School Choice

Parents Should be Free to Choose the Best Education for Their Children

All children deserve a chance at a great education, no matter where they live. At its heart, school choice is simply the idea that all parents, regardless of means, should enjoy the freedom to choose what schools their children attend. As the nation’s preeminent courtroom defender of school choice, the Institute for Justice intervenes on behalf of parents nationwide.

12 Myths and Realities about Private Educational Choice Programs

By Tim Keller

Myth #1:

Educational choice programs take money from an already underfunded public school system.

Reality #1:

No empirical study has ever found an educational choice program to cause a negative fiscal impact on either taxpayers or public schools. Moreover, inflation-adjusted funding for government-operated public schools has skyrocketed in the past 40 years, with no appreciable learning gains, and there is no evidence to suggest that spending even more would produce better educational outcomes.

Educational choice programs do not divert or take a single dollar from public schools—they simply allow funds to follow students, just as funds do whenever a child moves between school districts or enrolls in a chartered public school.1 Indeed, any time a family moves out of state, decides to educate their children at home, or transfers their student from a public school to a private school, the state eventually stops sending public dollars to the student’s prior public school.2 Thus, with or without educational choice programs, public schools only receive funding for pupils actually enrolled in those schools. Moreover, there have been 28 empirical studies of the fiscal impact of educational choice programs on taxpayers and public schools.3 Twenty-five of those studies found the programs saved the state money and three found the programs were revenue-neutral.4 No empirical study has ever found a negative fiscal impact.5


Additionally, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that our nation’s public school systems would improve if more money were spent on those systems.6 On the surface, the myth that public school systems are underfunded seems plausible because so many schools do not perform well.7 But the proper question to ask is whether additional spending would improve student academic performance. As a starting point, spending on public education has been increasing steadily for over 50 years. Inflation adjusted per-pupil funding for government-operated public schools has nearly octupled since the end of World War II.8 And between 1970 and 2001, inflation adjusted spending more than doubled from $4,479 to $8,745.9 If significant increases in spending produced better results, we should have seen significant improvement over this period of time10 And yet, academic performance has remained stagnant in the forty year period between 1970 and 2010.11

The most recent example of pouring more money into our nation’s failing public school system with no appreciable effect on academic achievement is the Obama Administration’s School Improvement Grant Program. A U.S. Department of Education study released by the Obama Administration itself found that the program, which poured $7 billion into the nation’s worst performing public schools, failed to produce any meaningful results.12 Schools receiving program funds showed no significant improvement in test scores, graduation rates, or college enrollment compared with similar schools not receiving the funds.13

Myth #2:

Not only is there no evidence that educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students who participate in the programs, but recent studies show that such programs actually harm academic performance.

Reality #2:

The overwhelming preponderance of existing empirical evidence demonstrates that educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for those who participate in the programs.

The existing research on the impact of educational choice on participating students’ academic performance can be summarized as follows:

Eighteen empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the gold standard of social science. Of those, 14 find choice improves student outcomes: six find all students benefit and eight find some benefit and some are not visibly affected. Two studies find no visible effect, and two studies find Louisiana’s voucher program—where most of the eligible private schools were scared away from the program by an expectation of hostile future action from regulators—had a negative effect.14

In addition to the Louisiana studies mentioned in the summary, a later study in Indiana also showed negative effects on participating students’ achievement in the first few years of the program.15 Encouragingly, however, trends both in Louisiana and Indiana are on an upward trajectory.16 The studies released in 2017 of students in Louisiana and Indiana, whose test scores had dropped after their first few years participating in educational choice programs, now show that those students are making real and steady learning gains and are performing on par with the public school peers.17  The most recent studies also show that the students participating in the programs are often transferring from the lowest performing public schools.18 It is not surprising that, in the early years, there may be a transition effect as students adjust to their new schools. Nor is it surprising that test scores rise in later years, as students adapt to their new learning environments.

Moreover, academic performance is just one measure of student achievement. There are other important measures that educational choice programs also impact positively, such as high school graduation rates, college enrollment, civic engagement, parental and student satisfaction rates, and even cost savings to states and municipalities.19 There is simply no research that should cause policymakers alarm regarding decreased academic performance for students participating in well-designed educational choice programs. To the contrary, the bulk of the evidence demonstrates that these programs improve academic performance.

Myth #3:

There is no evidence that market-driven competition from educational choice programs encourages government-operated public schools to improve.

