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School choice is popular — when parents know about it

By   /   July 7, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 128 of 126 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Many school choice programs are exceedingly popular, yet other programs beg for applications.

In Florida, for instance, one school choice program finished reviewing 75,000 applications — of about 115,000 parents began — for 68,000 spots. In North Carolina, 5,558 students applied for a program with 2,400 seats.

 In Arizona, the education savings accounts program is capped at 5,500 students. Still, just 700 students took part in the programs last year.

CHOICE: When parents are aware of school or educational choice programs, they’re happy with them.

What makes the difference?

School choice supporters pointed to several factors, but one stands out: Parents must know about their options.

“The bottom line is the (school choice) programs are extremely popular where parents think it’s real,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin’s three school choice programs, parents apply directly to a school. Through that application, they can become eligible for a voucher, or publicly funded scholarship, which allows them to attend the private school of their choice. Schools also must apply to the state for approval to accept students with voucher scholarships.

The decades-old Milwaukee voucher program and the four-year-old program in Racine run on a familiar cycle. By Feb. 1 every year, for example, Milwaukee parents know which schools are approved to participate, and those programs don’t limit the number of students who can take part.

“Without the caps, the only thing that is limiting the program is the number of available seats. Demand far exceeds supply in Milwaukee and Racine,” Bender said.

The statewide voucher program, with a cap of 500 new students each year, had different results. The program was enacted last summer, and then came the race to approve schools and parents’ applications before the school year began in the fall. More than 2,000 student applications were submitted, and many schools were not approved.

The second year, many schools that didn’t make the cut the first year applied again and were approved, but those schools received few applications. Almost 4,000 student applications were received, and the majority of them were submitted to schools that were approved both years.

“Some of the parents applied the first year but didn’t apply the second year because they thought they didn’t have a chance of getting in,” Bender said. “In year two, you had increased demand where people thought it was real, and decreased demand for schools wanting to get (approved) the second time.” 

Different programs have different eligibility requirements. Sometimes, those requirements are confusing, and it’s hard for parents to know whether their children are eligible.

“An eligibility based on, say, failing schools and income status, first you have to find out, ‘Does my income make me qualify for this program?’ then, ‘Am I near a school that qualifies me for this program?'” said Jeff Reed, communications director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “The nuances of eligibility can be difficult to navigate for anybody.”

Universally available programs eliminate that confusion, Reed said. But even with programs such as Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship — available to all Georgia students — funding caps limit participation.

Tax-credit scholarships, unlike vouchers, are funded by private donations made to a nonprofit, which distributes scholarships to students. Donors receive a tax credit.

In Georgia, donors reached the $58 million cap in the first three weeks of the year, and taxpayers are continuing to contact scholarship organizations about next year, said Lisa Kelly, president and executive director of GOAL, Georgia’s largest scholarship organization. 

The program is also popular with students and parents who want to send their children to private schools. GOAL consistently receives more requests than it can meet.

Grassroots support for school choice is strong in Georgia, and individual donors, not corporations, are “the absolute bread and butter of the program,” she said.

Georgians enjoy “being able to be part of the solution,” and scholarship recipients are grateful to have options, she said.

Building that grassroots knowledge and support for the program can take time. Participation in Arizona’s education savings account program has not reached its cap since the program began in 2011, but parents in the program love it, says Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute.

“You hear these parents talk about how meaningful it’s been to their families and for their children who now have a life changed. They’re really satisfied with it,” he said. “I think at first, you have to inform lawmakers about the value of the program, then get it passed into law, and there’s so much energy getting that done. Then, the next thing you have to do is build a consensus and constituency among parents. It’s not that they need to be won over, but you need to tell them. That’s a different style effort than getting the bill passed.”

The process worked the other way around in North Carolina, said Darrell Allison, president of North Carolina Parents for Educational Freedom. State lawmakers were persuaded to pass a voucher law only after the organization spent several years crisscrossing the state, meeting with various groups and building support and awareness of school choice.

“They’d been lock step with us during the policy process, so when the program came out, it wasn’t hard for us to get the word out,” Allison said. “We not only have advocates who believe in the program, we have advocates who are parents who are in desperate need for the option.”

