School Choice 1999:
What's Happening in the States

By Nina Shokraii Rees and Sarah E. Youssef


School choice had another banner year in 1998:

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Congress complemented these developments by debating and passing two school choice measures. For the first time ever, Congress passed bills aimed at empowering parents to utilize the best schools and materials available to educate their children. President Bill Clinton vetoed both bills: Another promising development in 1998 came when Arthur Levine, the president of Columbia University's Teachers College and a lifelong opponent of school choice, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "after much soul-searching, I have reluctantly concluded that a limited school voucher program is now essential for the poorest Americans attending the worst public schools."{7} Mr. Levine joins the ranks of the many former opponents who today make some of the most convincing arguments for school choice.{8}

Today, Phi Delta Kappa places general public support for school choice at an all-time high of 51 percent--which jumps to 56 percent for parents with children in public schools.{9} With the Supreme Court's decision, further social science support, and growing public and philanthropic interest, parents should be optimistic in 1999. The developments of the past year give supporters of choice a major boost in the climb to the summit of full parental choice.


The first means-tested publicly sponsored school choice model in the nation is the Milwaukee school choice plan.{10} This program, approved by the state legislature in 1990, was limited initially to private schools. After undergoing a grueling round of litigation, it passed constitutional muster and, in 1995, was expanded to include religious schools. The education establishment immediately forced a court-ordered injunction to block funding for religious schools. The injunction lasted until June 1998, when, in a momentous decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court:

Citing a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the majority, in an opinion written by Justice Donald W. Steinmetz, declared, "The simplistic argument that every form of financial aid to church-sponsored activity violates the Religion Clauses was rejected long ago.... Not one cent flows from the state to a sectarian private school under the [plan] except as a result of the necessary and intervening choices of individual parents."{12} The one-paragraph dissenting opinion addressed only the Wisconsin constitution's religious establishment provision. The First Amendment issue was effectively settled by a vote of 4 to 0.

The Wisconsin decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared on November 11, 1998, that it would not review the state court's decision upholding Milwaukee's publicly funded voucher program. Thanks to this development, more than 6,000 low-income students in Milwaukee now attend 90 different parochial and secular private schools of their parents' choice.

Support for the Milwaukee voucher program is at an all-time high. According to a July 1998 survey of 1,000 Wisconsin residents conducted by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute and Louis Harris & Associates, 62 percent of Milwaukee residents support the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision upholding the expanded program. Among low-income parents, support soared, especially in Milwaukee: 73 percent of low-income African-Americans in the state and 72 percent of low-income parents in Milwaukee support the expanded program.{13}

The Milwaukee decision gives school choice a boost, but several other courtroom battles are still brewing.

Meanwhile, a group of Massachusetts parents have filed suit in Boston's federal court alleging that the state constitution wrongfully prohibits the enactment of school choice legislation. The plaintiffs, represented by the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm, claim that the state's 1854 Anti-Aid Amendment disallowing the use of any public money for religious schools contradicts parents' First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.{18} Becket is attacking the law in all 36 states that have such a provision--known as a Blaine Amendment.


Education entrepreneurs Ted Forstmann and John Walton captured headlines last year when they launched a new private school choice program called the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF).{19} They pledged $100 million to provide low-income students in 40 selected cities across the country with scholarships to attend the school of their choice. CSF will match funds raised by parents and interested parties in those selected cities. A lottery in April 1999 will determine who will receive the four-year scholarships for children entering kindergarten through 8th grade.

Similarly, on April 22, the Children's Educational Opportunity (CEO) Foundation America, through CEO Horizon, offered every family in the predominantly Hispanic Edgewood district of San Antonio, Texas, a scholarship to send their children to a school of choice. CEO Horizon will make at least $50 million available over the next ten years. It is the largest district-wide program in the nation.{20} During the 1998-1999 school year (the program's first year), 700 students elected to leave Edgewood public schools for private schools.

On the research front, Professor Paul Peterson of Harvard University's Program on Education Policy and Governance and Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., released the results of their research studying the effects of New York's School Choice Scholarships Foundation (SCSF). The SCSF announced in February 1997 that it would award 1,300 scholarships to children from low-income families who were attending public school to allow them to transfer to private schools. The scholarships, valued at $1,400 annually, could be redeemed for at least three years at both religious and secular schools.

The response was overwhelming. More than 20,000 students applied for scholarships between February and late April 1997. Recipients were selected by lottery in May 1997, and 75 percent of those selected accepted the scholarship and began school that fall.

The Peterson/Mathematica study documented the gains in academic scores by students participating in the SCSF program.{21} Because the SCSF scholarships were awarded by lottery, evaluators were able to conduct a natural experiment in which students were allocated randomly to the scholarship and control groups. The study compared scholarship recipients in 2nd through 5th grades to students in similar grades with similar backgrounds who had applied for scholarships but did not receive one. The aggregate differences in test scores between the scholarship recipients and the control group for all grades was about two percentile points in both reading and math, but 4th and 5th graders scored four percentile points higher than the control group in reading and six points higher in math.{22}

The study also revealed that parents of scholarship recipients were more satisfied with their children's education and other aspects of school life than were parents in the control group.

