Primer on School Choice

School Choice. It’s a controversial topic that is like a tsunami throughout our country. School Choice is about kindergarten through grade 12 options for education- public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling. School choice is about programs that give access to these options. School choice is about trusting parents to make the best choices for their children.

It’s an exciting age that we live in. The days of choosing between the neighborhood public school or a community’s religious school is long gone. School Choice in its broadest sense has opened the doors to a variety of options for children. Public schools have created choices within their own system. Magnet schools (public schools organized around a theme such as STEM or global studies) and even local public choice have opened the door for new opportunities. Religious schools provide a stark difference in curriculum and culture that many parents desire for their children. Technology allows for new delivery methods in traditional school settings. Technology also can also support parents’ desires to homeschooling through online academies and the like, using the home’s nurturing environment to support learning.

School choice programming supports parents’ ability to choose. Here are some of the ways states have made accessibility to school options possible (definitions from EdChoice)-

  • Vouchers (choice scholarships)- Vouchers allow students to attend private school with the government providing a set amount of tuition money directly to parents for private schools. Programs vary, but in many cases, private schools accepting voucher students are not subject to most government oversight (for example- mandatory services for students with disabilities), though they often must meet certain organizational standards (for example- accreditation).
  • Tax Credit Scholarships- Tuition tax credits can operate in different ways. One is as scholarship tax credits, which give individuals and businesses tax credits for charitable donations to private, nonprofit organizations that provide private school scholarships. Similar to vouchers, funds for these scholarships are raised and distributed in the private sector.
  • Tax Credits- individual tax credits (or deductions), which provide families with tax benefits for private school expenses, such as tuition and textbooks.
  • Education Savings Accounts- Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) offer “educational” choice, removing the requirement that public funds be applied to school enrollment. Instead, a state puts money into special savings accounts that parents manage for education expenses. These programs vary by state, but generally the funds represent all or some of what would otherwise be spent educating the child in a public school. The money can be used for qualifying expenses that may include private school tuition and fees, homeschooling materials, tutoring and test prep, homeschooling materials, therapeutic services, transportation, and more.

Why share this quick primer on school choice? Much time could be spent in defending school choice programs. In many of our states, verbal and written battles rage on the right and wrong of school choice programs. At this point, courts have supported school choice programming but challenges continue. So for the purpose of this article, let the laws speak for themselves from state to state.

But how does a Lutheran school consider the value of school choice? How does a school determine its involvement in various choice programs? What are the ramifications of such involvement? Three issues come to mind:

  • Issue of trusting parents decisions- At its roots, school choice is about parents’ ability to choose what is best for their family. One can argue about access and about value. But if one peels aways the arguments against choice, one might conclude that school choice says to parents, “We know what’s best for your child” versus “You know what’s best for your child.”  Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), when serving as the U.S. Secretary of Education in 1992, asked, ”If we trust parents to choose child care for their children, and if we trust them to help their children choose a college to attend—and both those systems have been so successful and are so widely supported– then why do we not also trust parents to choose the best elementary and high school for their children?”  Lutheran schools have long understood that education is about partnerships- home, school and church. Children are gifts to and of family. Family is the cellular part of society- not institutions. It’s the church’s and school’s responsibility to empower, educate, and support families in their God given responsibilities.
  • Issue of dependence- Lutheran schools are fiercely independent. School Choice participation may seem to be a challenge to that independence. Examining the programs and judging its impact on budgets, curriculum and community are important issues to dig into before choosing to be part of school choice. Choice may be beneficial short term but may be damaging long term. As is always the case, discernment is important.
  • Issue of mission- School choice will impact mission. Schools must determine whether the program(s) support or challenge mission. Does the program offer a unique outreach opportunity? Does the program bring stipulations that can challenge statements of faith? Will the program bring a new way to support families ability to support their school and church?

For our schools, for parents, the major subject is Jesus. Our schools are about the pure proclamation of the Gospel, the saving message of Christ and his redemptive work. It’s the biggest issue to address when it comes to a school’s decision to be involved in school choice….our schools are still all about Jesus.