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A Chronology of School Choice in the U.S.

IP-3-2007 (Revised April 2012)
Author: Krista Kafer

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Executive Summary
School choice predates American nationhood. Until the mid-19th century, families chose from among a variety of autonomous schools and home schooling. Tax-funded public schools gradually displaced tuition-charging independent schools, considerably raising the price of choice. To exercise choice, a family needed to buy a home in a neighborhood with a good school, or to pay independent school tuition in addition to taxation, which supported public schools. For more than a century, few opportunities existed for middle- and low-income families.

After a slow start at the beginning of the 20th century, new options have become available in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) decision that a “child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” In other words, families have a right to guide their children’s education – the core value of school choice. Thirty years later, renowned economist Milton Friedman debuted the concept of an education ‘voucher’ as a means of providing choice to families.

Public school choice grew in the late sixties when the first magnet school opened its doors. About the same time there were setbacks for school choice. In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court set a new legal precedent for determining the constitutionality of state aid to faith-based institutions called the Lemon Test. Two years later, the Court over-turned several New York independent school aid programs, including tax and tuition reimbursements.

The following decade began with the momentous Mueller v. Allen decision, which upheld the Minnesota education tax deduction as meeting the three-part Lemon Test. The decade also saw the first inter-district school choice law, the first dual-enrollment program, the first tax credit for education expenses, and the legalization of homeschooling in most states.

During the 1990s, states across the country enacted public charter school laws, tax credits, and voucher programs. Most were upheld in state and federal court. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), the U.S. Supreme Court declared vouchers constitutional. The following year, Colorado enacted a scholarship program for low-income students. The state supreme court, however, overturned the program in a 4-3 decision.

As of April 2012, 10 states and the District of Columbia have publicly-funded scholarship programs. Parents in six states can take tax deductions or credits for independent school tuition. In eight states, individuals or corporations can receive a tax credit when they give to scholarship organizations. One state (AZ) offers scholarship savings accounts. An enterprising district in the state of Colorado (Douglas County Schools) created a pilot voucher program in 2011. If it survives its legal challenge, it will be the first district school choice program of its kind. Forty states and the District of Columbia have public charter school laws. Some states have inter-district and intra-district public school choice laws, magnet schools, or post-secondary options. Home schooling is legal in all 50 states.

Research on these programs shows parental choice in education benefits the individual, the community, and the school system. Students reap academic benefits while choice acts as an incentive for system-wide improvement. The chronology of choice is the struggle to give every child the chance to attend a good school.