The Evolution of School Choice

By Pipho, Chris | Phi Delta Kappan, December 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Evolution of School Choice

Pipho, Chris, Phi Delta Kappan

SOME YEARS back, "choice" was first used to describe open enrollment of students by parents. In Minnesota it first denoted the interdistrict choice plan of Gov. Rudy Perpich, a plan that allowed parents more freedom to choose school districts in which they might find programs not offered in their home districts. Within a short time, intradistrict choice - choosing the building within a district - came into vogue.

In 1988, as these ideas were first being introduced, they were often accompanied by predictions of dire consequences for public education. In fact, some Minnesota school superintendents even took an active role in trying to block these early plans. But they soon found that, despite their efforts, charter schools and postsecondary open enrollment had been added to the mix.

The opposition generally made little headway, probably because some administrators saw the new laws and rules as an opportunity to attract more students or add new programs. After all, alternative schools in a few districts had already been using some of these same ideas. Moreover, magnet schools and even special vocational/technical schools were also using a variation on this kind of choice. By 1998, the following options had become available:

* 29 states now have laws permitting interdistrict and/or intradistrict open enrollment;

* 33 states (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) have charter school legislation, and, according to the Center for Education Reform, at least 1,100 charter schools were in operation at the beginning of this school year; and

* 21 states have some type of postsecondary open enrollment option for high school students.

The number of districts setting up variations on these programs in the absence of state mandates is unknown. And when voluntary agreements with home schools are added in, choice begins to cover a wide spectrum of activity.

Expanding Choice to Vouchers

Vouchers as first proposed by Milton Friedman, John Coons, Stephen Sugarman, and others gained considerable attention in the mid-1970s as a way of allowing funding to follow students from public schools to private and religious schools. Free-market advocates and some parochial and private school supporters saw the idea as an opportunity to get their hands on state money and relieve parents of part of the burden of paying private school tuition while they were also paying taxes to support public education. The Michigan Catholic schools supported a state initiative voucher vote in 1978, but it failed. Other votes followed: in the District of Columbia (1981), in Oregon (1990), in Colorado (1992), and in California (1993). All of them failed.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, "voucher" retained its original meaning. It was never confused with open enrollment, and it was never used to describe anything other than a certificate that could be used by parents to trigger a stated payment for tuition.

Tax credits and tax deductions came along as early as the 1950s - again with Minnesota leading the way. When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of the Minnesota tuition tax credit in 1983, some experts predicted that this movement would sweep the nation. For more than a decade, though, there was little activity. But since 1996 both the tax credits and tax deductions for private school expenses have received increasing attention. Lumping these ideas and the voucher concept under the blanket heading of choice seemed to begin in earnest in 1996, but Amendment 17, a ballot initiative in Colorado this year, combined all these concepts. Meanwhile, such national newspapers as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times have used "choice" in editorial headlines to refer to vouchers and to the private scholarship fund started by 35 business and political leaders.

A Backdoor Voucher

Amendment 17 has been described by its opponents as a "backdoor" voucher program.

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