The how and why of school choice

Examining the pros and cons of various school-choice methods

By Geoffrey Lawrence
  • Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The data is in. The studies are conclusive. Their evidence is incontrovertible.

School choice unambiguously leads to higher student achievement.

This result has been replicated in every location that has implemented a school-choice program over the past 20 years. Beginning with the nation's first Parental Choice Program in inner-city Milwaukee, but continuing on to Cleveland, Washington, D.C., the state of Florida and elsewhere, jurisdictions that have allowed families to choose their children's schools have seen those families leave failing schools and embrace better options for their children. As a result, those children have achieved more — graduating at higher rates, going on to college and gaining a greater chance for success in life.

These gains in student achievement have been particularly pronounced among students from low-income and minority families, as these are the families most likely to be zoned into failing schools by their local monopoly school district. Consequently, these students are precisely those who have the most to gain from school-choice programs.

It's not just those who opt to attend private schools who perform better in the presence of choice, however. The record shows that, when more options become available, and existing public schools recognize they may lose students to these new options, public schools consistently elevate their own performance in order to remain competitive. Six different empirical studies have examined the impact of choice on student performance in Milwaukee's public schools, and all six have concluded that choice has led to improved performance even for those that elect to remain within the existing public schools.

The success of school choice has been recognized by researchers from a variety of backgrounds — including those from free-market think tanks, left-of-center think tanks and the U.S. government. Even though some researchers have quibbled over methodology or assumptions, virtually all confirm that school choice elevates student outcomes.

With such widespread agreement, it's no wonder that more and more locations are implementing choice programs. In 2011 alone, 13 different states enacted or expanded school-choice programs, and the pace of reform is only accelerating. Already this year, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Virginia and Pennsylvania have enacted sweeping school-choice legislation.

The pace of change is quickening, leaving families in the Silver State wondering when they, too, might be allowed to join the school-choice revolution. Senior advisors to Gov. Brian Sandoval have indicated he'll pursue that objective in the upcoming 2013 Legislature.

Not all school-choice programs are the same, however, and Sandoval and other advocates of choice should take note of the essential differences.

Vouchers are perhaps the most controversial of these options for a number of reasons. First, several states — Nevada included — have constitutional prohibitions against state funds going to a "sectarian purpose." While providing a voucher that a parent may use at a religious school goes to a state purpose — public education — opponents of educational freedom frequently rush to declare the entire program a violation of this constitutional provision. Amending the state's constitution to allow open use of vouchers and prevent frivolous court challenges, as was proposed during the 2011 legislative session, would require legislative approval in consecutive sessions plus approval by the general electorate. In other words, it's a process that would take several years to complete.

Second, vouchers have rightly been criticized by observers who worry that, because these are direct grants of state money, lawmakers will attach onerous conditions to any private school that accepts them. This could undermine the independence and integrity of private education. Indeed, the Cato Institute's Andrew Coulson has found that vouchers do result in a substantially higher regulatory burden on participating schools.

That's not the case, however, with tuition tax-credit programs. These programs allow individuals or corporations to donate into scholarship accounts and receive, for their donation, a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. The scholarships, in turn, are awarded to students who wish to attend a private school, often with higher priority given to those from low-income families or for students with disabilities.

These scholarship programs are managed by non-profits established for this purpose — meaning the moneys do not pass through official state accounts and, hence, cannot be stifled or shortchanged by meddling politicians. They also would face no constitutional barriers and, hence, could be implemented immediately.

The Nevada Policy Research Institute has already designed one such program for the Silver State, which can be found on its website. In fact, the accompanying econometric analysis shows that the program could save Nevada taxpayers around $1 billion over its first 10 years of operation while also granting the state's students better opportunities for success in life.

A third option for school choice is through educational savings accounts.  First launched in Arizona in 2011, this type of program allows parents to withdraw their child from public schools and receive a portion of the state funding that otherwise would have been allocated to the school district on the child's behalf.  This money is deposited into a dedicated account to be used for private school tuition, private tutoring, virtual education programs or even future college expenses.

Like tuition tax credits, educational savings accounts could be implemented immediately in Nevada and would avoid the heap of new private-school regulation that frequently accompanies voucher programs.

Whichever path is chosen, however, one truth is clear: Nevada's children deserve the best educational options, and these should be delivered as soon as possible.

Geoffrey Lawrence is deputy director of policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit

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