The idea behind school choice is straightforward: Giving families a range of educational choices, and requiring schools to compete with one another for the opportunity to serve them, should bring the same advances and efficiencies to education that it has brought to so many other areas of human endeavor. Schools that do a good job serving families would thrive, while those that do a poor job would lose students until they improved, were taken over by their competitors, or closed.

But while some people see parental choice and competition between schools as promising reforms, and worth trying out, others see them as a threat to the very existence of public education. That, I suggest, is a mistake – albeit an understandable one.

The root of this mistake is our failure to distinguish between the fundamental ideals of public education and our current institutions of public schooling. Our current system of state-run schools has been around for so long that we've come to view it as the only possible way of fulfilling our educational ideals. More than that, we've come to see our state-run school systems as indistinguishable from the goals that they are meant to achieve. As a result, any reform that significantly alters the way schooling is provided is now mistakenly seen as an attack on the whole idea of public education.

But public education is not a particular pile of bricks and mortar, nor is it a particular shelf full of regulatory minutiae. Public education is the idea that all children should have access to good schools, and that they should be prepared not just for success in private life, but also for participation in public life. If we are truly committed to these ideals of public education, we have to pursue them by the most effective possible means. We know that our current approach to public schooling is falling short of our expectations, and so we must be prepared to consider alternative approaches.

If a school system based on parental choice and competition can do a better job of fulfilling both our individual needs and our shared social goals, then we owe it to our children and ourselves to make that system as widely available as possible. The question is, can it?

Supporters of school choice believe it can, because they see their reform as a solution to the problems experienced with "model school" programs. Competition and parental choice, they believe, would give educators the incentive to adopt effective pedagogical programs, implement them widely, and maintain and improve them over time. Educators who succeeded in doing so would enjoy all the personal, professional, and financial rewards that their important work deserves, while those who failed to do so would risk putting their careers in jeopardy.

That, in a simplified form, is the theory. But the modern school choice movement is young, and no unanimity has yet been achieved on the best way to implement a choice program. A variety of proposals have been made, and some have already been implemented, and they must be evaluated on their performance in the real world. So let's look at the three of the most widely discussed and studied choice programs: charter schools, education vouchers, and tuition tax credits.

Charter schools are public schools that are allowed somewhat greater latitude in choosing their curriculum and hiring their teachers than traditional public schools. Students generally have to choose to attend a charter school, and the schools have to accept everyone who applies or, if they are oversubscribed, must admit students on the basis of a random lottery.

Among the most recent surveys of the charter school research were a pair of reports published in October and November of 2000. The first report was by the National School Boards Association (NSBA),[41] a frequent critic of charter schooling, while the second was released by the Center for Education Reform (CER),[42] a supporter of the charter movement. Not at all surprisingly, the NSBA report condemned charter schools for having failed to live up to expectations in the areas of innovation and student achievement, while CER lauded the schools for their successes in these areas.

The ease with which these organizations could look at the same body of research and come to contradictory conclusions is explained by two factors: First, most of the research is not in the form of rigorous scientific experiments with concrete, measurable findings. Second, results have varied from one charter school to the next, and each side in the debate has had a tendency to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

In judging the success of charter schooling, the current lack of conclusiveness described above is, well, inconclusive. Charter schools, and choice programs generally, do not promise that all freely-chosen schools will excel, but rather that the better schools and better methods will drive out the worse ones over time, leading to steady and continuous improvement in the public's desired educational outcomes.

Since charter schooling is less than a decade old, and most charter schools have been around for just a few years, it is still premature to say how well this process is working. For the moment, at least, no one disputes the fact that parental satisfaction is higher in charter schools than in traditional public schools, and that the movement is growing as a result.

Education voucher programs represent a more profound change than charter schools, giving parents not just a choice of government-run schools, but also allowing them to chose independent schools. Instead of education tax money always being given to public school districts based on their enrollment figures, the money follows children to whichever public or independent schools their parents think will serve them best.

Research into the academic outcomes of voucher programs has been somewhat more consistent than that done on charter schools. Most rigorous, randomized experiments evaluating voucher programs have found academic benefits in one or more subjects after the first few years of participation.[43] This has not stopped a vigorous and often hostile debate over the significance of the findings. Critics allege that the gains are not generalizable beyond the studied groups, or that variations in the specific findings of different researchers cast doubt on the entire enterprise.

