School Choice                                                         

Choice in education refers to the right of parents, based on their personal assessment of what is best for their child, to select any public, private, or home school for their child, and for private and parochial school students, the right to education funded by tax dollars, tax credits, tax deductions, tuition waivers, grants or other means.

The Educational Establishment

Choice in education is strongly opposed by both the National Education Association and all of its state-based counterparts, including the Idaho Education Association.  These teacher unions perceive choice in education as a threat.  In actuality, choice in education improves education by:

  • Free market competition.  Permitting parents to select schools which they believe will best accomplish their academic goals for the children, and allowing educational money to follow the child rather than remaining in an ineffective school, puts pressure on the school to remove bad teachers, eliminate avant-garde teaching methods and curricula, and use proven methods of accomplishing academic excellence.
  • Financial security and tenure.  Choice in education focuses on the real issue of student achievement.  If a school continues to produce poor results with its students, the school will soon have no students and the non-producing teachers will be out of their jobs.
  • Centralized control.  Choice in education returns a significant amount of power to the local level where public schools must either respond to parental demands for academic excellence or face the reality that even poor children will no longer be a captive audience.

Questions About Choice In Education

  •  Will choice in education increase the cost of education for the taxpayer?

The national cost for private education, per pupil, is significantly less than the per pupil cost for public education.  Current real-dollar spending, adjusted for inflation, has increased an average 30 percent per year in public schools, grades K-12, while public school academic achievement has continued to decline.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national average cost per public school pupil is $6,857 per year.   The majority of nongovernment schools, which far exceed the public schools academically, cost less per student per year with additional discounted tuition and tuition waivers for multiple children from the same family.   In many cases, private religious schools are subsidied, which holds down the tuition costs.

  • Will choice in education destroy the one key factor (public schools) which made America the great melting pot?

Even assuming the premise implied by the question, public education as a unifying factor which is molding a strong nation is almost dead.  Instead, any public schools have become places of violence, drugs, crime, immorality, political correctness, intimidation, and fear rather than seed-beds for training a strong, cohesive, patriotic citizenry.  Choice in education lets parents pursue the American dream of getting out of poverty and blending in to the American success story.

  • Will choice remove all of the good students from the public schools and leave only the bad students?

This will happen only if public schools refuse to change or improve when faced with declining student populations.  Surveys indicate that most parents would prefer to leave their children in a neighborhood public school if they felt it was doing a good job.  Choice in education would provide the needed impetus for public schools to improve, and would give good reason for parents to leave their children in such schools.

  •  Will choice in education harm special-needs children?

Choice actually expands the options for special-needs children by granting them access to programs specifically tailored for their special need.

  • Isn’t the general public opposed to school choice?

Every national poll has indicated that the general public favors school choice.  Both the Business Week/Harris and Gallup polls have registered 69 percent to 85 percent positive public responses to school choice, even when parochial schools were included as part of the question.

Legal Issues

The primary legal objection raised against full school choice is that it might violate the separation of church and state.  The response to that objection revolves around the funding mechanisms proposed.

  • First, the funding mechanism does not have to be designed in such a way that it violates the church/state dichotomy.  In three separate cases decided y the United States Supreme Court, the Court upheld the foundational principals of school choice.

In Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, the Court held that government programs which neutrally provide benefits to a broad class of citizens defined without reference to religion are not readily subject to an Establishment Clause challenge just because sectarian instituitions may also receive an attenuated financial benefit.

Mueller v. Allen upheld the constitutionality of tax credits for education expenses even though 90 percent of the funds went to parents whose children attended sectarian schools.

 Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind upheld the right of Washington to give financial assistance to a blind student studying for the pastoral ministry, since any money which went to the school did so “only as a result of the genuinely independent and private choices of aid recipients.”

On June 28, 2000, in Mitchell v, Helms, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its sixth consecutive decision upholding aid for students in religious schools or involved in religious activities.  The Court ruled that the state of Louisiana had not violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution by providing computers and other materials to students in Catholic and other religious schools on Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.  The Court explicitly overturned two adverse past precedents that prohibited the same kind of equipment materials provision to religious schools (Meck v. Pittenger) and (Wolman v Walter).  The Court held that any neutral program that treats public and religious schools in an evenhanded manner would be found constitutional.

  • Second, taxpayer funds have been used for years to pay for education at religious preschools, colleges and universities through the Act for Better Childcare, the GI Bill, and Pell Grants.  Most states already provide state grants to students attending private colleges, including sectarian colleges.  School choice is merely an extension of this practice to grades K-12.
  • Third, constitutional legal scholars agree that properly drafted school-choice legislation is not in violation of the three-pronged Lemon v. Kurtzman test which is used to test the constitutionality of Establishment Clause questions.

School Choice and Accountability

A number of successful, privately funded school choice plans have been implemented across the United States, demonstrating that the objections to the concept of school choice are not rationally based.

Ultimately, “the best mechanism for accountability is the marketplace, monitored and controlled by consumers acting in their own self-interest.”  The key to introducing a successful school-choice plan is careful drafting to avoid legal issues, a massive public information campaign to overcome the educational bureaucracy opposition, and the inclusion of mechanisms which effectively make local teachers and administrators accountable to local parents.

Compiled by the Alabama Policy Institute.

Prepared by Cornerstone Family Council, a non-profit, non-partisan research and education organization.  Nothing contained herein should be construed as an effort to aid or hinder any legislation.