While many school choice proponents are working to get the word to parents, the responsibility lies with the respective states, Reed said.

“These are government programs, at the end of the day. Departments of education and departments of revenue oversee these programs,” he said. “I’m not saying they have to spend more money on it, but state agencies could do a better job of making sure parents are aware of these programs through existing means: making them more visible on their website, promoting these via social media.”

Florida’s McKay Scholarship program, one of the biggest school voucher programs in the country, would be bigger if more parents knew about the program, said Robyn Rennick, program director for Dyslexia Research Institute and past president of the Coalition of McKay Scholarship Schools.

“Even though the public school is required by law to inform the parent that the McKay Scholarship exists, they probably do it in eight-point font in the 25 pages if IEP material,” she said. “That is, I think, one of the issues that sometimes is a barrier to parents. They just don’t know it exists.”

 Contact Mary C. Tillotson at [email protected]atchdog.org.

This article was updated at 4:10 p.m. July 7, 2014, to clarify the number of applications to Florida’s school choice program.

Part of 126 in the series Educating America
  1. Arizona mom won’t give up on special needs kids, no matter what state says
  2. Reviving a 1970s lawsuit, DOJ would keep black students in failing schools
  3. Relocating sexually abusive teachers would be more difficult under Pennsylvania bill
  4. DOJ backpedals on Louisiana voucher lawsuit
  5. Court says charter schools won’t pay for Atlanta’s pension debts
  6. Biggest education impact from shutdown? Furloughed bureaucrats
  7. Appeals court upholds Arizona school choice program
  8. Indiana’s voucher program expands; diversity a factor in one family’s choice of school
  9. ‘Vouchers don’t do much good for students’ claim is false
  10. NYC mayor’s race could affect school choice
  11. Vermont public school goes independent, raises ire from state bureaucracy
  12. Arizona education savings accounts aren’t vouchers, study says
  13. Legal institute fights Alabama union’s attempt to repeal school tax credit
  14. Experts: School choice improves education in public schools
  15. SC school-choice program helps special needs kids, could expand
  16. DOJ wants Louisiana parents out of voucher lawsuit
  17. U.S. House passes bill to prevent ‘passing the trash’
  18. ‘Non-traditional’ journalists barred from viewing tax-funded test results early
  19. New center hopes to help charter schools help kids with special needs
  20. Charter school advocate to Philadelphia schools: Listen to parents
  21. $45 million not enough for Philadelphia teachers’ union
  22. Study: Rhode Islanders support school choice
  23. Study: Choice would help failing Chicago schools
  24. Scholarships could lift SC school dedicated to real-life, hands-on learning
  25. Parents make good school choices, study says
  26. Divisive charter school reform bill headed toward vote in PA
  27. In Louisiana school voucher lawsuit, DOJ changes gears
  28. Opponents sue Washington to overturn charter school law
  29. School choice proponents’ challenge? Educating parents
  30. Judge: Federal oversight may not hamper school voucher program
  31. PA lawmakers push to amend tight teacher furlough policies
  32. College ready: A Milwaukee inner-city school success story
  33. Proposed economic furloughs could slay sacred cow of seniority in Pennsylvania schools
  34. What is Massachusetts doing right?
  35. Goldwater to appeal Louisiana school voucher decision
  36. Want to end poverty? Educate the kids
  37. Breakdown in Philly schools not only about the money
  38. North Carolina scholarship program on firm legal footing, attorney argues
  39. Philadelphia school district threatens charters
  40. Belief in student ability key to success at Milwaukee charter school
  41. Three things to know about Philadelphia’s school budget: Debt, pensions and safety
  42. Choosing to sue: Here’s a look at some 2013 lawsuits involving school choice
  43. Philly charter schools outperform district counterparts
  44. California students sue state over ineffective teachers
  45. Study: Public supports parent choice in education
  46. Under new management, Philly Renaissance Schools show growth
  47. New Orleans tops school choice index
  48. AZ to consider four school-choice expansion bills
  49. Florida family ‘blessed’ to be apart of scholarship program
  50. PA lawmakers put education at top of agenda in election year
  51. Louisiana: Feds ‘more interested in skin color than … education’
  52. Charter school for Philadelphia foster children will not be renewed
