Do private school-choice programs in the United States help or hinder the goals of a democratic education? The answer seems to be: it depends. It depends on how the enabling law is structured, which (if any) accountability regime exists, the amount of funding allowed, the subset of students affected, and the number and quality of options within the local educational ecosystem. It also depends on which grade level and which outcomes of interest (test scores, college enrollment, civic values?) we have in mind.
The question itself, however, highlights a larger cultural and political issue: the current way in which our country defines public education. The United States is an outlier among democratic nations in having chosen a uniform, as opposed to a pluralistic, structure for our school systems. The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, and Australia are among the many nations in which governments fund, but do not necessarily operate, a wide spectrum of schools. The United States’ move to uniformity in the 19th century means that every departure from this norm, whether it be charter, private, or online, must justify itself based on superiority of outcomes. Research and policy on alternative models in this country are thus framed in inherently competitive terms. This piece will set out the dimensions of private school-choice programs, examine a recent meta-analysis, and explore ways in which our country’s cultural expectations shape our research questions and constrain public debates. (I explore international models and describe the advantages and challenges of educational pluralism in my book, No One Way to School: Pluralism and American Public Education, which Palgrave MacMillan will release in December 2016.)
What do we mean by “private school-choice programs?” Three mechanisms in the educational landscape enable families of little means to send their children to private schools.
- Scholarship programs are privately funded, means-tested (i.e., only available to low-income students) attempts to expand access to private schools, of which the Children’s Scholarship Fund is one prominent example.
- Education tax credits allow individuals or corporations to reduce their tax liability by giving a limited amount of money to state-approved scholarship funds for (mostly low-income) children to attend private schools. The credit may not be used to fund a school attended by the donor’s children. Tax credit money is not considered public, because it never goes through state treasuries.
- Vouchers are public school funds that parents may use to send their children to private schools. Most voucher programs are means-tested or school-tested—that is, only students whose families fall below a certain income level or who have attended “failing” schools are allowed to use them.
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Latest posts by Ashley Berner (see all)
- Ashley Berner: Psychological Harm and School Choice for the Fordham Institute - August 16, 2017
- Ashley Berner in Brookings: To Improve Education in America, Look Beyond the Traditional School Model: - May 9, 2017
- Ashley Berner: How School Culture Drives Civic Knowledge and Shapes the Next Generation of Citizens for The 74 - April 25, 2017