School choice is the slogan of a U.S movement to introduce competitive markets into the primary and secondary education sectors.

School choice could be accomplished in multiple ways. The method considered "milder" is to allow parents to choose between different public schools. The method considered more "sweeping" is to grant parents the option of spending voucherss or tax credits at private (or possibly religious) schools. In this case, public schools would not receive funding for those pupils who did not choose to attend.

The proponents of this idea say that if parents were given a choice about where public money should go, they would pick the better schools and the under-performing schools would have to improve in order to compete for the same public funding. The idea is that students would gravitate to the best schools, and the worst ones would wither for lack of students (much as poorly-run business go bankrupt while ones that provide good products prosper). Proponents also claim that school choice is a good way to improve public education at low cost, by forcing schools to perform more efficiently.

Critics argue that tax breaks and vouchers would take away money from the schools that most need financial assistance and that taking money away from them would make those schools' position even worse. Some also note that private schools are not obligated to take just any students; many have entrance exams, and only admit those who score well. Thus, there is some concern that private schools would take the best students, leaving the most disadvantaged in a school system which is unable to improve and saddled with the hardest children to teach. Even if private schools aren't allowed to participate, critics note, this might prompt a two-tiered public education system, in which those students with motivated parents leave for good schools, while less-advantaged students languish. There is also a concern that some of this public funding would go to religious schools and that this might conflict with the separation of church and state.

In the U.S., the legal and moral precedents for vouchers may have been set by the G.I. bill, which includes a voucher program for university-level education of veterans. The G.I. bill permits veterans to take their educational benefits at religious schools, an extremely divisive issue when applied to primary and secondary schools. The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments on a related issue: whether or not a student receiving public scholarship money for college can major in theology. No decision has been reached in this case.

Voucher systems for primary schools have also quietly operated in some New Hampshire school districts since education became mandatory in the 19th century. In addition, in 2003 the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a voucher plan for public schools in the District of Columbia. The plan will be included in the omnibus spending bill and sent to President Bush. It is expected to become law.

Vouchers in the U.S. for underprivileged children are viewed as experiments, and the issue has yet to be conclusively decided.

In Chile, there is a voucher systems in which the state pays the private schools directly based on average attendance. These schools show consistently better results in standarized testing than public schools, with 35% of children studying in such schools.

Further reading

  • Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public, Terry Moe, ISBN 0815758081
  • Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice, Sol Stern, Encounter Books, 2003, hardcover, 235 pages, ISBN 1893554074

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