The Evolution of School Choice

By Del Stover

The numbers are relatively small, but school officials in Madison, Wis., are paying attention. This spring, more than 600 students applied for transfers to surrounding suburban schools under the state’s open enrollment law. Although nearly half will change their minds, that number is still up from three years ago, when only 82 left the city’s 25,000-student school system.

“It’s not a large number, but because school funding is tied to every kid leaving, we do have concerns,” says Superintendent Daniel Nerad.

That reaction is hardly surprising. Urban school leaders have good reason to worry when students have plentiful options besides the traditional public schools. Eighty miles away, at least 30,000 students in Milwaukee -- more than a third of school-age children in the city -- will take advantage of Wisconsin’s liberal school choice policies and attend charter schools, enroll in suburban districts, or use publicly funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition.

Every student lost costs Milwaukee more than $6,000 in state aid.

Yet, it’s not just big-city districts that feel the impact of the nation’s steady embrace of school choice policies. This summer, Orange County, Fla., officials saw two affluent bedroom communities -- unhappy with their county schools -- talk of opening their own charters. Meanwhile, some rural Wisconsin schools recently voiced concern over the loss of students to an online “virtual” campus operated by a small-town district on the eastern edge of the state.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Today, more than 4,900 charter schools in 40 states serve 1.5 million students -- more than the number served by all public schools in Kansas. In 46 states, some form of open enrollment policy allows thousands of students to attend any public school with room to accept them. At least 150,000 students take advantage of publicly funded vouchers, and state-run and charter online schools now educate tens of thousands of children.

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