At present, the tide seems to have turned somewhat in favor of voucher supporters. Researchers at the University of Indiana, who found no significant benefit from the Cleveland voucher program in its first year of operation, are now reporting that they too are seeing higher performance from voucher students after several years of participation. Professor John Witte, whose early work on the Milwaukee voucher program was often cited by critics of vouchers, now counts himself among the supporters of that program.[44]

As with charter schools, the research does consistently show that parents are more satisfied, usually far more satisfied, with their chosen voucher schools than they were with their previous public schools. But the very freedom of parents to direct their own children's education is at the heart of other criticisms leveled at vouchers. Some critics fear that if all parents were allowed to make key educational choices for their children, integration and social harmony would suffer.

Yet another, usually quite separate, group of critics cautions that existing voucher programs should be evaluated solely on their own terms, rather than being treated as though they were tests of the underlying principles of parental choice and competition between schools. Their concern is that the specific restrictions, features, and omissions of existing voucher programs may have a powerful effect on their success or failure. Ignoring the details of current voucher programs, they suggest, could lead to erroneous conclusions about school choice programs more generally.

An alternative approach to ensuring universal access to the education marketplace is to offer a credit against state and local taxes for anyone who pays tuition for a child in an independent school. Instead of taxing families and then giving them back their money in the form of an education voucher, parents would be able to keep more of the money they themselves earned, and thus more easily afford tuition payments.

Even families who pay little or no state or local taxes can benefit from such a program. The process works like this: Businesses and individual taxpayers make donations to private scholarship funds, and claim a credit against their own taxes. Scholarship funds then distribute that money to families, paying some or all of their children's tuition at the independent schools of their choosing.

Tax credit programs have several variations. Some, like the program operating in Arizona, do not allow the credit to be taken against tuition payments for a specified child, instead requiring taxpayers to make donations only to scholarship funds for the benefit of anonymous children. This prevents parents from using the credit to offset their own children's educational expenses, just as it prevents friends, grandparents, and other relatives from helping out those closest to them. Such restrictions are generally politically motivated, and yield no obvious educational benefit.

Credits can also be phased in over time, to make it easier for the legislature, public school districts, and state treasury to handle migration of students from state-run schools to independent schools. By tying the phase in of a tax-credit program to a gradually rising income ceiling for families eligible to receive tuition assistance from private scholarship funds, it would be possible to ensure that the most needy families are the first to benefit.

One respect in which tax-credits are similar to the existing public school system is that no taxpayer is forced to subsidize religious education. A citizen who wanted to help low-income families gain access to independent schools, but who did not wish to support religious schooling, could make a donation to a strictly secular scholarship fund. Alternately, that citizen could simply not take the credit at all. Alternately, citizens who were not fundamentally opposed to religious education could donate to scholarship funds that treated religious and non-religious schools equally, leaving the choice up to individual parents. Since all the money spent under a tax credit program is private money (it is never collected in taxes in the first place), there can be no entanglement of church and state.

Tax credits are superior to the existing public school system, and to charter schools, in that they do not discriminate against parents who wish to pursue a religious education for their children. The free exercise of religion guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would thus be more fully realized under a tax-credit system than it is today.

Without direct government funding of schools, there would be no need for extensive government involvement in the operation of schools, as there is with public schools today. Bureaucratic red tape, and the inertia of large government enterprises are frequently cited as problems with existing public schools, and these could go away entirely under a tax-credit system.

The tuition tax credit systems described above are quite a recent idea, but even the young and quite restrictive Arizona program, which limits the size of the credit to just $500 per taxpayer and does not allow businesses to take the credit, raised 17 million dollars for independent school tuition assistance in 2000, after just a few years of operation. By raising or eliminating existing limits and expanding the program to include education tax credits for businesses, the program could be expanded to serve every family who wished to participate.

One aspect in which tax credits, charter schools, and vouchers are similar is in their positive social effects. Early worries raised about choice programs have now been put to rest by numerous independent studies. In particular, concerns that parental choice would "cream off" the brightest students from traditional public schools, and attract mostly white students, have turned out to be mistaken.[45] This is consistent with recent findings that freely chosen private schools are generally better integrated by race and socioeconomic status than public schools.[46] So, in their social effects, choice programs may have an advantage over both traditional public schools and over the other reforms discussed above.