It’s National School Choice week, and the popularity of school choice in Colorado is apparent. Nearly 10 percent of public school students are enrolled in schools outside their school districts, and another 12 percent attend charter schools. Thousands more attend neighborhood schools other than the ones to which they are assigned. This widespread acceptance of choice should come as no surprise given the many benefits that school choice policies provide.
Though open enrollment and charter schools meet many students’ needs, private school choice programs can offer additional high-quality options for parents. Such programs can consist of giving vouchers to parents for use towards private school tuition, allowing tax credits to individuals who donate to scholarship-granting organizations, or creating education savings accounts (ESA) that allow parents to purchase a wide variety of educational services and materials. Although Colorado has extensive public school choice, the state has yet to adopt a private school choice program.
Evidence shows that private school choice is effective. Of the 13 random-assignment studies available on the benefits of such programs, six show that all participating students benefit from private school choice, five show that some students benefit and some are not affected, and one finds no visible impact. The most recent random-assignment study on Louisiana’s voucher program is the first ever to find negative impacts in a private school choice program. While no definitive explanation for these negative effects has been offered, there is compelling reason to believe they were brought about by overregulation of the program.
Regardless of the form it takes, school choice empowers parents, provides opportunities to students, and facilitates the allocation of resources where they are most useful.
Choice allows parents to apply the intimate knowledge—knowledge that only they have—of their children’s unique needs by selecting schools that will give them the best chance to succeed.
The academic results of this parental empowerment are evident in higher graduation rates and higher college attendance rates among school choice participants (25% higher in some cases). These results offer major economic benefits to students since, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, graduating high school can increase lifetime earnings by more than $250,000, and attending even some college adds another $250,000.
Broad-based school choice can also reduce the need to purchase a house in a high-performing school district. Parents can ensure that their children are receiving an effective education without being restricted to certain schools due to their income level. In turn, this freedom allows families to allocate their earnings with more flexibility and efficiency.
Open public school enrollment has done much to relieve Colorado parents of the economic restrictions that district lines often create. But there are still long waiting lists for the best public schools that prevent this policy from achieving the maximum possible effect. Broadening a parent’s scope of choice to include private schools could go a long way toward absorbing unmet demand.
In addition to the academic and economic benefits to students and parents, school choice provides significant benefits to society. An educated populous is essential for a healthy society. This truism is most evident in reports from The Bureau of Justice Statistics showing that almost 70% of state inmates do not have a high school diploma. Given that Colorado’s annual cost of incarceration is over $30,000 per inmate, increasing the number of well-educated citizens by any means can help alleviate these costs.
A study done by the Alliance for Excellent Education did a state-by-state breakdown and found that increasing the national male high school graduation rate by just 5% could save America almost $20 Billion annually in reduced crime spending and increased incomes. And according to a study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, school choice greatly reduces criminal activity, with the greatest reduction occurring among youth at the highest risk for committing crimes.
Many enjoy the benefits of public school choice in Colorado, but our state’s private schools also provide important resources—resources to which many of our children do not have access because of the prohibitive cost of paying for school in both taxes and tuition. Overcoming this barrier is not only the key to providing our children with maximum opportunity, but also to unleashing the full economic benefits of school choice.
Tyler Massey is an education policy intern at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.