School Choice: What the research says

Giving parents and students the ability to choose their school is promoted by supporters as the key to improving American education overall. On the surface, the idea has great appeal. Who, after all, opposes having choices?

Indeed, both Republican and Democratic policymakers have embraced school choice in various forms that range from opening up alternatives within the public school system to providing taxpayer dollars to students to take to private schools. But for all the rhetoric, does school choice live up to its supporters’ claims?

What the research says

NSBA’s Center for Public Education seeks to find an answer in this at-a-glance overview of school choice in all its permutations:

  • Choice within the public school system (magnet and charter schools, inter- and intra-district transfers, and traditional neighborhood schools)
  • Choice outside the public schools (private schools, vouchers and tax credits, homeschooling)
  • Virtual schools which can be either public or private. 

In our analysis, we describe each alternative, provide a quick look at state policies related to it, and calculate the proportion of the school-aged population served. Finally, we distill what research says about its impact on student achievement.

The bottom line

In general, we find that school choices work for some students sometimes, are worse for some students sometimes, and are usually no better or worse than traditional public schools. We hope that this report will inform the ongoing conversation about the efficacy of school choice in the nation’s efforts to assure every child is prepared for college, careers and citizenship.

First published October 2015
Updated January 2017
©  2017 Center for Public Education