Charter Schools Climb in Popularity

Several studies of charter schools were conducted last year {24}, but one offered the best insight into the impact of charter schools in boosting parental involvement and improving the schools. A study by the Pioneer Institute's Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center found that Massachusetts charter school parents reported more involvement with their children's education.{25} Specifically, these parents:

Another Pioneer study, released in July 1998, revealed that teachers at Massachusetts' charter schools found it easier to participate in the decision-making process at charter schools than at their previous schools.{26} According to this study, the most common reason teachers give for seeking a position at a charter school is the school's mission and educational philosophy (51 percent); the other reasons include control over curriculum and instruction (47 percent); the quality of academic programming (42.5 percent); and the school's collaborative working environment (41 percent). The study also shows that nearly half the teachers in charter schools hold a master's or higher degree, with 67 percent holding a Massachusetts teaching certificate.

One charter school in Boston became the first public school in the nation to offer a "learning guarantee" to parents. The Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School promises that if a student does not pass the 10th grade state assessment test, his or her parents have the right to send the student to another school of their choice.{27} The Academy will transfer the $7,400 per-pupil state expenditure to that school. However, parents must sign weekly progress reports on their child, and if the school feels a student is lagging behind, the student must consent to work with a tutor. The Academy's innovative approach to serving the needs of students and guaranteeing them a good education provides an excellent model for other schools to follow.


Several states will have an opportunity to pass school choice legislation in the coming year. Complementing these efforts, Pennsylvania school choice advocates in November 1998 proposed voucher legislation that most likely will be considered when the General Assembly reconvenes in 1999. The legislation would phase in financial support to parents below a certain income level to pay for private school tuition.{30}

Two efforts in Michigan and California to put education tax credits on the ballot in 2000 are also worth watching.


For many, 1998 will be remembered as the year school choice received its biggest legal boost and generated a flurry of support from state and Washington legislators, former school choice opponents, and low-income parents. The school choice movement has a long road to climb before reaching acceptance nationwide, but developments in 1998 moved supporters over one of the most difficult ridges in the ascent toward full parental choice. The horizon now appears much clearer.

--Nina Shokraii Rees is Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation. Sarah E. Youssef is a Research Assistant at The Heritage Foundation.

Produced by The Domestic Policy Studies Department. Published by The Heritage Foundation. Copyright 1999 The Heritage Foundation. Used by permission.


1. Institute for Justice, press release, "U.S. Supreme Court Lets Stand Wisconsin School Choice Decision," November 9, 1998. See

2. Jeff Archer, "Millionaires to Back National Voucher Project," Education Week, June 10, 1998. See

3. Mark Walsh, "Group Offers $50 Million for Vouchers," Education Week, April 29, 1998.

4. Paul E. Peterson, David Myers, and William G. Howell, "An Evaluation of the New York City School Choice Scholarships Program: The First Year," PEPG98-12, Harvard University, October 1998.

5. Sari Horwitz, "Poll Finds Backing for D.C. School Vouchers: Blacks Support Idea More Than Whites," The Washington Post, May 24, 1998, pp. F1, F7.

6. "News in Brief: Clinton Vetoes GOP-Backed Savings-Account Measure: A Washington Roundup," Education Week, August 5, 1998.

7. Arthur Levine, "Why I'm Reluctantly Backing Vouchers," The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 1998.

8. See also Nina H. Shokraii, "What People Are Saying About School Choice," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1188, June 2, 1998.

9. See Lowell C. Rose and Alec M. Gallup, "The 30th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public School," Phi Delta Kappan, September 1998, p. 44.

10. Daniel McGroarty, Break These Chains: The Battle for School Choice (Rocklin, Cal.: Prima Publishing in Association with ICS Press, 1996).

11. Institute for Justice, Web site press release, "Voucher Victory! Wisconsin Supreme Court Upholds School Vouchers, Victory for Parents," June 10, 1998.

12. Supreme Court of Wisconsin, Case No. 97-0270, June 10, 1998.

13. Gordon Black, The Wisconsin Citizen Survey, Wisconsin Policy and Research Institute, Vol. 11, No 6 (August 1998).

14. Institute for Justice memorandum, "School Choice Litigation Status," January 1, 1999.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. George Will, "A Choice for Children," The Washington Post, November 29, 1998, p. C27.

19. Jeff Archer, "Millionaires to Back National Voucher Project," Education Week, June 10, 1998.

20. Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation, press release, "School Choice for an Entire District!" April 22, 1998.

21. Peterson et al., "An Evaluation of the New York City School Choice Scholarships Program: The First Year."

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. See also Sol Stern and Bruno V. Manno, "A School Reform Whose Time Has Come," City Journal, Summer 1998.

25. Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center, "Poll Finds Higher Satisfaction Rate Among Charter School Parents," Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, Policy Directions, No. 3, June 1998.

26. Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center, "Study Finds Charter School Teachers Are Stakeholders," Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, Policy Directions, No. 4, July 1998.

27. "Student Guarantees," The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 1998.

28. Abby Goodnough, "Mayor Proposes Voucher Experiment in Single School District," The New York Times Regional on the Web, January 15, 1999.

29. The Blum Center's Educational Freedom Report No. 61, July 17, 1998.

30. Mark Walsh, "'Green Light' for School Vouchers?" Education Week, November 18, 1998.

31. Based on personal communication with a state contact.

32. Darren Goode, "Arizona May Be First State With En Masse Vouchers," Education Daily, December 30, 1998.

33. See

34. Ibid.

35. Thomas D. Elias, "Web Site Petitions Support for School Vouchers," The Washington Times, November 27, 1998, p. A13.

36. Ibid.