Author(s): Greg Forster, Ph.D., James L. Woodworth, M.Ed.
The recent explosion of educational innovation has focused primarily on creating wholly new models of what a school can be. From KIPP to Carpe Diem, education is entering a revolutionary period driven by the reinvention of the entire school rather than by gradual programmatic reforms. Although some of these new models have been more successful than others, and the level of success for any given new model can be debated, there is a growing consensus that these new school models collectively represent a dramatic challenge to the status quo in education.
These “greenfield school models” do not just challenge our assumptions about schooling. They also challenge the assumption that one school model can provide the right education for every child. The public mind has been opened to the potential of educational options as never before.
The nation faces two crucial challenges as we enter this new period. Only a tiny fraction of the promise and potential of greenfield school models has been tapped so far. How can we create far more of these models, with greater variation and more institutional support for innovation? And how is it possible for greenfield school models to create improvement in the vast majority of schools, the “un-reinvented” regular public schools, given that even gradual attempts at programmatic reform within those schools have been ineffective over the past 50 years?
Universal school choice has great potential to meet both of these challenges. Although the private school sector provides structures that should be inviting to entrepreneurs, currently they do not find the private school sector attractive. The “tuition barrier” locks out institutional change; private schools can’t reach out to a large enough base of families seeking different learning environments, because they must charge tuition. By lowering the tuition barrier and allowing private schools to serve new populations, universal choice would provide educational entrepreneurs with dramatically more freedom and support than they currently enjoy even in charter schools. Entrepreneurs would be more free to innovate beyond the confines of the “default” public school model, giving them the ability to truly reinvent the school.
Moreover, universal choice is the only way to create an institutional context in which regular public schools will innovate and improve in response to greenfield school models. Currently, their institutional culture consistently experiences reform efforts as threatening and illegitimate. Because public schools have a captive client base, institutions never see the need for change as urgent; thus, they respond to pressure for change in counterproductive ways. By putting parents back in charge of education, universal school choice would focus the urgency in schools needing change, facilitating the emergence of an institutional culture that would experience reform as legitimate, necessary, and empowering. Enacting a universal choice policy would not by itself create all the necessary changes, but enacting universal choice is a necessary precondition of change.
A large body of high-quality research consistently establishes that school choice has a positive impact on both the students who use it and students in nearby public schools. However, in most cases the size of this impact is moderate.
Existing school choice programs are a far cry from universal choice. They are small, underfunded, and overregulated. The limited size and scope of existing programs make it unreasonable to expect they will drive miraculous changes. It is an open question whether these existing programs provide any support for educational entrepreneurs or greenfield school models.
This study uses descriptive data from the U.S. Department of Education to examine the composition of the private school sector in localities with sizeable school choice programs. If existing school choice programs are attracting educational entrepreneurs and unlocking the potential of new school models, we should expect to see significant changes in the sector’s composition. While the available data do not allow us to examine every aspect of schooling, the founding of new school models ought to produce visible changes in school types, school sizes, and other visible metrics.
However, the data examined here provide little evidence that existing school choice programs are transforming the structure of private schools. In its current form, school choice does not appear to be having an impact that is sufficiently large enough to produce visible transformation of the private school sector. Existing choice programs transfer students from marginally less effective public schools to marginally more effective private schools, but they do not seem to drive more ambitious school reforms.
It appears that universal choice programs are needed before an alliance between school choice and the greenfield school revolution can emerge.
Enacted 2003 • Launched 2004
Ohio students on the autism spectrum may receive vouchers for education services from a
private provider, including tuition at a private school. After participating students receive
education services, they apply to the state for reimbursement of expenses.
Enacted 1995 • Launched 1996
Parents in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District can receive vouchers to send their
children to private school or public schools bordering the school district. No more than half of
new recipients may be students previously enrolled in private schools.
Enacted 2006 • Launched 2006
Arizona provides a credit on corporate income taxes for donations to School Tuition
Organizations (STOs), nonprofits that provide private school scholarships. Corporate taxpayers
contributing to STOs may claim a tax credit equal to the full amount of their contribution. The
program is limited to a total of $10 million in available tax credits per year, a figure that is
allowed to rise 20 percent annually.
Enacted 2005 • Launched 2006
Ohio students attending chronically low-performing public schools are eligible for “EdChoice”
vouchers to attend private schools. The cap on available vouchers is 60,000.
