have these are also constitutional:
Educational choice programs can neither favor nor disfavor religious options. Scholarships must be allocated neutral, secular criteria, and religious options can be included among an array of educational options.
Driven by the Free and Independent Choices of Parents
Parental choice is a critical feature of a constitutional program, because educational choice programs are designed to aid parents and students, not the schools they happen to choose, religious or otherwise.
In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court was asked whether a state could exclude all religious schools from an educational choice program. The Court answered with a resounding “no.” The Court said that “[a] State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”
For many parents, choosing a private school that is religious is a practical choice. Over 66% of private schools in America have a religious affiliation, and these schools are often the best options for families, even those who do not share the same religious convictions. In many communities, banning parents from choosing religious private schools might as well be banning parents from choosing private schools to begin with.
In addition to federal constitutional questions, each state has its own constitution with different requirements that might impact an educational choice program. For example, some states limit any public funds from going to a non-public school, so a tax-credit program is the best option. Others still attempt to limit the schools that parents can choose with a choice program, although the Supreme Court’s decision in Espinoza will make it difficult for these limits to stand up in court. IJ has a guide to state constitutions that you can review, but the short version is this: Some form of educational choice can be passed and stand up in the courts just about anywhere.
These issues are often complicated, but one thing is clear: Educational choice is constitutional.
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