School choice initiatives are based on the premise that allowing parents to choose what schools their children attend is not only the fair thing to do, but also an important strategy for improving public education. Instead of a one-size-fits-all model, choice programs offer parents various alternatives from which to pick the educational settings they believe will work best for their children. Proponents say such a system encourages individual schools to experiment with different educational approaches, letting them find those that work best for the students they serve. But the idea is also that the availability of choices creates healthy competition among schools, giving them a real incentive to improve; the most drastic outcome is that a school that cannot attract enough parents will go out of business.
Choice initiatives within the public education system may involve the creation of specialized schools that draw students from a wide geographical area, sometimes accompanied by the lifting of certain rules that have traditionally regulated schools. Magnet schools, often established as part of plans to promote racial integration, typically are based on a theme-such as technology or classical studies-and enroll children from throughout a school district. Such schools are an example of intradistrict choice-choice within a particular district. Interdistrict-transfer programs let parents enroll their children in other districts in their state. School choice programs within a state or district may also be referred to as "open enrollment."
Charter schools, an increasingly popular form of choice, are publicly financed but largely independent schools. They generally are created around a specific teaching philosophy, subject area, or other special emphasis and attract students throughout a district who want an alternative to the regular public schools.
Not everyone who supports one form of school choice supports all approaches. The most controversial form of choice is tuition vouchers that allow students to attend private schools at public expense. Many supporters of charter schools, magnet schools, and other options within the public system staunchly oppose vouchers. They argue that such aid is unconstitutional if it goes to religious schools, and that the money would be better spent on public schools. Proponents of vouchers argue that true choice includes private schools.
Types of School Choice
Districtwide or intra-district
Parents choose schools within their home district, whichcould magnet schools or charter schools.
In Portland Public, they have a magnet program.
Lincoln - Foregin Languages
Cleveland - Business
Jefferson - Performing Arts
Benson - Technology
Madison - Environment
Statewide or Intra-district
A student can attend a school outside their home district.
This has been done in Minnesota.
Private School Choice
"Vouchers" permit public funds to be used to send children to private schools
The basic concept of a charter is simple: Allow a group of teachers or other would-be educators to apply for permission from their local education authority to open a school, operating with taxpayer dollars, just like a
public school. The difference? Free them from the rules and regulations that charter school supporters say can cripple learning and stifle innovation.
These schools generally operate under a "charter" or contract with the local school board or the state or, in some cases, universities. In exchange for exemption from most state and local regulations, the schools must educate students to an agreed standard, and must prove their success to win a renewal of the charter.
Perhaps more important than the numbers are the types of learning environments beingcultivated within these schools. The Education Department research suggests that small school size appears to be a principal reason for the high demand for charter schools. Smaller classes afford teachers the space to be more creative with curriculum and the time to provide more individualized instruction. Some charter schools have been founded with a particular
type of student in mind. Whether for the arts-oriented or the at-risk, these schools are frequently designed to serve students who are otherwise underserved by the traditional public school system.
Few issues in education are as hotly debated as vouchers-taxpayer-financed tuition aid that parents can use to send their children to private schools. Advocates of the idea generally make a two-fold argument: Such aid serves the cause of equity by enabling lower-income children, just like their better-off peers, to escape troubled public schools;
and it creates competition that will spur public education to improve. Voucher proponents often describe the public system as a monopoly that ill-serves its most vulnerable clients.
Opponents of vouchers argue that such programs jeopardize the long-standing ideal of offering every child equal access to high-quality public schooling. Vouchers treat learning like a commodity, they say, rather than a public good, and the free market doesn't always work in the interest of the consumer. At best, they say, vouchers are a "lifeboat" solution that helps a few lucky children while keeping the rest in a public system with depleted resources.
Increasingly, voucher foes are also raising issues of school accountability, contending that allowing private schools to take public money with little oversight opens the door to mismanagement and even corruption. The biggest question in the voucher debate is whether the initiatives create unconstitutional entanglements between church and state. Some believe such programs violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on a government establishment of religion
by allowing participating students to use the vouchers to attend religious schools-most typically, Roman Catholic ones. But others say the programs pass constitutional muster because the choice of school is made by individual parents, in much the same way that student financial aid may be used at religiously affiliated colleges.
The debate over vouchers is usually portrayed as one in which conservatives support the idea and liberals oppose it. But it's sometimes hard to predict who will favor such programs. For example, although the NAACP staunchly opposes vouchers, a handful of African-American leaders-such as the Rev. Floyd Flake, a former Democratic
member of Congress from New York-are among their most ardent supporters. Recent polls suggest that 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans favor the idea, with African-Americans posting higher levels of support than the public overall.
Vouchers are embroiled in controversy. Some choice supporters feel that nothing less than a voucher system will allow parents genuine freedom in choosing their children's school. But opponents argue that vouchers would subsidize the wealthy while siphoning money away from the public schools. Critics suspect that vouchers would produce a large underclass of students--including many of those with special education requirements--trapped in a system without enough resources to meet their needs.
One of the voucher supporters' most compelling arguments is that parents whose children are now condemned to attend academically inferior and physically dangerous inner-city schools should be given whatever tools they need to enable them to send their children elsewhere. And further, the voucher proposal raises interesting questions about the separation of church and state. Most nonpublic schools in America right now are run by religious organizations. Is it even constitutional for tax money to flow to religious schools?