By Makenna Graves

When deciding where to pursue higher education, recent high school graduates have many options; public, private, religious, or secular colleges and universities. They have the freedom to choose what is right for them, and many even receive funding to do so. Why can’t this choice be available for students in grades K-12? 

Martin Luther King’s niece, Alveda King, a staunch school choice advocate, once said, “The issue is not what families choose, but rather, that they be allowed and empowered to do so.”  Every child in America should have access to a good education regardless of their socio-economic background.  Parents should have the choice to decide where their children attend school, regardless of their income.  This way, they can be sure their children are receiving the best education possible. Children should have access to an education specific to their needs.

School choice originated with Milton Freidman, a widely respected economist and Nobel Prize winner in economic sciences.  Freidman proposed a “system of free choice” for education that would allow for innovation and competition in the American educational system. He advocated for school vouchers which allow parents to choose a school for their child, even if they cannot afford the tuition.  This creates more educational opportunities for children whose parents may not have the means to afford school tuition, as well as encourage competition among schools, ultimately advancing the quality of education.

Freidman’s idea of school vouchers is now implemented in 18 states, and each state implements voucher programs to best help their citizens.  Because of its efficiency, the number of students using vouchers has skyrocketed since 2004.  As a result, the value of education students are receiving has increased in value.

Some states also have voucher programs specifically for students with individualized educational plans (IEPs).  IEPs make it possible for children with special needs to learn in the way that is best for them.  For example, Mississippi has America’s only school choice program for students with dyslexia. Many students with dyslexia struggle to succeed in a traditional setting and need the option to be able to learn at their own pace. In this system, each child is able to attend a school program that meets his or her individual needs. 

Florida offers school choice for students with disabilities through the John M. McKay scholarship program. Launched in 1999, it became the first voucher program designed for children with disabilities. As of spring 2019, over 30,000 students have participated statewide.  That means over 30,000 students with disabilities who need access to an inclusive classroom have been given the option to go to a school where that is possible. When students with disabilities attend schools in classrooms where they can thrive with other students, they are more likely to succeed.

School voucher programs also allow for low-income students to have access to a better education.  46 states have adopted “public school choice” which allows parents to enroll their children in any public school within their district, or in some cases, in other districts. This system is commonly referred to as open enrollment. Open enrollment in a school district offers students access to better programs according to their unique interests and needs.  For example, if a student excels in music and there are four high schools in their district, that child may select the school with the best music program. 

Opponents of school choice will often argue that students do not benefit from school choice.  However, there is enough evidence to support the drastic improvement it has had on overall student achievement.  A study conducted by the Center for Education Reform shows that students participating in Washington DC’s Opportunity Scholarship voucher program had graduation rates 18% higher than those not participating. The same study shows that students who participate in Milwaukee’s Parental Choice program demonstrate higher learning gains in mathematics and reading compared to their peers.  The answer to the question of whether or not school choice benefits students is clearly shown in the data.

Opponents also believe school choice is detrimental to public schools.  However, school choice actually motivates public schools to improve. According to Harvard researcher Caroline Hoxby, 32 Milwaukee schools using the voucher program reported greatly improved test scores in fourth-grade mathematics— 6.3 National Percentile Rank points within a four-year period!  The healthy competition that voucher programs promote even improves a non-participating school’s curriculum and test scores.

Opponents of school choice also believe voucher programs violate the separation of church and state because their taxes help fund vouchers for religious schools. However, because parents have the freedom to decide whether their child attends a public, private or religious school, taxpayer-funded voucher programs are not in violation.

The benefits of school choice extend beyond the classroom. If a child attends a school accommodating of their needs and interests, they will be more likely to pursue career-focused opportunities. More students will be prepared for careers specific to their interests and there will be more individualized programs leading students in the correct direction.

Ultimately, the purpose of school choice is to benefit the student.  Education should not be dictated by the government, but rather be created and adjusted according to the needs of students. Today, only 18 states have school choice, but that number will continue to expand so that each child receives the best education.