School choice programs are popular — when parents know about them

Part 128 of 126 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson |

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

In Florida, for instance, one school choice program got 75,000 applications 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