Spotlight Exclusives

Freedom to Succeed: How Using School Choice Can Help Narrow the Achievement Gap

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In American public schools today, no less than $120,000 is spent on a child۪s education from the start of kindergarten through high-school graduation. It۪s a staggering amount of money, rivaled only by Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway.

Despite ranking fourth in per-pupil expenditures among relatively wealthy Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, the United States ranks far lower in terms of academic achievement in math and reading. American 15-year-olds sit in the middle of the pack in terms of reading and near the bottom of industrialized countries in math achievement, falling behind Estonia, Slovenia, and the Slovak Republic.

The evidence is clearour educational system is in a state of crisis. Too many American students, particularly low-income children, are not receiving a quality education. The solution is not to spend more money, however, but to provide greater choice to students and families. 

The crisis afflicting American education is profoundly troubling. Not only has our investment failed to raise graduation rates roughly the same today as they were in the 1970s but also stubborn achievement gaps persistboth between white and minority children, and between low-income children and their more affluent peers.

In some of the nation۪s largest cities, low levels of academic achievement are endemic. In Milwaukee, just ten percent of eighth graders are proficient in reading, while in Baltimore, just 13 percent of eighth graders can do math at grade level.

Nationally, just 23 percent of low-income fourth graders (as defined by eligibility for free lunch) are proficient in math, compared to 40 percent of all children. Outcomes only worsen by the time poor children reach eighth grade math.

Sadly, among low-income children, literacy rates aren۪t much better. While nationally 34 percent of fourth and eighth grade children are proficient in reading, the already low figure drops by half to just 17 percent for low-income children.

A huge part of the problem is America۪s assignment-by-zip code policy, which forces many low-income children to attend the public school closest to where they live, often trapping them in low-performing schools that may not meet their unique learning needs. It۪s a monopoly system where schools are not required to compete for students, yet continue to receive funding, no matter how poorly the schools perform.

One possible remedy would be to provide low-income families control over the dollars spent on their children۪s education. Instead of funding physical school buildings, local, state, and federal education dollars would fund children instead, following them to the school of their choicepublic, private, virtual, or otherwise.

Many states have already moved in this direction. In fact, efforts nationwide to give parents more control over their child۪s share of education funding led The Wall Street Journal to crown 2011 “The Year of School Choice.” In all, 12 states and Washington D.C. either enacted or expanded school choice options last year.

Some of these states are implementing truly innovative approaches to school choice. In Arizona, for example, parents of special needs children can remove their child from a public school if it isn۪t meeting their needs, and can deposit what the school would have spent in an Education Savings Account (ESA). Families can then use their ESA money to pay for private school tuition, online learning courses, or special education services, among other educational expenses.

ESAs are unique because of the flexibility they provide families to customize their child۪s educational experience. And as virtual education becomes more and more prevalent, innovative funding options like those in Arizona will ensure online learning options are available to all families who wish to access them.

Although many of these programs are recent innovations, it۪s clear that school choice works. Take Washington, D.C., which has had the highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) in place since 2004. The OSP has enabled thousands of children to escape the underperforming and often unsafe D.C. public schools and attend a private school of their choice.

This voucher program has paid off tremendously for D.C. children. Low-income children in the nation۪s capital who used a voucher to attend a private school had a 91 percent graduation rate. The graduation rate in D.C. public schools hovers around 55 percent. Graduation rates in D.C. public schools stood at just 62 percent during the 2008-09 school year (the most recent year for which data is available from the National Center for Education Statistics).

Empowering parents with educational choice is the single best reform policymakers could make to improve educational outcomes for poor children. School choice is taking hold across the country. As more and more states move to give educational control to families, more and more children will see their educational opportunities flourish.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Lindsey M. Burke is The Will Skillman Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

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