Reality #3:

There is abundant evidence that competition works and encourages government-operated public schools to improve.

There have been 34 empirical studies of the effects of educational choice programs on government-operated public schools.20 The overwhelming majority—32—found that educational choice programs have a positive effect on such schools, while one found no effect and one found a negative effect.21


Numerous evaluations of Florida’s A+ Scholarship Program, in which students at chronically failing public schools could obtain scholarships to transfer to better performing public or private schools, found that the program raised achievement in Florida’s worst performing government-operated public schools and that the schools facing the greatest competition made the greatest academic gains.22 The increased choices provided to students who were previously unable to afford to switch schools prompted changes in the institutional practices of government-operated public schools, which were followed by improvements in test scores.23

The competition injected by Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program yielded similar benefits for that city’s government-operated public schools. “The scores of the students in . . . the schools facing the most potential competition from vouchers . . . improved by more in every subject area tested than did the scores of the students facing less or no competition from vouchers.”24 Studies of educational choice programs in Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, and Vermont have likewise documented the positive effects that competition from choice can have on government-operated public schools.25


Tellingly, the one study that found no effect on public schools was a study of the very small Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program—the country’s only educational choice program that allocates additional money to government-operated public schools, thus insulating them from competition.26 And in the lone study that found a negative effect on government-operated public schools, the authors acknowledged that they “are not currently able to explain” their finding.27

The empirical evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that increased competition from educational choice programs leads to improvements in the public school system’s performance. By forcing school districts to pay more attention to students eligible for educational choice programs, these programs benefit not only the families choosing to leave the public school system, but also the families choosing to stay in it.

Myth #4:

Only the best and brightest students from affluent families benefit from educational choice programs, thus leaving the most disadvantaged and difficult to educate students in the government-operated public schools.

Reality #4:

Educational choice programs primarily aid disadvantaged students, especially those with special needs or from low-income backgrounds.

Myth #5:

Educational choice programs exacerbate racial segregation.

Reality #5:

Educational choice programs promote racial integration.

Myth #6:

Public schools are held accountable by state tests and curriculum mandates, while unregulated private schools are completely unaccountable.

Reality #6:

Public schools lack sufficient accountability to parents because their children must attend their assigned government-operated public school regardless of test scores. Private schools are directly accountable to parents and must deliver a satisfactory educational experience or lose students.

Myth #7:

Because they allow parents to enroll their children in religious schools, educational choice programs violate the principle of separation of church and state and are thus unconstitutional.

Reality #7:

The U.S. Supreme Court and numerous state courts have held that religiously neutral educational choice programs that give parents a genuine choice as to where to send their children to school pass constitutional muster.

Myth #8:

Educational choice programs that offer tax credits to those donating to private charities that award student scholarships are funded with public dollars

Reality #8:

Every court in the nation to consider this question, including the U.S. Supreme Court, has concluded that funds donated to private charities are private funds, regardless of whether the donation makes the taxpayer eligible for a tax deduction or a tax credit.

Myth #9:

Because educational choice programs fund religious schools that may teach doctrines at odds with modern scientific theories, choice students attending those schools receive less and worse science education than their public school counterparts.

Reality #9:

Educational choice programs fund parents, not schools. Additionally, students who attend religious schools perform well in science on national tests and private school students tend to take more science classes than students in public schools.

Myth #10:

Students with special needs are forced to give up their rights under federal law, specifically the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), when they participate in educational choice programs.

Reality #10:

No student is ever forced to give up his or her rights under IDEA because participation in educational choice programs is strictly voluntarily.

Myth #11:

Unlike private schools, public schools must enroll all students.

Reality #11:

Although public school districts must enroll all students residing in the district’s boundaries who want to attend a school in the district, individual public schools are not required to—and do not—enroll all students.

Myth #12:

Educational choice programs fund private schools that discriminate against students on the basis of religion, disability, sex, and sexual orientation.

Reality #12:

Educational choice programs fund parents and students, not schools. Moreover, while educational choice programs do not alter private schools’ existing rights to enroll students using selective admissions criteria, they also do not exempt those schools from existing anti-discrimination laws.

School Choice and State Constitutions

Select a state to explore its school choice legal environment.
  • Vouchers and Tax Credits Legal
  • Only Tax Credits Legal
  • Nothing Legal

School Choice And State Constitutions

A Guide to Designing School Choice Programs

Recent School Choice Cases

School Choice Research

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