A Matter of Choice

Do I wear a tie today or will “business casual” be appropriate? Do I take the shorter route or the longer, more scenic road? Small fries or onion rings — or do I want the healthier choice of apple slices (and hope my son is observing my decision)?

Throughout our lives, we've been conditioned to embrace choice. However, choice in the context of education often is seen as fraught with potential pitfalls, threatening the very concept of America's public education system.

Arguments can, and will, be made on both sides of the concept. But whatever your stance, choice in public education has become more of an issue at institutions nationwide.

Vouchers, charter schools, state and federal programs, online education and more continually are chipping away at the traditional definition of “public education.” In this month's cover story, staff writer Mike Kennedy explores how the nation's education institutions are being affected in this environment, how facilities and funding are being impacted, and what is being done in response.

Lawmakers at the federal and state levels continually are debating choice in education. In addition to federal initiatives, a number of states currently have or are considering legislation that provides tax credits, vouchers and other opportunities for students to attend institutions of their choice.

One of the more recent examples of the school-choice movement is Utah's new voucher program, which provides money for any public-school student to put toward private-school tuition. What makes Utah's program unique is that unlike other states' voucher programs, which target low-income families or children with disabilities, there are no such restrictions for residents to take advantage of the program.

But even in states that previously embraced school choice, the tide can change quickly. For example, the new governor of Ohio wants to repeal a voucher program for students in struggling schools and place a moratorium on new charter schools.

Choice in education will continue to be a volatile issue, and if your institution currently is not embroiled in the debate, chances are it soon will be.

SCORECARD

74

Percentage of school-age children in 2003 attending the public school to which they were assigned; down from 80 percent in 1993.

15

Percentage of students in 2003 enrolled in chosen public schools; up from 11 percent in 1993.

17

Percentage of elementary school students (grades 1 to 5) in 2003 enrolled in chosen public schools, followed by 15 percent in grades 6 to 8 and 14 percent in grades 9 to 12.

61

Percentage of parents in the West that say public school choice was available to them; compared with only 39 percent in the East.

Source: “Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 2003,” National Center for Education Statistics, 2006.

1993

Year the first charter school opened, in Minnesota.

40

Number of states and Washington, D.C., that have passed laws allowing some form of charter schools.

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