National School Choice Week: A primer on school choice

January 26, 2015 | By RALPH KASARDA

Do you know all there is to know about school choice?  As PLF begins its celebration of National School Choice Week, here is a short orientation to explain what school choice encompasses.

Growing up long ago in a low-income family, school choice to me was whether I walked or rode my bike to my local neighborhood public school.  Much to my distress, even that choice was eventually taken away when city officials implemented forced busing and rezoned my neighborhood for a school far away across town.  Parents in my neighborhood could not afford to send their children to private schools, and thus had no choice.

For many parents, things are different today.  The school choice movement today includes things like charter schools, homeschooling, and school vouchers.  PLF celebrates all of those options this week.  Do you know what they are, the legal issues they each involve, and where you stand?

Charter Schools
Charter schools are public schools that are given independence from some local or even state rules, meaning they are not operated by school districts.  Since they are financed through public funds, charter schools are open to any child, free of charge.  If enrollment exceeds available space, charter schools accept students by random, public lottery.  In some states, because of poorly performing traditional public schools, charter schools serve significantly higher percentages of minority or low-income students.  Charter schools provide options to families that may be dissatisfied with their local schools, but cannot afford a private school.  Therefore, these schools offer a powerful tool for parents seeking educational equity and equal access to quality education for their children.  Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school laws.  What about your state?

Some parents choose to educate their children at home instead of sending them to a traditional public or private school.  Families choose homeschooling for many reasons, such as dissatisfaction with available schools, the inability to afford private schools, different religious beliefs or educational philosophies, and as a remedy when children are not progressing within the traditional school structure.  Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, and it is estimated that more than two million children are being homeschooled in the U.S.  But legal requirements for homeschooling in the U.S. vary from state to state.  Some states have few requirements, while others impose restrictive oversight.  Do you know the homeschooling laws of your state?  By the way, what do Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, Douglas MacArthur, Sandra Day O’Connor, Venus and Serena Williams, and Tim Tebow all have in common?  Yes, they were all homeschooled.

Vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and personal tax credits
Vouchers and tax credits are the most controversial school choice programs.  Vouchers, in their various forms, generally allow parents to use public funds to pay for some or all of their child’s private school tuition.  Vouchers provide families, especially those who cannot afford private school tuition, with alternatives when a traditional school or school system fails. The idea is that parents should not have to pay for schooling twice – first by being taxed to support a failing school, and then by having to pay private school tuition.  Some states offer tax credits for private schooling instead of vouchers.  In those cases, an individual can get a credit on their tax return or a corporation can get a tax break for giving money to private scholarship organizations.  Vouchers and tax credits allow more students, especially those from low-income families, to enroll in private schools.  The Center for Education Reform reports that there are 21 school voucher programs in 18 states plus the District of Columbia.  Does your state allow vouchers?

Why aren’t these alternatives to traditional public schools available to all children?  This week PLF bloggers will report on the legal issues surrounding school choice so you can be informed.  It’s school choice week, get educated!