The relationship between zip codes and education is well-documented in the U.S. and hotly debated. The correlation between an address and the quality of education a child receives leaves students with wealthier parents attaining better educational outcomes either through private school attendance or greater public funding for local schools. Children of lower income families suffer disproportionately, unable to attend private schools or relocate into affluent public schools. School choice programs aim to break the link between zip codes and quality of education.
School Choice Definition
The U.S. Department of Education operates under the auspices of the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in 2015. This act builds upon preceding legislation equalizing the playing field for all students, regardless of zip code, parental income, disability or race.
The original concept dates back to Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in 1965 with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One of the original civil rights legislative pieces, the ESEA provided federal grants for textbooks, special education centers and college scholarships to districts serving low-income students.
As educational equality became an increasingly vital issue, both as a means of lifting children out of the cycle of poverty and as a means of ensuring an educated populace, the ESSA added additional support to reduce the educational disparities based on income and zip code.
In exchange for federal funding, state laws imposed stricter graduation standards and well-developed spending plans so that all students met the new standards.
School Choice Programs
School choice programs address the issue of zip code and income disparity. Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia operate successful school choice programs. These programs can assume a variety of formats, depending on the population served.
Examples include vouchers that parents can use to cover some of the costs associated with transferring a child from a low-performing public school into a higher-performing private school. Other examples of school choice include faith-based schools, schools that meet special educational needs such as schools for the blind, homeschooling, charter schools, magnet schools and cyber schools.
Parents and districts pay for these options through a variety of methods. An Education Savings Account deposits public educational funds into a government savings account from which the parents can draw funds to pay for alternative education. School vouchers pay partial or full tuition at a private school from public school funding. Tax credit scholarships occur when taxpayers or businesses donate money to nonprofit institutions that then award the money to students in the form of scholarships. Finally, individual income tax credits provide educational relief to parents to cover expenses not allocated through other funding streams such as books and transportation costs should the parents take advantage of an authorized school choice program.
School Choice at the Federal Level Today
While still a subject of much controversy, school choice programs clearly have the support of current Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Secretary DeVos believes that families should have the ability to access public funding for the educational needs of their children. In line with her convictions, she is seeking $1 billion in “opportunity grants” to assist states in the expansion of school choice programs, with an additional $500 million for charter schools and an additional $98 million for magnet schools.
Whether or not Secretary DeVos succeeds in her mission to increase funding for school choice, the issue itself is here to stay. Decades of legal precedent as well as emerging technology make it unlikely that the country will ever turn its collective back on school choice. The true issue is to strike the appropriate balance between the educational needs of the community and the ability of the community’s families to financially support those needs.
So, how does your school district ensure that the Choice Process is fair and balanced? How does your school district ensure complete transparency in the process?