  53. Governor ties proposed PA education funding to targeted grants
  54. WA’s first charter school serves children, families of ‘extreme poverty’
  55. Vermont attempts to take independence from independent schools
  56. Philly stumbles on way to simplifying enrollment system
  57. Plan for Philly schools keeps charters in check
  58. Missouri ballot initiative would increase funding for public, private schools
  59. New York charter school focuses on family, community
  60. NC school vouchers on hold
  61. WI voucher bill would help special needs students denied open enrollment
  62. Philadelphia schools will end another year in red
  63. PA universities expect state, students to pick up tab on rising tuition
  64. Two ESA bills get House support in AZ
  65. Thousands rally to support New York charter schools
  66. California’s defense begins in Vergara trial
  67. Accountability or overregulation? Charter supporters split over Minnesota bill
  68. PA considers empowering universities to authorize charter schools
  69. Bill would make Florida students eligible for scholarships
  70. To test or not to test? Florida school choice proponents split
  71. Philly school district broke, but the pay is good
  72. Philadelphia charter school sues public school district
  73. Colorado Supreme Court to hear school voucher case
  74. Vermont to reconsider education funding formula
  75. Arizona Supreme Court allows school choice program to stand
  76. Massachusetts charter school bill revived
  77. Quality schools matter more than racial integration, black leaders say
  78. FL again takes up school-choice bill
  79. Choice Media’s videocast tackles host of education issues
  80. Ending teacher seniority rules beyond Philly requires legislative action
  81. New website helps Detroit parents choose schools
  82. Philly schools caught on funding merry-go-round
  83. Louisiana bill would coordinate school choice programs
  84. New D.C. charter school lottery eases but doesn’t eliminate waiting lists
  85. Federal bill attempts to help replicate high-quality state charter schools
  86. Philadelphia schools awaiting taxes from city, state
  87. ACLU alleges discrimination in 138 NJ districts
  88. MN anti-bullying bill could have unintended consequences
  89. Mississippi’s special needs bill to return next year
  90. Illinois considers three-year ban on virtual charter schools
  91. Violent Philly high school source of worry
  92. Auditors examining troubled Philadelphia school district
  93. Civil liberties organization sues to overturn anti-bullying law
  94. Legal conflict over teacher seniority in Philly heats up
  95. Academics, culture help mom choose private school
  96. PA cyber charter schools could be funded by state, not districts
  97. Arizona expands school choice program
  98. The sticky statistic of statewide charter school performance in PA
  99. Louisiana offers new vocational technical program
  100. Benefits are driving high personnel costs in Philadelphia schools
  101. Educators look to grow with expanding Hispanic demographic
  102. Philadelphia flexes muscle over charter schools
  103. Philly school district facing another bleak budget
  104. Andre Agassi dedicates Indianapolis charter school
  105. For PA and neighboring states, school spending and graduation rates don’t add up
  106. At long last, PA school buses could be getting a boost
  107. Arizona charter schools need funding fix, proponents say
  108. Progress reports for Philadelphia schools show uneven achievement
  109. Teachers union opposes ‘Bad Teachers’
  110. Governor’s plans to boost education funding falls short
  111. Georgia’s school-choice program draws legal challenge
  112. Missouri parents want more choice in education
  113. U.S. lawmakers to consider charter school bill
  114. Florida’s school choice expansion awaits governor’s signature
  115. PA charter schools may see drop in funding with new special education formula
  116. In Nevada, your child’s school records could cost $10K
  117. AG, lawmakers propose similar updates to PA charter school rules
  118. NC school voucher program gets temporary green light
  119. Philly school district’s lack of transparency frustrates families
  120. Bullying motivates many parents to home-school, attorney says
  121. Philadelphia City Council gambles to fund schools
  122. PA Supreme Court pushes forward charter school’s lawsuit against Philly
  123. Feds consider joining school choice game
  124. Florida’s new school choice law likely to spark others
  125. California teacher reform lawsuit sparks copycat, more likely to come
  126. School choice is popular — when parents know about it
  127. What can private schools learn from charters?


Mary was formerly a national education reporter for Watchdog.org.