Parental Choice FAQ

Parental Choice Frequently Asked Questions

What is parental choice?

Parental choice is a means of K-12 education reform that favors public policy that allows parents, particularly those in low-income families, to choose the education that they believe is best for their children.

Why should parents be able to access public funding to send their children to private schools?

In reality, all families in America enjoy the freedom of parental choice – except for low-income families.  Those families with the greatest means are able to choose from the most well-regarded private school options in their area.  Most middle class families select their place of residence based primarily on the quality of the local public school, and many of these families are able to access quality private schools.  Low-income families, however, are forced to send their children to schools that are historically ranked among the worst in the nation, and they are granted no access to better educational options.

Doesn’t this violate the separation of church and state?

The Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2004 that school choice programs are constitutional.  The provision of federal or state funding to faith-based organizations is a firmly established practice.  For example, Catholic colleges and universities receive millions in federal and state funding every year, and programs like the Pell Grants represent a version of parental choice in higher education.  In this case, federal funding provides lower-income parents the opportunity to choose faith-based or other private colleges or universities for their children.

How does parental choice work?

There are two mechanisms by which the government can allow parents to choose educational options for their children: direct scholarships and tax credit programs.

  • Direct scholarships: Sometimes called “vouchers,” these are direct scholarship programs in which the state (or, in the case of DC, federal) government allows for public funding to be allocated directly to families in need to be used for school tuition expenses.
  • Tax credit programs:  These are indirect scholarship programs in which individual or corporate taxpayers are allowed to make contributions to a qualified scholarship organization.  These contributions are then credited towards the individual’s (or corporation’s) state tax liability.  The funds are disbursed directly to schools in amounts that depend on the number of low-income families enrolled at each school.

Where are there parental choice programs in operation?

  • Direct scholarship programs exist in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Arizona, Washington, DC, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, and Utah.
  • Tax credit programs are up and running in Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, Iowa, Rhode Island, and Georgia
  • Legislation is pending in more than 40 states, with strong prospects for new programs in New Jersey, Indiana, Louisiana, and Georgia.

Does parental choice affect public schools?

Yes – it seems to improve them.  In fact, 16 of 17 independent research studies indicate that achievement in public schools improves when parental choice programs are offered (Forster, 2009).  A study of the Milwaukee school system found that public schools that faced the most competition from the Milwaukee scholarship program saw their students’ math scores improve by 7.1 percentile points (Hoxby, 2001).


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