A School Choice Primer, Part I
A School Choice Primer, Part III

A School Choice Primer, Part II

Choice rally

In the first part of this three-part primer on school choice, I explained the basic philosophy that education dollars should generally follow students to the schools of their families' choices instead of flowing directly to a network of government owned and operated schools that essentially functions as a monopoly on educational delivery for most families. I supported school choice based on three basic arguments: that school choice has the potential to improve education effectiveness, that it is fairer to low-income families, and that it is more consistent with the way we provide other highly-personalized public services.

In this post I'd like to explore the variety of school choice policies and discuss what they might look like in Kentucky's context. I'd also refer readers to a new resource from the Education Commission of the States called A School Choice Glossary that describes some of these policies as they are enacted in various states.

What are the various policy approaches for providing school choice?

School choice policies take about five basic forms: charter schools, vouchers, education savings accounts, tuition scholarship tax credits, and open district enrollment.

Charter schools. A charter school is a school that is usually run independently from the local school district. They are usually managed by a non-profit entity (87% of charter schools nationwide are run by a non-profit operator). Some of these operators are large chains of schools like the highly-regarded Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network. Others are stand-alone schools started by neighborhood groups, parents, or teachers. Currently 43 states and the District of Columbia have some form of charter schools.

Charter schools may not charge tuition, and must be open to all students who wish to attend from within boundaries established under the various state charter laws. Usually, if the number of applicants to attend a charter school exceeds its enrollment capacity, a lottery system is used to accept new students as openings become available. Because they are independent, charter schools are freed from many of the onerous regulations, labor contracts, and oversight of normal district schools. This allows charter schools a high level of flexibility in meeting student needs, and allows them to offer innovative approaches to curriculum, scheduling, and instructional methods.

In exchange for their autonomy, charter schools face a heightened level of accountability in that, if they fail to meet the performance goals laid out in the contract (charter) that governs the school, they can be shut down. Additionally, some state laws have closure provisions that dictate certain levels of improvement or continuous achievement for all charters, regardless of the details of their individual charter.

When a student enrolls in a charter school, some portion of education dollars follows the student to that school. The amount differs from state to state. At a minimum, the state per pupil spending allocation typically follows the student, along with any federal funds that would apply to the child. Locally-generated education tax dollars may or may not follow. Transportation and facilities funding sometimes applies, but this is more rare. Usually, charter schools operate at a lower per pupil funding rate than traditional schools, creating operational challenges. In a recent post I described my visit to two Nashville charter schools. In Tennessee, only about two-thirds of the per pupil funds received by district schools follows students to a charter school. The rest must be generated through fundraising since tuition cannot be charged.

Charter school legislation has been passed by the Republican-controlled Kentucky Senate for several consecutive years only to be immediately stopped in the Democrat-majority House of Representatives. But with the GOP takeover of the House in November 2016, a charter bill is expected to be adopted and signed by Governor Bevin this year. At the time of this writing, two charter bills have been introduced but neither is expected to generate widespread support within the majority caucus. The Republican leadership of the House and Senate are expected to introduce another bill any day now. Update: In March 2017 the General Assembly adopted Kentucky's first charter school law, making local schools districts and (if they wish to do so) the mayors of Lexington and Louisville sole authorizors.

Vouchers. The first modern voucher plan was enacted in Milwaukee in 1989 and today 13 states and the District Columbia provide voucher plans to eligible students. Typically, a voucher is a publicly-funded scholarship of a fixed amount that an eligible student's family may apply toward private school tuition. Student eligibility varies across states, but usually applies to low-income families or students with disabilities. Some voucher plans apply to students who would otherwise be assigned to a persistently-low achieving school.

