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School Choice Laws and Public School Enrollment Effects

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In recent years, the concept of school choice has gained significant traction across the United States. This movement aims to provide families with the option to choose the best educational setting for their children, whether that be public, private, charter, or home schooling. While the intent behind school choice laws is to enhance educational opportunities, their implementation has sparked considerable debate regarding their impact on public school enrollment.  

School choice laws have undeniably reshaped the educational landscape in the United States. While they offer some benefits, including increased options for families and potential improvements in school quality, they also present challenges related to equity, funding, and community impact. As policymakers and educators navigate this complex terrain, it is crucial to consider the diverse effects of these policies to ensure that all students have access to high-quality education. 

Let’s explore the effects of school choice laws on public school enrollment, examining both the potential benefits and challenges they present. 

Understanding School Choice Laws 

School choice laws vary from state to state but generally fall into a few broad categories: 

  1. Voucher Programs: These provide families with public funding to pay for private school tuition. 
  1. Charter Schools: Publicly funded but independently run, charter schools offer alternative educational approaches and curricula. 
  1. Magnet Schools: Public schools with specialized curricula designed to attract a diverse student body from across traditional school boundaries. 
  1. Open Enrollment Policies: Allow students to attend public schools outside their zoned district. 
  1. Education Savings Accounts (ESAs): Funds allocated for educational expenses, including private school tuition, online learning programs, tutoring, and more. 

Potential Benefits of School Choice 

Proponents of school choice argue that it fosters a competitive educational environment, which can lead to several positive outcomes: 

  1. Improved Academic Performance: By providing alternatives to underperforming schools, students may have access to better educational opportunities, potentially improving overall academic outcomes. 
  1. Increased Parental Satisfaction: Families can select schools that align with their values, educational preferences, and their child’s specific needs, leading to higher satisfaction. 
  1. Innovation in Education: Charter and magnet schools often serve as incubators for new teaching methods and curricula, which can influence traditional public schools to innovate and improve. 
  1. Resource Optimization: School choice can encourage more efficient use of educational resources, as funding follows the student, incentivizing schools to perform better. 

Challenges and Concerns 

Despite these potential benefits, school choice laws also pose significant challenges and raise concerns about their impact on public school enrollment: 

  1. Funding Disparities: Public schools may experience reduced funding as students migrate to charter or private schools, potentially leading to resource shortages and larger class sizes. 
  1. Equity Issues: School choice can exacerbate educational inequalities, as families with more resources are better positioned to take advantage of these options, leaving disadvantaged students in underfunded public schools. 
  1. Accountability: Private and charter schools may not be subject to the same level of accountability and transparency as public schools, raising concerns about educational quality and equity. 
  1. Community Impact: Declining enrollment in public schools can lead to school closures, impacting communities, reducing neighborhood cohesion, and diminishing local support systems.  

The Future of Education: Why Accurate Enrollment Projections Matter

This eBook explores why accurate student enrollment projections matter and explore their far-reaching implications on the quality of education, the stability of educational institutions, and the communities they serve.

The Impact on Public School Enrollment 

The implementation of school choice laws has significantly impacted public school enrollment in various ways. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has collected data and statistics on this issue that give us a very good idea about the impact these policy and legislative changes have had on public education. 

Declining Enrollment in Traditional Public Schools 

One of the most noticeable impacts of school choice laws is the decline in enrollment in traditional public schools. According to data from NCES, public charter school enrollment more than doubled from fall 2010 to fall 2021, from 1.8 million to 3.7 million students, an overall increase of 1.9 million students. 1 At the same time, traditional public school enrollment decreased by 4 percent, or 2.0 million students. 2 This shift indicates a growing preference for alternatives to traditional public schooling. 

In some states, voucher programs and education savings accounts (ESAs) have further accelerated this trend. For instance, the number of students participating in voucher programs has increased significantly, leading to a corresponding decrease in public school enrollment. In Ohio, voucher use grew by over 400% from 2013-2014 to 2023-2024, indicating a substantial shift towards private schooling options.3 ​ 

The Importance of Accurate Enrollment Projections: Forecasting that Adapts to District Needs

The impact of enrollment trends on district budgets can be significant, which is why accurate enrollment projections are so important. 

Competitive Pressure and School Quality 

School choice laws are designed to introduce competition into the education system, theoretically encouraging public schools to improve their quality to retain students. Research indicates mixed results in this area. Some charter schools have shown dramatic improvements in student outcomes.4  

A study highlighted by The 74 suggests that while certain charter schools significantly boost academic achievement, the broader impact on public schools depends on various factors, including the local implementation of choice policies and the existing quality of public schools.5​  

Equity and Resource Allocation 

Another critical concern is the equitable distribution of educational resources. As funds follow students to charter and private schools, traditional public schools often face budget shortfalls. This can exacerbate resource disparities, particularly in low-income areas. In cities like Newark, New Jersey, the growth of charter schools has led to significant challenges for public schools, including increased segregation and the concentration of higher-need students in traditional schools​.6 

Moreover, school closures and staff layoffs in public schools often follow enrollment declines, further straining these institutions and potentially harming the students who remain. 

Policy and Community Impacts 

The broader policy implications of school choice laws extend to community dynamics and long-term educational outcomes. For example, the proliferation of charter schools in urban areas has led to varied reactions from local communities, with some welcoming the new options and others concerned about the destabilizing effects on traditional public schools. The debate continues on how best to balance the benefits of choice with the need to support all students equitably​. 

One School District’s Response to Declining Enrollment

In this episode of Field Trip, Sam shares his experience grappling with the financial realities of declining enrollment.  

Moving Forward 

As the debate over school choice continues, policymakers, educators, and communities must navigate a complex landscape to balance the benefits of increased options with the need to ensure equitable, high-quality education for all students. Effective implementation of school choice laws requires careful consideration of funding mechanisms, accountability standards, and support systems to mitigate potential negative impacts on public school enrollment. 

Taylor Plumblee

Dr. Taylor Plumblee is an experienced education executive with demonstrated success in education management and marketing. She joined Frontline Education in 2021 and is the Manager of Product and Solution Marketing with a focus on Student & Business Solutions including School Health Management, Special Program Management, Student Information Systems, and Data & Analytics. She has taught at both the elementary and high school levels in both traditional public and public charter schools. Her areas of expertise include student services, career technical education, special education, school health management, and student information systems.