Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review

What Do America's "Traditional" Forms of School Choice Teach Us about School Choice Reforms?

Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bank of New York Economic Policy Review

What Do America's "Traditional" Forms of School Choice Teach Us about School Choice Reforms?

Article excerpt

The majority of U.S. states are currently considering or have recently passed reforms that increase the ease with which parents can choose a school for their children (Tucker and Lauber 1995). At first view, these reforms seem to take elementary and secondary education into wholly unknown territory. Yet this view neglects the fact that choices made by American parents have traditionally been an important force in determining the education their children receive. Parents' ability to choose among fiscally independent public school districts (through residential decisions) and to choose private schools (by paying tuition) is such an established feature of American education that it is almost taken for granted. Yet, through these choices, American parents exercise more control over their children's schooling than do many of their European counterparts. Of course, American parents are not all equally able to exercise choice. High-income parents routinely exercise more choice because they have more school districts and private schools within their choice sets. In addition, there is significant variation in the degree of choice across different areas of the country. Some metropolitan areas, for instance, contain many independent school districts and/or a number of private schools. Other metropolitan areas are completely monopolized by one school district or have almost no private schooling.

The purpose of this paper is to answer three related questions. First, what general facts can we learn by examining the traditional forms of school choice in the United States? In particular, we need to understand the general relationship between school choice and five factors: (1) student achievement, (2) student segregation (along lines of ability, income, and taste for education, as well as race and ethnicity),(1) (3) school efficiency, (4) teachers' salaries and teacher unionism, and (5) the degree to which parents are involved in and influence their children's schools. Second, how do the general facts that we garner from traditional school choice carry over to analyses of reforms such as charter schools, vouchers for private schools, and open enrollment programs? Third, what information do we still need if we are to predict accurately the effects of reforms? And, what empirical strategies might we pursue to get such information?

For evidence, I draw upon previous empirical work contained in several studies.(2) Although I briefly sketch the empirical strategy of these studies, this paper does not attempt to present the results in detail. Rather, the goal is to summarize the results and discuss their implications for school choice reforms.


There are two basic forms of school choice in the United States. The first is choice among public school districts that have a substantial degree of fiscal and administrative autonomy. The second is choice between public and private schools. In this section, I take each in turn. Later, I briefly discuss intradistrict choice--a scheme that contains some characteristics of the two basic forms of choice.


Households choose among public school districts by selecting a residence. The degree to which households can exercise this form of choice depends heavily on the number, size, and residence patterns of the school districts in the area centered around their jobs. Some metropolitan areas in the United States have many small school districts with reasonably comparable characteristics. Boston, for instance, has seventy school districts within a thirty-minute commute of the downtown area and many more within a forty-five-minute commute. Miami, on the other hand, has only one school district (Dade County) that covers the entire metropolitan area. People with jobs in rural areas typically have only one or a few alternative school districts to choose from.

This form of choice (among public school districts) has several important properties. …

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