The amount of the voucher may or may not cover the entire cost of tuition at a private school. Families may make up the difference with their own funds or through other, private scholarship sources. States vary in terms of the kinds of accountability measures schools must meet to be eligible for participation. Some critics of vouchers contend that public money should never flow to faith-based schools. I'll say more about this later when I discuss issues of "church and state separation," but will just briefly say that in the 2002 case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Cleveland voucher plan (which is fairly typical in how voucher plans work) does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. However, some state constitutions are more explicit in their prohibitions about public funds and religious schools, making vouchers legally problematic in those jurisdictions. Kentucky is one of those states.

Education savings accounts. Sometimes abbreviated ESA's, an education savings account functions similarly to a voucher, but is more directly in control of parents, who may use a fix amount of public dollars placed in the account for educational expenses including private school tuition, tutoring or therapeutic services, or sometimes homeschooling expenses. Five states have some form of ESA's now, and usually students are eligible based on income or disability. Nevada, however, has adopted the nation's most sweeping ESA, permitting any family who transfers their child from their assigned public school to use an ESA for obtaining educational services regardless of income or other eligibility requirement. Like vouchers, ESA's appear to be legal under the U.S. Constitution but may not pass constitutional muster in some states.

Tuition scholarship tax credits. This approach to school choice differs from those previously described in that it relies primarily on private donations to fund scholarships that eligible students may apply toward private school tuition. Currently 14 states provide such credits, which incentivize personal or corporate donations to various tuition-support programs. Normally, a donor to charity may only count some portion of the donation as a deduction on income taxes. A tax credit gives a dollar-for-dollar credit, up to an amount established in state law, off the donor's total tax liability. In some states the credit is worth up to 100% of the amount of the donation. However, credits are typically non-refundable meaning that a donor could not actually get a tax refund based on the donation.

Critics still charge that by lowering taxes for donors to such programs money is "drained" from state coffers that would otherwise be there (I'll discuss the impact of school choice on public finance later), but scholarship tax credits tend to enjoy more bipartisan support than vouchers because they do not rely on the direct transfer of public funds to non-public schools and avoid the stickier issues of church-state separation (Update: research suggests that scholarship tax credits have a fiscally neutral or even positive impact by lowering overall education costs to the state when students when students switch to private schools) . At least that has been the case in Kentucky where such legislation has been introduced with bipartisan sponsorship for the last two years. This year's bill is HB 162/SB 102 and is expected to receive a hearing in the House later this month. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of directors for EdChoice Kentucky, a citizens group that is actively supporting this measure in the Kentucky General Assembly). Update: Scholarship tax credits were not passed during the 2017 General Assembly but have been reintroduced as proposed legislation in the 2018 session.

Open district enrollment. Sometimes called inter-district transfer, this is the idea that students should be able to attend any public school, within or outside their assigned district, and state education dollars should follow them to their schools of choice. Currently Kentucky allows school districts to negotiate voluntary agreements for such transfers, but open enrollment would establish a statewide policy. Fourteen states currently have such systems of "mandatory" open enrollment.

In his comments to the Kentucky Board of Education today, Secretary of Education and Workforce Development Hal Heiner called on policy-makers to adopt such an approach. Our current system of negotiated agreements gives too much power to districts that want to restrict the opportunity for students to attend school elsewhere, all so that they can hold on to the state education dollars assigned to those children. No legislation creating open enrollment has been filed at this point but the state board agreed to continue its discussions on the matter.

Each of the school choice policies described above differs in its structure and can vary widely from state to state. There is plenty to debate about how specific policies ought to be implemented in Kentucky. But all of these approaches - in so far as they can be supported under the state constitution - are worthy of consideration as mechanisms for expanding education options, especially for our most vulnerable families.

In my next post I'll address some of the most frequently asked questions (and criticisms) of school choice, including its impact on traditional public schools, student achievement, issues of church and state separation, and more.

Image: Over 500 people attended the School Choice Week Rally in Frankfort on January 27, 2017.

Usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are mine alone and do not reflect the views of Western Kentucky University (my employer) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

Other posts in this series:


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