Enacted 2001 • Launched 2001
Pennsylvania provides tax credits for corporate contributions to Scholarship Organizations,
nonprofits that provide private school scholarships, or Educational Improvement
Organizations, nonprofits that support innovative programs in public schools. Tax credits
are worth 75 percent of the contribution; however, a 90 percent credit can be claimed if the
corporation commits to two consecutive annual contributions. In either case, the maximum
tax credit is $400,000 per company, while in 2013 and beyond, the maximum is $750,000 per
company. Credits are awarded to companies on a first-come, first-served basis until the cap is
reached. The total amount of tax credits is limited to $60 million.
Enacted 2011 • Launched 2011
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program allows parents of children with disabilities to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a portion of their public funding deposited into an account with defined, but multiple, uses, including private school tuition, online education, private tutoring, or future educational expenses. In the 2013-14 school year, eligibility expands to students in a public school or school district with a "D" or "F" letter grade, children of active military members, and foster care youth.
Enacted 2001 • Launched 2001
Florida provides a tax credit on corporate income taxes and insurance premium taxes for
donations to Scholarship Funding Organizations (SFOs), nonprofits that provide private
school scholarships for low-income students and foster care children and offer funds for
transportation to public schools outside a child’s district. Businesses get a dollar-for-dollar tax
credit for SFO contributions, with total credits capped at $229 million. Unused credits can be
carried forward to the next fiscal year.
Enacted 2013 • Launched 2013
Beginning in 2013-14, income-qualified Ohio kindergarteners are eligible for vouchers to attend private schools, provided they are not otherwise eligible for a voucher in Ohio. In future years of the program, the next grade higher will be added each subsequent year.
Enacted as a Pilot Program 1999 • Expanded 2000
Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program allows public
school students with disabilities or 504 plans to receive vouchers to attend private schools or
another public school.
Enacted 2011 • Launched 2012
Ohio parents of children with special needs enrolled in public schools are able to receive
vouchers to pay for private school tuition and additional services at private therapists and
other service providers. Vouchers can be used at public providers (i.e., school districts) if the
district chooses to accept voucher students. The number of vouchers available is capped at 5
percent of the students with special needs statewide.
Enacted 1997 • Launched 1998
Minnesota provides a tax credit covering educational expenses for students in any private or public school, including homeschooling. The tax credit reduces the family’s total tax liability and covers books, tutors, academic after-school programs, and other non-tuition educational expenses.
Enacted 1955 • Launched 1955
Minnesota provides a tax deduction covering educational expenses for students in any private or public school, including homeschooling. The tax deduction lowers a family’s taxable income and covers books, tutors, academic after-school programs, and other non-tuition educational expenses. The deduction also includes tuition payments at private schools.
Enacted 2009 • Launched 2009
Arizona allows corporations to receive tax credits for donating to School Tuition Organizations
(STOs), nonprofits that provide private school scholarships to children with special needs and
foster care students. The total credits claimed statewide cannot exceed $5 million in a given
Milwaukee families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines qualify to
receive vouchers. Once a student receives a voucher, that student is able to keep it, regardless
of his or her family’s future income. Voucher students are allowed to attend any participating
private school in the state.
Enacted 2004 • Launched 2004
The District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program provides vouchers to lowincome
students. Overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, the program is funded
separately from D.C. public schools. It is authorized through 2016, with $20 million in total
Enacted 2012 • Launched 2012
Pennsylvania provides tax credits for corporate contributions to Scholarship Organizations (SOs),
nonprofits that provide private school scholarships. A company may claim a tax credit worth 75
percent of its contribution (90 percent if it commits to the same amount for two consecutive years).
Tax credits are available on a first-come, first-served basis. In 2012-13, the total tax credit is limited
to $400,000 per business; that limit rises to $750,000 in 2013-14 and is eliminated thereafter. The
total program is capped at $50 million. SOs also are required to give preference to students who
received scholarships the previous year, those eligible for free and reduced-price lunch (FRL), and
FRL students in certain school districts (a “first class” school district, a district with more than
7,500 students that receives an advance of its basic education subsidy, or a school district that has
both received an advance of its subsidy and is either in financial distress or is involved in a school
finance lawsuit against the state).
Enacted 1997 • Launched 1997
Arizona provides a credit on individual income taxes for donations to School Tuition
Organizations (STOs), nonprofits that provide private school scholarships. Individual
taxpayers contributing to STOs may claim a dollar-for-dollar credit of up to $1,000, and married
couples filing jointly may claim up to $2,000 (half of which must go to scholarships for children
leaving public schools, rather than those already in private schools). Individuals may claim
up to $200 ($400 for married couples) for contributing to a public school for extracurricular
activities or character education programs.