School Choice Essay

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For American students sixteen years of age or younger, public school attendance has been compulsory since a Supreme Court ruling in 1925. Choice in American schools was traditionally the option of the wealthy, who could pay for private education. Private schools over the past century have enrolled about 12 percent of American students, especially within the past twenty years; choice of school has been significantly expanded in the form of vouchers, charter schools, homeschooling, and magnet schools. This entry looks at existing forms of school choice and reviews some of the comparative literature.

Types Of School Choice

At present, based on information from the Center for Educational Reform, there are about 51,000,000 students involved in K–12 schooling; the vast majority of these students are enrolled in traditional public schools. Students not attending public schools include about 5,200,000 in private schools; 2,500,000 in Catholic schools; 800,000 in charter schools; and 1,100,000 being homeschooled. The percentage of students attending private schools has been stable for the past 100 years (12–15 percent); in contrast, other forms of choice have increased, especially in the past fifteen years.

For example, since the first legislation was approved to allow charter schools in Minnesota, the number of states allowing charter schools has risen to forty-five. In the 2004–2005 school year, about 450 new charter schools opened with an enrollment of roughly 76,000 students. Importantly, choice within the public school system has also increased in the form of more than 4,000 magnet schools. Magnet schools are public theme schools (e.g., math, science, and the performing arts) that allow students from diverse neighborhoods to attend.

The type of voucher programs and charter schools offered vary tremendously from state to state. Essentially, a voucher is a subsidy that pays some, or all, of a student’s tuition to attend the private or Catholic school that a parent chooses. Eligibility for receiving vouchers varies widely, but typically low-income children in inner-city schools are the targeted recipients. Charter schools are public schools that have been approved by some form of state-level authorization. In charter schools, some regulations that other public schools face are waived (e.g., teacher certification requirements) to allow for more flexibility and experimentation. However, as Thomas Good and Jenifer Braden note, laws show tremendous variation.

Comparative Analysis

The effect of attending choice schools (voucher, charter, private, or home school), rather than traditional public schools, can be analyzed in a number of ways: Does a choice school attract better students or teachers? Do certain types of students do better in one type of school? Are some schools more efficient or economical than others? Here we limit the discussion to a comparison of the effects of instruction and student achievement.

Proponents of choice argue that the public school monopoly discourages competition or policies to encourage risk taking and experimentation. However, actual research on vouchers has been limited and hotly contested. Across extant research, there is no evidence to suggest that vouchers consistently have a positive impact on student programs or achievement. Some studies show gains, whereas others do not. In general, the research on school vouchers has been limited to small studies in a particular city; however, this research in aggregate indicates that the programs do not have the positive effects that their proponents argue. Importantly, there is an absence of data that examine how instruction varies in choice schools, and indeed, some limited evidence suggests that instruction in private and public schools is more similar than different, as Richard Rothstein and his colleagues have noted.

Although estimates vary, it is safe to conclude that more than a million students are homeschooled in America. Homeschooling has been supported by the full political spectrum, and children are homeschooled for various reasons, including the enhancement of achievement, the protection of students from their peers, and for religious training. The curriculum followed varies tremendously, and there are many Web-based resources and organizations available to parents who choose to educate children at home. Although the effects of homeschooling on children’s social development are debated, there is a small but consistent literature that suggests that, on average, homeschooled children achieve better than their peers in public schools. There is no research to describe how homeschooled students are instructed. Furthermore, evolving changes in public laws have made it increasingly easier for parents to provide school at home. The requirements that homeschooling parents must address vary from state to state. Increasingly, universities are making it easier for homeschooled children to meet university admission requirements.

Good and Braden reviewed the extant literature comparing charter and regular public schools and found wide variations in both forms of schools, but that on average, mean student performance was lower in charter schools than in traditional schools. The review noted the weakness of extant research and called for more and better research. It concluded that charter schools as a group showed little evidence of innovation, especially in the area of teaching and classroom reform. Given the absence of innovation, charter schools do not appear to be a powerful source for enhancing student achievement. Subsequent research on student achievement in charter schools has yielded even more disappointing results.

In the summer of 2004, the American Federation of Teachers published a large, comprehensive study comparing student achievement in charter and traditional public schools. This study used student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that were collected in a nationally representative sample. NAEP scores are typically considered the “gold standard” or “national report card” of educational achievement tests. This research found that students attending regular public schools had achievement levels that were a half-year higher than those in charter public schools. More favorable data on charter schools have been reported elsewhere by Caroline Hoxby. However, other researchers, including David Rogosa, have suggested that student achievement is better in traditional public schools and have directly challenged the Hoxby findings.

School choice is increasing in the United States, although the vast majority of youth continue to attend traditional public schools. Some would argue that expanded choice per se is a desirable outcome that allows more options for meeting the needs of the students. Many have claimed that choices (charter schools in particular) have led to more innovative forms of governance and parent involvement. However, the effect of choice on classroom learning and student achievement has been notably less than proponents predicted.


  1. American Federation of Teachers. (2004). Charter schools underperforming, results repeatedly delayed. Retrieved September 9, 2005, from news/AFT_charterschools.htm
  2. Center for Education Reform. (2005). Student-teacher ratio. Retrieved September 9, 2005, from ctionID=97
  3. Good, T., & Braden, J. (2000). The great school debate: Choice, vouchers, and charters. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  4. Good, T., Braden, J., & Drury, D. (2000). Charting a new course. Alexandria, VA: National School Board Association.
  5. Hoxby, C. M., & Rockoff, J. E. (2004). The impact of charter schools on student achievement. Available from
  6. Nelson, F. H., Rosenberg, B., & Van Meter, N. (2004). Charter school achievement on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers.
  7. Rogosa, D. (2003). A further examination of student progress in charter schools using the California API. Unpublished paper. Available from api/charter.pdf
  8. Rothstein, R., Carnoy, M., & Benveniste, L. (2003). Can public schools learn from private schools? Case studies in the public and private sectors. New York: Teachers College Press.
  9. Roy, J. (2005). Comparing charter schools and regular public schools: A reexamination of the Hoxby study. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.
  10. RPP International & the University of Minnesota. (1997). A national study of charter schools: First year report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.
  11. Smrekar, C., & Goldring, E. (1999). School choice in urban America: Magnet schools and the pursuit of equity. New York: Teachers College Press.

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