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School Choice: The Bad Good
By David W. Kirkpatrick (April 10, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
In the ongoing debate over school choice in its various dimensions such as vouchers, tuition tax credits, and charter schools, a stepping back to obtain a broader overview seems to be virtually nonexistent, or at least it is rare to find such an observation. The fact of the matter is that school choice is already a reality for the overwhelming majority of students and their parents.
The largest such category consists of those choosing the public school they attend. A few years ago a survey of public school parents as to why they live where they do found a majority, about 53%, said it was so the children could attend school in the district, or even to live in the attendance area of the specific school being used. Fifty-three percent of about 50,000,000 public school students is twenty-six million.
As an aside this leads to a few pertinent considerations as well. Opponents of school choice, especially of the use of vouchers, regularly base that opposition on the view that this would permit wholesale flight from the public schools. This, of course, is actually not just a weak defense of their position but strengthens the pro-voucher view because it is saying that students, or at least huge numbers of them, are being forced to attend public schools against their will and, in the words of former National Education Association (NEA) President Keith Geiger, they can't be allowed to "escape."
Moreover it shows a lack of awareness of the public opinion poll and its implication that 26 million students are not going to go anywhere, vouchers or no, since they are already where they and/or their parents want to be. And there are perhaps at least a few million more who are happy where they are but didn't show up in the poll because they aren't where they are because they specifically moved there for that purpose but coincidentally already lived where they find the schools to be satisfactory. However, that number, whatever it may be, will not be included here because its actual size is unknown.
However, in addition to the 26 million public school students of choice, there are another 5,000,000 in the nonpublic schools and, of course, these are all there voluntarily since these schools have no power to compel attendance. Nor, not a minor consideration, do they have any power to bring in income through taxes or other mandatory payments so they have to provide at least a minimal degree of acceptance on the part of those using their services.
Then there are the homeschoolers, whose numbers have been estimated to have grown from as few as 10,000 in 1980 to as many as 2,000,000 today, a number that continues to grow each year, some have said by as much as 10-15%.
Then there are the charter schools, which have grown from none until 1992 to more than 4,200 today. They are now estimated to enroll at least 1,250,000, a number which, like nonpublic schools, continues to grow annually. And while charter schools are legally public schools they might be called hybrids because, like nonpublic schools, they have no power tax or compel attendance so they are fully schools of choice.
Then, of much less importance except to the relatively few numbers involved, there are the emerging tuition tax credit programs which exist in only a handful of states and provide scholarships to a growing but still limited number of students each year.
Then there are vouchers. Despite all the controversy they arouse, programs exist in only a few places such as Milwaukee and Cleveland, and a few states like Vermont. A recent review by the Friedman Foundation noted that, of 21 voucher programs in 13 states and the District of Columbia, nine have been enacted in the past three years. So their availability is growing.
Tax credits and vouchers combined still involve a bit less than one million students a year. Still, the total number of students exercising choice approximates 35 million. That's the good news.
The bad news? The more people who can exercise choice for themselves, or their children, the less likely they may be to actively promote school choice programs for others.
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"At every crossing on the road that leads to the future, each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand appointed to guard the past." --Maurice Maeterlinck
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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633