Parents Snatching Up Vouchers and K-12 Scholarships for New School Year

School choice programs offer fiscal flexibility for policymakers, but more importantly, school vouchers and scholarships can present frontiers of opportunity for American families.
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In today's woozy economy, we should be heartened when we see high demand in a vital service sector like American K-12 education.

Demand for what, you ask?

Parents are responding in droves for school vouchers and K-12 scholarships, as more have been made available in 2011 than ever before.

So where is the demand?

For starters, we can look at my home state of Indiana. Three months ago, Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the nation's broadest school voucher law for K-12 education, having the potential to untether students, families, teachers, principals, and other entrepreneurs. The new school voucher program is a substantial policy achievement and innovation in a sector that is desperate for bold ideas.

Indiana's new Choice Scholarship Program allows low-and-middle income Hoosier families to qualify for school vouchers or scholarships that pay for part or all of private school tuition. The program should have broad appeal. More than 500,000 students in the state are eligible. The program is also abundantly fair. A Choice Scholarship, or voucher, is determined on a sliding scale based on a family's household income.

In just a month's time, some 2,200 students have already applied for scholarships to transfer to private schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Most of these kids have tried the public schools for at least one year, but they are now looking for a school that is better tailored to meet their needs. Their decision to find a new school could be based on a school's academics, safety, mission, culture, location or other factors. It's now up to the family to determine what school makes the most sense.

Based on the history of other school choice programs around the country, we know that it takes at least a few years for the word to spread about school vouchers and K-12 scholarships. At first, many parents simply can't believe that they now have this option. Once they realize the opportunity is real, they often feel joy and empowerment. That is no exaggeration.

Indiana is not venturing into school choice territory alone. This year has emerged like no other where we've seen proposals for school vouchers and scholarships advance around the country.

Politicians -- left, right, and center -- are recognizing there is growing demand among American families who want a range of schooling options for their kids. They get that the debate around "school choice" is one in which life-changing events literally hang in the balance. If you have ever met a family who participates in a school voucher or scholarship program, you know that last sentence rings true.

Demand has transformed into action in statehouses throughout the country in 2011. We have never seen in a single year in which so many school choice bills have been introduced (105): resulting in eight new programs and expansion or enhancement of 11 existing school choice programs. There are now more than 30 school choice programs operating in 18 states and Washington, D.C.

By the end of this month, it is estimated that more than 200,000 students will be participating in school choice programs that offer vouchers and scholarships.

Yes, demand for school vouchers and scholarships grew in 2011. And this demand is likely to continue to grow as word spreads about new programs and because the best research available shows that school vouchers are gaining popularity, and they can work well for families while saving states and school districts money.

Survey research can detect shifts in public opinion and levels of demand. Just last week the newly released Education Next/Harvard-PEPG survey reported a jump in support for vouchers. In their article explaining the annual survey's findings, the authors conclude:

"On many questions of education policy, opinion has not changed materially over the past year..." they wrote. But the authors go on to state, "Only when external events require a rethinking of their position are they inclined to alter their views. For that reason, we find it to be of some significance that over the course of the past year the public has become much more supportive of school vouchers."

The school choice research on student learning and fiscal impacts is also compelling. Nine out of 10 random-assignment studies, the gold standard in the social sciences, have found statistically significant learning gains among some or all students who use school vouchers. Greg Forster, a colleague of mine, recently reviewed the empirical research on "competitive effects" and concluded that 18 of 19 studies showed that school voucher programs have improved academic performance at nearby public schools. Effects are small to moderate in most of these studies, which is reasonable since the programs are all currently small or thinly dispersed within a K-12 student population. It is important to note that no high-quality study has found a negative impact on student learning among voucher participants or impacted public schools.

Fiscal evaluations of existing school choice programs are also worth mentioning. In his most recent analysis of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, Robert Costrell estimates the overall annual fiscal benefit from the program reached $37 million in 2009. Last year, the Florida Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability reported that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program saved taxpayers about $36.2 million in 2009 alone.

What can a policymaker do with these savings? These funds can be deposited into a state's rainy day fund, invested in infrastructure, applied to chronically stressed out programs (see Medicaid, state unemployment insurance, unfunded public pensions), or returned to taxpayers as a rebate.

School choice programs offer fiscal flexibility for policymakers, but more importantly, school vouchers and scholarships can present frontiers of opportunity for American families.

I'm spending time at the Indiana State Fair this week, and with others I'll be working a booth that will provide information about Indiana's new Choice Scholarship Program. In the uncertain and volatile economic time we live in, it's going to be nice to share good news... and maybe a deep-fried Reese's Cup or two... with Hoosier families.

DiPerna is the research director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and his wife Rose.

This post first appeared on Education News.

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