For many years, states and the federal government have been creating a range of schooling options for students, and the focus of the new administration on expanding choice is likely to accelerate this trend. Although the term “choice” is often associated with privately governed charter schools or private school voucher proposals, the vast majority of schools of choice are operated by public school districts.
Expansions of choice have produced many positive opportunities for children, but evidence shows that simply providing choices does not automatically provide high-quality options that are accessible to all students or improve student learning. This report examines the status of current educational options for U.S. students and what state policymakers can do to create high-quality opportunities that offer each family a system of schools worth choosing.
The analysis starts from the assumption that school choice policy is a means to an end and not an end itself. The goals of our education system include improving student learning opportunities, strengthening educational attainment, providing alternatives that fit student needs, and integrating our diverse citizenry, while preparing young people for their civic roles in a democracy. The report describes the range of high-quality education options within the public sector and considerations for policymakers as they seek to expand those options. It also lists considerations for policymakers when looking at ways to support private school options that ensure good student outcomes, appropriate uses of fund, and democratic goals.
Public School Options
To support high-quality neighborhood schools, policymakers can:
- Attend to community needs in planning for new schools and existing schools.
- Create processes for assessing and improving quality for schools that may be lagging, from school quality reviews that diagnose needs to investments in leadership and staffing, professional development, curriculum, and community school models that provide wraparound health and social services where students need them.
To strengthen intradistrict and interdistrict choice plans, policymakers should ensure that:
- Districts work to ensure that many high-quality choices are available, and continually seek to improve schools so that no students are left in low-quality options.
- Strong systems of information are readily available to parents.
- Application processes are consolidated, not burdensome, and equally accessible.
- Choice is managed to support racial/ethnic and economic integration, both within and across district lines.
- Transportation is free and readily available.
To support dual enrollment and early college options, states can:
- Encourage community colleges and 4-year colleges to partner with local high schools as well as to offer distance learning courses to expand offerings to secondary students who are ready for more advanced learning opportunities.
- Underwrite the costs of dual enrollment in college courses while students are still in high school.
- Stimulate the creation of early college programs through competitive grants or availability of seed money.
- Ensure that all students have access to the prerequisite coursework in middle and high school.
States and districts can improve the odds that charter schools will provide high-quality options to all students by:
- Having a small number of authorizers who are held to strong accountability standards.
- Ensuring that charters must meet standards for quality pertaining to curriculum, instruction, and assessment; hiring qualified teachers; and requiring financial viability to be authorized or renewed.
- Ensuring access by requiring student recruitment and retention plans and monitoring access to and continuation in schools for students with disabilities, English learners, and students of varied racial/ethnic, economic, and educational backgrounds.
- Using a regular reporting and review system to ensure a reasonable standard of quality.
- Prohibiting or placing clear restrictions and standards on for-profit schools to keep taxpayer funds for public purposes and to remove incentives for schools or educational management organizations to make a profit by restricting student services or denying access to children who are expensive to educate.
States that choose to authorize virtual or online schools can reduce negative outcomes and enhance the chances that these schools will provide productive options for students by:
- Maintaining additional special oversight for the operations of virtual/online schools, if they are authorized, so that students receive adequate support and services from a sufficient number of qualified staff with technology tools fully in place.
Private School Options
To support student outcomes, appropriate uses of public funds, and democratic goals when offering private school vouchers, states can:
- Maintain standards of quality for schools that are the recipients of these funds, through requirements for accreditation, staff qualifications, and curriculum plans, and information from assessments of student progress.
- Ensure nondiscrimination standards on the basis of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, and disability status for schools that are recipients of funds to protect the civil rights of students and to discourage segregation or discrimination.
- Implement funding options that advance state purposes, like the provision of more specialized high-quality services to students with disabilities, as some programs are designed to do, or the provision of opportunities for advanced study (such as AP courses) otherwise unavailable to students.
States can encourage responsible homeschooling practices by:
- Requiring registration or application for homeschooling intentions so that students not enrolled in school are expected to be under educational care.
- Requiring evidence of a structured program of study that covers key aspects of curriculum, minimal qualifications from instructors, and some form of regular assessment of learning.
- Providing financial support for districts that include homeschooled students in aspects of the curriculum, students’ services, or extracurricular activities.
The report also recommends that states inform their efforts to provide students with excellent and equitable educational opportunities by:
- Using high-quality research that includes appropriate sampling strategies, comparison groups, and controls wherever possible when designing new policies to expand student learning opportunities and to advance other desirable goals such as desegregation.
- Including research and evaluation requirements in new policy initiatives and attending to the outcomes of research in reviewing and revising existing policies to better meet states’ goals for high-quality education and equitable access.
Expanding High-Quality Educational Options for All Students: How States Can Create a System of Schools Worth Choosing by Linda Darling-Hammond, Robert Rothman, and Peter W. Cookson, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.