What School Choice Is and How it Works

Most parents send their children to their neighborhood public school. But other education options exist, including public charter, magnet, private, parochial and online schools, as well as homeschooling.

Advocates use the term “school choice” to refer to programs and policies that let families use public money to access schools beyond their local option, including private schools. “At its core, school choice is really about parents and guardians having the ability to choose, regardless of how those options are funded,” says Amy Smith, interim dean of the school of education at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

Currently 32 states plus Washington, D.C., offer some type of school choice program, according to EdChoice, a nonprofit that advocates for school choice. Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice, says the last two years saw more states than ever before enacting educational choice programs.

Here’s a breakdown of what school choice entails and how it works.

What Is School Choice?

The idea behind school choice, advocates say, is to give all parents the ability to choose whichever school or learning environment best meets their child’s needs, regardless of whether it’s public or private. In some cases, taxpayer funds for education “follow the child” in the form of vouchers or savings accounts that can be used toward schools that require tuition.

[READ: How to Find the Right K-12 School for Your Child.]

“Proponents of school choice policies argue that they give parents more freedom, equalize access to school quality and create incentives for public school systems to improve their performance,” says Martin West, academic dean and professor of education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education in Massachusetts.

However, critics of school choice argue public funds should be reserved for schools that serve and accommodate all students. When it comes to private education vouchers, “so-called school choice is really the schools’ choice,” says Jessica Levin, deputy litigation director at the Education Law Center and director of Public Funds Public Schools. Meaning, private schools can choose to reject students, unlike local public schools which are required by law to accept every student in their district.

“States with voucher programs usually permit participating private schools to discriminate based on disability, religion, LGBTQ+ status, English proficiency and other factors that public schools could never use to exclude or discipline students,” says Levin.

Levin says PFPS opposes all forms of what they consider private school vouchers, including education savings accounts, tax credit scholarships and other diversions of public funds to private education.

Factors Affecting School Choice

How much school choice is available to parents varies widely, experts say.

Some states offer school choice programs, like Education Savings Accounts, to all parents, while in other states programs are limited to low-income families or students with special needs. And some states have no private school choice programs at all.

[READ: How to Get Private School Financial Aid.]

Diane Hirshberg, director and professor of education policy at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of AlaskaAnchorage says access to choice options within public school districts “varies considerably by the size of school districts, density of population as well as by local policies and laws.”

Parents may be constrained by a lack of transportation to alternate schools, she notes. And vouchers aren’t very helpful in rural communities where private schools are few and far between.

“The idea that vouchers enhance parent choice does not account for differences in socioeconomic circumstances which may constrain a family’s ability to take advantage of these or the limitations for rural and remote places,” says Hirshberg.

Types of School Choice: Private Options

The most common forms of private school choice are Education Savings Accounts, vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. EdChoice is currently tracking over 125 bills related to private school choice in 41 states, the majority of which deal with ESAs. Here’s how these programs work:

Education Savings Accounts

In these programs, eligible parents who withdraw their child from public school get a deposit of state funds into a savings account, or ESA, which they can use for educational expenses. ESAs can be used to pay private school tuition and fees, but unlike other school choice programs they can be used for other qualified expenses, like online learning programs or tutoring. In some states, like Arizona, leftover funds can even be used for higher education.

“Education savings accounts differ from vouchers in that parents receive funds that can be used for any approved educational purpose, as opposed to only being used for private school tuition,” says West. In some states, ESAs can also be used to support homeschooling, such as by covering the cost of supplies.

Eleven states currently have ESA policies, according to EdChoice, including four states (Arkansas, Florida, Iowa and Utah) that have created new programs with universal eligibility in 2023. In some states, programs are limited to students from families with incomes below a certain threshold, or to students who have special needs.


Voucher programs are typically geared toward low-income families, and allow parents to use public education funding to pay tuition (in part or in full) at a private school that they would otherwise not be able to afford. This includes both religious and non-religious schools. Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C. currently offer voucher programs, according to EdChoice. The income restrictions also vary by state and program (some states have multiple voucher programs).

[READ: Private School vs. Public School.]

Tax-Credit Scholarships

These programs offer full or partial tax credits to individuals or corporations who donate to nonprofit scholarship funds. Eligible families (usually low- or middle-income) looking for help paying private school tuition can apply for these scholarships through the scholarship-granting organization in their state.

Public Options

While school choice often refers to programs that use public funds to pay for private schools, parents do have other school choice options within the public system that are tuition-free. These include:

Charter Schools

Charter schools are independently run, free public schools. Because they are not part of traditional school districts, they have more flexibility to tailor their educational approach. Admission is generally by lottery.

The majority of states and Washington, D.C. allow charters, but they are more prevalent in some areas than others. About 7% of all public school students attend charters, according to the federal National Center for Education Statistics.

Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are also free public schools that draw students from different areas. They are subject to the same regulations as other public schools within the district where they operate. They typically offer a specialized curricula and focus on a particular area of study, like STEM or the performing arts.

Some magnet schools have competitive admissions, while others use a lottery system.

Inter/Intra-District Public School Choice

Also known as open enrollment, this option lets families choose traditional public schools other than their assigned school. Intra-district choice lets families choose from public schools within their assigned district, whereas inter-district choice lets families send their kids to any public school in their resident state or a defined region. However, enrollment preference is typically given first to students already within the assigned district lines.

More from U.S. News

Magnet Schools vs. Charter Schools: Differences Explained

Is a ‘Lab School’ Right for Your Child?

Applying to Private Schools: A Guide for K-12 Families

What School Choice Is and How it Works originally appeared on usnews.com

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