School Choice: Introduction

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This is the introduction segment from Fears versus facts about school choice: An overview of issues surrounding the effects of competition on public education

By John Garen, Ph.D.

view and download the PDF version of this report here



Kentuckians and most Americans routinely express concern about public-school systems. Even though many good public primary and secondary schools exist, clouds of worry hang over public education.

One cause for this anxiety is the seeming lack of improvement in public schools despite increased resources, legislative action and government initiatives. Another is the continued lagging performance of schools primarily serving the poor and minorities. A third is frustration with the confusion caused by testing and accountability measures.

These concerns come with strong basis in fact. As discussed below, the past several decades have witnessed a large increase in resources devoted to public schools but virtually no improved performance to show for it. Also, many governmental initiatives, such as the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) of 1990, have shown little success.

Fortunately, legislative action in some states holds great promise for better-performing schools by offering school choice to families.

Most American families send students to the neighborhood public school assigned to them by the district. “Choice” only comes through a family’s decision as to where they will live. Real-estate agents frequently attest to the importance of this by the questions buyers with children ask about the quality of schools serving a neighborhood or municipality.

However, for many, the necessity of moving to areas with better schools represents a cumbersome and difficult way to exercise choice among schools.

School-choice programs such as charter schools and voucher programs offer the potential for much wider and less burdensome options. This report focuses on these alternatives.

School-choice reform brings competition and market-based incentives into primary and secondary education. Americans rely heavily on free and competitive markets for most goods and services and it generally works quite well. But education leaders and lawmakers balk at allowing them to work in public schools.

The considerable dissatisfaction with public schools warrants adopting this alternative approach. Many states already have moved in this direction; unfortunately, Kentucky has not.

Establishing charter schools would represent an important step toward embracing a system with market incentives. Charter schools are elementary and secondary schools that are publicly funded but operate without many of the regulations that can limit the effectiveness of traditional public schools. Charter schools are founded by different entities, including teachers, parents and universities.

Charter schools allow any qualifying student (qualifications are established in legislation creating the policy) to enroll. The public funding for the student gets credited to the charter school. Thus, parents dissatisfied with a neighborhood school can apply to the charter school. The charter school succeeds only if it attracts, and retains, enough students.

Another important step toward embracing market-based schooling involves the use of vouchers. Vouchers award money for school to qualifying families (again, qualifications are established in legislation creating the policy) for each student, and that money can be spent at the school of their choice – public or private. If a parent chooses a school that costs more than the voucher they get, they must pay the difference.

Schools succeed by satisfying voluntary buyers (in these cases, parents), which provides a strong incentive to produce a quality product. Also, the public schools must compete with charter schools and voucher options in order to satisfy families. This provides incentive for traditional public schools to improve.

Current evidence indicates that charter schools and voucher systems have become increasingly common, enroll diverse student populations, encourage better performances from nearby traditional public schools, often open up and provide schools in response to parents’ demands and show positive academic outcomes.

More from Fears Versus Facts About School Choice

You can read more from Fears versus facts about school choice: An overview of issues surrounding the effects of competition on public education in the pages below.