Education Trends

A Glossary for the Current Education Debate

State and federal officials talk about school choice, but what exactly is it? We define some key terms.

April 4, 2017
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School choice is a hot issue right now. In addition to being discussed in states across the country, it’s a key education priority of the Trump administration. Although the administration has proposed cutting the U.S. Department of Education’s budget by 13.5 percent, it seeks a $1.4 billion federal investment in school choice. This would include funding for a pilot private-school voucher program, new money for charter schools, and additional money for Title I that would be directed to follow students to the public school of their choice.

Other federal officials are talking about school choice as well. Introduced in the House of Representatives in January 2017, H.R. 610 would replace parts of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and would, among other changes, establish a voucher program “through which each state shall distribute block grant funds among local educational agencies.”

The landscape of education in this country could be subject to changes in the years ahead. Therefore, whether you’re for them or against them, schooling options need to be crystal clear to parents, students, and educators. We need to stay informed. So what exactly is school choice?

Terms to Know

Here are descriptions of key types of school choice to help you understand their differences, as well as resources so you can learn more.

Charter Schools: publicly funded, privately managed schools that operate semi-autonomously, meaning they’re free from some rules applicable to other public schools (such as around teacher hiring, budgets, and other operations). Unique in that they operate under the oversight of a charter authorizer—depending on state law, this can be a district, university, nonprofit, private business, independent state board, the state itself, or something else. The authorizer approves the application to start a charter school, ensures its quality, and decides whether it should remain open or be closed. State laws determine accountability for charter schools. More resources:  National Conference of State Legislatures and National Education Association.

Dual Enrollment: allows a student to be enrolled in two programs at the same time—typically a high school and either a college (community college or four-year university) or an apprenticeship program. Models vary, but most people think of dual credit—when a high school student takes a college course for both high school and college credit. In most cases, the postsecondary coursework is considered part of the public school experience, so is free to participating students. More resources: U.S. Department of Education and Education Commission of the States.

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs): state funds put into special savings accounts that parents manage for education expenses. The funds, which represent all or some of the money the state would have spent educating the child in public schools, can be used for qualifying expenses that can include private school tuition and fees, tutoring and test prep, homeschooling materials, special instruction and therapeutic services, transportation, and more, depending on the state. More resources: National Education Association and Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Magnet Schools: public schools that are typically organized around a focus (such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) or the arts) and/or based on a specific instructional model (such as Montessori or International Baccalaureate). Held to the same standards as all other public schools and typically operated by a school district or group of districts. Differ from other neighborhood public schools in that students are not assigned to them based on address. Diversity is normally but not always an important element of a magnet school. More resources: Magnet Schools of America.

Open Enrollment: allows students to transfer to districts or public schools other than the one to which they are assigned by address. Most such policies are one of two types. Interdistrict choice allows a student living in one school district to attend a public school in another district. Intradistrict choice allows students to attend a school within their district that is not their assigned school. More resources: Education Commission of the States.

Scholarship Tax Credits: allow individuals and businesses to take tax credits for donating money to private, nonprofit organizations that provide private school scholarships. Students choose from a list of approved private schools (and in some cases, public schools outside of the student’s district). These programs are similar to vouchers in many ways. More resources: National Conference of State Legislatures.

Title I Portability: proposals that assume that Title I funding should follow eligible children to the school of their choice, in the same way that vouchers work. Depending on the proposal, it can either include private schools that participate in the Title I program or only public schools. Title I portability is a particularly hot topic these days; it implies that individuals pay for services, with all eligible students receiving the same funding regardless of their needs. More resources: School Superintendents Association and American Action Forum.

Tuition Tax Credits: provide families with an income tax credit for private school expenses, such as tuition and textbooks. Some states offer a tax deduction (which lowers taxable income) instead of a tax credit (which lowers the taxes a person owes). In some states, any family with a child enrolled in a private school can take the credit or deduction, while others limit eligibility based on income or other factors. More resources: EdChoice and National Education Association.

Vouchers: allow students to attend a private school at public expense. The government provides a set amount of money, which varies based on voucher program, to parents or to the schools directly. In most places, private schools accepting voucher recipients must meet standards set by the government, and voucher recipients must meet eligibility requirements, such as family income, disability status, and/or the performance of their assigned public school. Voucher programs have been tested in courts for a variety of reasons, including the separation of church and state. Some voucher programs have been found unconstitutional while others have been upheld. More resources: Education Week, National Conference of State Legislatures, and American Federation of Teachers.

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