The Many Flavors of School Choice

Education Week American Education News Site of RecordThere are many flavors of school choice—vouchers, education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, and charters, to name a few.

Voucher is the word on everyone’s mind at the moment and it’s a politically loaded term. Many of the other types of choice people hear about—education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarships—are just variations. But the differences between private school choice programs such as traditional vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and education savings accounts are still very important, and can even explain why one kind is legal in a given state, but another isn’t. So, what are the differences?

School Vouchers: This type of program allows parents to use public funding allocated for their child toward tuition at a private school of their choice, including religiously affiliated private schools. Most voucher programs typically start out targeted toward certain groups of students such as those with disabilities, those zoned to a failing school, or those from low-income families. Some states, such as Indiana, have expanded their programs to include more middle-income families. (Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, is the former Governor of Indiana and oversaw significant expansion of the voucher program during his time in office.)

Tax-credit scholarships: Through this type of program, the state uses tax-credits to incentivize businesses or individuals to donate money to a scholarship granting organization, which then gives money to students to use toward tuition at a private school. To qualify, students usually have to be from a low-income family, a failing school, or have other special needs. Some states offer another variation, such as individual tax-credits or deductions. Florida pioneered this version of choice.

Education savings accounts: In an ESA program, the state sets aside money usually based on its per-pupil funding formulas in individual accounts for participating students. Their parents or guardians can then withdraw that money to spend on approved educational expenses. That may be private school tuition, but it may also be used for tutoring, online courses, transportation, or even some types of therapy. In addition to helping families send their children to private school, an ESA program can also allow them to home school or cobble together a hybrid public-private education. ESAs were initially aimed at students with disabilities, but Arizona, where the idea originated, has been steadily expanding eligibility to its program to include other groups of students, such as those from failing schools, military families, and students who live on American Indian reservations. Nevada blew the lid off that last year when it passed a universal ESA program open to all students in public schools.

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