Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Who Chooses and Why: A Look at Five School Choice Plans

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Who Chooses and Why: A Look at Five School Choice Plans

Article excerpt

The authors' comparative look at the characteristics of choosing families and at their rationales for choosing provides generalizable evidence that will support the arguments of both supporters and critics of choice.

THE CENTRAL idea driving the concept of school choice is that parents want high-quality education for their children and are motivated to find it. With the rapid development of choice programs around the country, researchers are beginning to learn more about families who choose. We examined the first-year reports on five different choice programs to see what light they shed on these questions: Who are the choosers? Why do they choose? And how do choosers and nonchoosers differ?[1]


We reviewed the formal evaluations of three publicly funded and two privately funded choice programs. Two of the three publicly funded programs involve only public school choice -- Minnesota's Open Enrollment Option and the San Antonio Independent School District's Multilingual Program. The third publicly funded program provides vouchers for students from low-income Milwaukee families to attend private schools. The two privately funded programs, located in Indianapolis and San Antonio, allow both public and private school choice, but participating families have selected only private schools.

Minnesota's statewide cross-district program was created by the legislature in 1987. Any student who wishes may switch districts, as long as space is available in the receiving school and racial balance is maintained. By the second year of the program (1989-90) less than 1% of the student population had chosen the open enrollment option.

The San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) has offered its Multilingual Program, an intensive foreign language school-within-a-school, since the early 1980s. Students entering the seventh grade with superior academic records are eligible to apply for the program. In 1992 a total of 675 students were admitted.

In 1990 the Wisconsin legislature established a pilot program providing tuition vouchers of $2,500 for up to 980 children from low-income Milwaukee public school families to attend any private nonreligious school. The number of voucher recipients in a receiving school cannot exceed 49% of that school's total enrollment. In the first year of the program 341, or 34%, of the available vouchers were used by eligible families.

The Golden Rule Insurance Company underwrites the Indianapolis-based Educational Choice Charitable Trust scholarship program, which provides students from low-income families partial tuition payments to attend any school of their choice. The single criterion for student participation is financial need, and there are no limitations placed on receiving schools. In 1991, its first year of operation, the program enabled 774 students to attend 58 different private schools.

Several private corporations combined their resources in 1992 to create a similar private-school scholarship program for low-income families in San Antonio, the Children's Educational Opportunity (CEO) program. Half of the CEO scholarships go to students who previously attended public schools, while the remaining scholarships are awarded to financially eligible students already enrolled in private schools. In 1992, 967 students received scholarships to attend 76 private schools.


A common criticism of choice plans is that more affluent and better-educated Anglo families are more likely than others to take advantage of choice opportunities. Our review indicates that this is not always true. The racial/ethnic composition of the choosing population in each of the five choice programs is not dramatically different from the nonchoosing population. Yet the fact that heavily minority and low-income families are targeted for choice options in each location (except in Minnesota) suggests that the participation of minority and low-income families should be even higher. …

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