Education, Parental Choice in

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EDUCATION, PARENTAL CHOICE IN. A wide-ranging reform movement intended to infuse competitive forces into elementary and secondary schooling, parental choice in education has always had a limited existence in the United States. Since the early 1800s, state and local governments have generally supported only government-run schools. This has given parents the choice between tuition-free public schools and private schools that charge tuition. In general, only the wealthy and those with strong religious convictions have chosen privately run schools.

At a minimum, parental choice means giving parents the right to choose the specific public schools their children attend, rather than having them assigned to the school based on place of residence. In its more far reaching form, however, the movement has called for a complete restructuring of the educational system. It has proposed that governments give money to parents in the form of vouchers or tax credits, which they can use to enroll their children at public or private schools of their choice. In all its forms, the movement has sought to increase parental involvement in education and to improve schools by forcing them to compete for students and resources.

The modern school choice movement originated with ideas proposed in a 1955 article by the libertarian economist (and later, Nobel laureate) Milton Friedman. This prompted Virgil Blum, a Jesuit priest and political scientist at Marquette University, to found, in 1957, the advocacy group Citizens for Educational Freedom to lobby for vouchers.

A 1966 article, "Are Public Schools Obsolete?," by the liberal Harvard sociologist, Christopher Jencks, prompted the federal Office of Economic Opportunity to offer grants to test the voucher concept. Because of local opposition, only one test occurred—from 1972 to 1976 in the Alum Rock school district near San Jose, California—and it drew only limited attention. Interest in school choice became stronger in the 1980s due to growing perceptions of the educational system's failures. As nationally recognized academic barometers—such as Scholastic Aptitude Test scores—showed declining student performance, and as behavioral problems and dropout rates in urban schools soared, the 1983 Department of Education report, A Nation at Risk, cautioned that American students were falling behind students in other countries. However, throughout the 1980s, little action was taken. Congress rejected Reagan administration proposals for tuition tax credits, and the school choice movement was confined mostly to libertarians and conservatives.

In 1990, the tide began to turn in favor of school choice. The liberal-leaning Brookings Institution published Politics, Markets and America's Schools by John Chubb and Terry Moe, which provided statistical evidence that over-regulated public schools were outperformed by private schools. It called for public school bureaucracies to be replaced by "choice offices" and a voucher system. In the same year, Wisconsin's legislature approved a program to provide vouchers to low-income students in Milwaukee for use at nonreligious schools. This legislation grew out of the efforts of state representative Annette "Polly" Williams (a Democrat), who was prompted by the frustrations of her inner-city constituents and aided by the state's Republican leadership. The Milwaukee experiment received immense national attention. Analysis of the program immediately showed that parents preferred being able to choose schools, while evidence on academic achievement was more hotly debated. Some studies found no measurable academic gains, but most concluded that the program modestly boosted test scores, even though per-pupil expenditures at these schools were less than half those in the public schools. The state legislature expanded the program significantly in 1995, allowing parochial schools to participate, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the voucher program's constitutionality in 1998.

School choice became the most hotly debated educational reform of the 1990s. Choice sprouted up within many public schools systems, which increasingly used magnet and charter schools. Following Milwaukee's lead, Cleveland adopted a tuition voucher system in 1995. By the 2001–2002 school year, more than ten thousand Milwaukee students and four thousand Cleveland students, all from poor families, used publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools. In 1999, Florida approved the first statewide voucher program, providing stipends to students at schools that received "failing" grades for performance and did not improve within one year. In 1991, J. Patrick Rooney, chairman of Golden Rule Insurance, created the first privately funded voucher program. By 2001 private voucher plans covered nearly 100,000 students, with scholarships averaging a little over $1,000. Arizona and Illinois adopted state income tax credits for taxpayers who contributed to private scholarship organizations that distributed the funds to families choosing private schools.

School choice was especially popular among families within poorly performing public school systems. It was seen by many Republicans as a way to increase support among minorities and religious conservatives (especially Catholics), while pushing free-market principles. In 1996, Robert Dole became the first major-party candidate to endorse school vouchers. Gallup Polls showed rising support for school vouchers, with fifty-four percent backing school vouchers in 2001. However, when faced with sweeping school choice proposals not tailored to failing school systems and poor families, voters were not generally supportive. From 1970 to 2000, twelve out of twelve statewide referenda failed that would have granted school vouchers or tuition tax credits. In 1993, for example, California voters defeated Proposition 174 by a seven-to-three margin. Voucher opponents, funded mostly by teachers' unions, outspent opponents by ten-to-one.

Opponents warned that vouchers would siphon support and funding away from public schools. Ironically, in Milwaukee, local politicians of all political stripes eventually supported school vouchers, and funding for public schools rose substantially. The school system responded to the voucher threat by granting parents an increasing array of choices within the public school system and by allocating resources only to schools that attracted students. In addition, public school achievement scores began to rise.

Opponents also warned of excessive religious influence in education and complained that vouchers would breach constitutional strictures against establishment of religion. In the 1973 case Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, the Supreme Court struck down a New York law granting reimbursements and tax credits to parents for private school tuition, saying that it effectively subsidized religious education. The Court seemed to back away from this in later rulings, allowing an increasing flow of government resources to religious schools. In 1999, a federal judge ruled Cleveland's voucher program unconstitutional on church-state–separation grounds. However, in 2002, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the widely watched Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, and, on 27 June 2002, upheld the constitutionality of Cleveland's school choice program by a five to four vote.


Chubb, John E. and Terry M. Moe. Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1990.

Jost, Kenneth. "School Vouchers Showdown: How Will the Supreme Court Rule?" CQ Researcher 12, no. 6 (2002): 121–144.

Masci, David, "School Choice Debate," CQ Researcher 7, no. 27 (1997): 625–648.

Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation.

Ravitch, Diane and Maris A. Vinvskis, eds. Learning from the Past: What History Teaches Us about School Reform. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.


See alsoCharter Schools ; Education ; Home Schooling ; Magnet Schools ; School Vouchers ; Schools, For-Profit ; Schools, Private .

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