Busting the myth of ‘one size fits all’ public education

Advocates of school choice often accuse public schools of delivering a “one size fits all” education. Give parents the ability to choose a school, so the argument goes, and competition will produce more variety, parents will find a better match for their child’s unique needs, and better results will follow. The truth is, public education is not the monolith its critics make it out to be. 

Although the current dialogue about school choice is generally focused on charter schools, vouchers and the overall diversion of taxpayer monies to private entities, it misses a fundamental reality: most public school districts already offer a wide range of choices to their students. These vary from academic concentrations in specific areas such as the arts or STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) to different career pathways, Advanced Placement courses and more. 

At the Center for Public Education, we have been examining the research and data related to school choice in hopes of informing the conversation about effective policies. Earlier this year, we revised our 2015 overview on school choice with more recent research, although it didn’t change our earlier conclusion: school choice works for some students sometimes, is worse for some students sometimes, and is usually no better or worse than traditional public schools. 

In this report, we turn from looking at the impact of school choice to examining access to options within the public education system. Using data from the federal Schools and Staffing Survey, we document the prevalence of various program choices inside public schools and, where possible, compare these to private schools. 

NSBA's Position on School Choice
The Center for Public Education is an initiative of the National School Boards Association (NSBA). While we seek to be as objective as possible in our work, we have one clear bias: CPE is for public education. Readers should also be aware that NSBA has official positions on school choice, as follows:

Public education choice: NSBA supports “locally elected school boards in expanding public school choices to meet the needs of students in a rapidly changing world.” This support extends to charter schools as long as the local school board “retains sole authority” to grant and revoke charters. NSBA opposes charter schools “not subject to oversight of the local school board.”

Non-public education choice: NSBA “recognizes and upholds the right of any group to establish and maintain schools so long as such schools are fully financed by their own supporters.” At the same time, NSBA believes public tax dollars should “only support public schools” and opposes “vouchers, tax credits, and tax subsidies for use at non-public K-12 schools.” NSBA further believes that “private and home schools should be subject to governmental regulation that assures a minimum standard of instruction under state law and adherence to the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

Our report is not comprehensive. Data on program choice within schools was limited. Data was also lacking for several enrichment and extracurricular programs, such as team sports and clubs. 

Nonetheless, we believe the findings we report here can contribute to the public debate about school choice by presenting a fuller picture of the many options already available in the neighborhood school and local district.

Choices between and choices within public school districts 

There are many ingredients that go into a high-quality education: good teachers, effective principals, high-level curriculum and extra support for struggling students top the list. Offering students different program options is yet another strategy schools can use to make sure young people develop the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed, regardless of what their personal choices are for after high school. 

Many school districts offer magnet or charter schools to students, which provide additional opportunities for parents to select the school building that they think will best suit their child’s needs. 

  • 43 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing the formation of charter schools (ECS 2016) 
  • 38 states and DC have magnet schools; the most common themes are STEM, arts, and health (Brookings, 2017) 
  • 33 states have mandatory or voluntary intra- or within-district transfer (ECS 2016) 

Options abound, some cases surpass, those offered in private schools 

School buildings are not the only avenue for choice. Many public schools, especially high schools, offer a wide variety of academic and extracurricular options for students to explore or focus on. Some states, such as Texas, even offer a choice of diploma. In most cases, we found that public schools offer more variety than private schools. 

  • City and suburban public high schools are more likely than town or rural schools to offer Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, but have similar opportunities for other types of programs. Regardless of location, public schools offer more in-school choices than private schools overall. 

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  • As with other educational resources, inequities in access to program choices exist between high-poverty schools and their wealthier counterparts. Even so, more high-poverty public high schools offer more program choices than private schools overall. 

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Finding out what works for individual students 

Giving parents and students choices, whether of school or specialized program, is just one strategy for engaging students’ diverse interests and needs. Public schools are continually exploring new ways to better serve individual students. For example, new data systems and technology are helping teachers deliver personalized learning experiences. Schools that have embraced such methods place students at the center of the curriculum, supporting their development of critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills alongside academics (Future Ready Schools, 2017). 

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) encourages states to think more broadly about how they measure school performance by looking at non-academic factors along with state test scores and graduation rates. Many of the state plans either drafted or submitted under ESSA show states are taking advantage of the new flexibility. 

At this writing, 20 states have drafted plans that include strategies to better meet individual student needs, such as personal learning plans, multiple pathways to graduation, and attention to social-emotional learning. At least four are proposing to advance students on the basis of mastery or proficiency of state standards rather than seat time as schools typically do now (KnowledgeWorks, 2017). Such policies will allow students to progress through school at their own pace, through pathways of their choosing, while assuring every one of them has developed the academic foundation they need for life after high school. 

Questions for school leaders 

While state policy governs much of school choice policy, school boards and superintendents still have a great deal of control over the options they provide parents and students in their district. LEAs, for example, comprise the vast majority of charter school authorizers (National Association of Public Charter School Authorizers, 2017). Magnet schools are likewise under local control.

School leaders who want to expand options for students, or improve on what they already have, should consider the following questions:

  • What choices do you offer students now?
  • Is there equitable access to all programs?
  • Do you have a communications plan in place to inform students and parents about the choices you offer? 
  • Are there local colleges and businesses with whom you can partner to provide college and career-related learning opportunities 
  • Do you have sufficient resources -- including teachers, counselors and technology -- to expand program choices? 
  • Do you have a data system that enables teachers, counselors, parents and students to personalize learning experiences and monitor individual progress? 
  • How will you hold yourselves accountable for providing choices that serve students’ interests and needs while assuring every student is meeting state academic standards?


This study was written by Patte Barth, director, and Chandi Wagner, former research analyst for the Center for Public Education 

© Center for Public Education, 2017