Jan 25, 2021

Portfolio of Choice: Defining the Choice Policy Options

Kelly Robson
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The National Center’s Portfolio of Choice series of policy briefs is designed to help states and regional centers understand six of the most common approaches to school choice: 

Charter schools are public schools governed by a charter (aka a contract) between two entities: those who run the school (typically the charter school’s board) and an authorizer (an independent entity that approves the school’s establishment and holds it accountable for academic and any other outcomes defined in its charter). Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have a charter school law in place. Nationwide, there more than 7,500 charter schools educating more than 3.3 million students.

District open enrollment policies allow students to attend a district-operated public school other than the one to which they are assigned. There are two types of open enrollment policies:

  • Intra-district open enrollment: Allows students to transfer to other public schools run by their residential district.
  • Inter-district open enrollment: Allows students to transfer to public schools run by another district.

Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have open enrollment policies in place. The data on participation in open enrollment policies, especially intra-district open enrollment, are limited. Where statewide data do exist on inter-district open enrollment, participation varies widely. In California, for example, less than one-half of one percent of public school students participate, while in Minnesota, approximately 9% of public school students participate.

Dual enrollment policies allow high school students to earn postsecondary credits through partnerships between secondary and postsecondary institutions. Dual enrollment policies operate in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Nearly 70% of all high schools nationwide offer dual enrollment programs, and, during the 2015-16 school year, approximately 8% of students participated.

Homeschooling policies enable parents to educate their children at home instead of in a traditional public or private school. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have policies in place to allow families to homeschool. These policies vary widely in terms of the requirements they place on families to report data and adhere to regulations. As a result, information on homeschooling is extremely limited. Limited existing data suggest that approximately 1.7 million students were homeschooled nationwide during the 2016-17 school year.

Private school choice programs use public funds to support families to pay partial or full tuition at private schools. There are four types of private school choice programs:

  • Vouchers: State per-pupil funds that would typically go to a public school district to educate a child are instead given to a family in the form of a voucher, which the family can use to pay tuition at participating private schools.
  • Tax credit scholarships: Businesses and individuals can receive tax credits for donations to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations. These organizations use these donations to fund student scholarships to private schools.
  • Education savings accounts (ESAs): State per-pupil funds that would typically go to a public school district to educate a child are instead placed in a government-authorized savings account. Families can use these funds to cover a range of specified education expenses, including private school tuition and fees.
  • Individual tax credits and deductions: Parents and guardians can claim tax credits or deductions for spending on approved educational expenses, including private school tuition.

There are 66 private school choice programs nationwide, with many states operating more than one program. Combined, these programs educate about 1.4 million students.

Virtual schools allow students to take their entire course load online via independent, charter, or district-sponsored programs. Statewide, fully online virtual schools exist in 33 states and the District of Columbia. As of 2018, 501 schools operating in these states educated approximately 300,000 students.

Combined, these policies enable millions of students to choose a school other than the district school to which they are assigned. However, the extent to which these policies allow equitable access to high-quality schools varies considerably. Policy design elements such as eligibility requirements or the availability of supports like transportation have a huge impact on which students can take advantage of school choice policies. The strength of accountability measures can impact the quality of the schools in which students enroll. These questions and more are discussed at length in each brief.