Limited Educational Choice (Intra-District Choice, Inter-District Choice, and Charter Schools)

Limited educational choice removes barriers that parents face when choosing among government schools only.  Most forms of limited educational choice in the government school sector fall into one of three subcategories:  intra-district choice, inter-district choice, and charter schools.[62]

Intra-District Choice

In an intra-district school choice plan, school assignment is not restricted to one particular school within the school district's geographic boundary in which a child resides.  Instead, families may choose from among more than one school within the district.

Some form of intra-district choice always has been available in certain school districts throughout the United States.  School attendance areas are typically determined by local school boards.  Some boards have allowed parents and students considerable discretion in selecting schools outside their attendance areas, though others have been strict in adhering to school attendance zones.

At the very least, most districts allow student transfers for extraordinary reasons at the discretion of the school board or district central administration.  Transfer policies, however, should not be confused with intra-district choice.

There are three primary forms of intra-district choice: magnet schools, second-chance schools, and open enrollment.


(A) Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are district-operated schools designed to "attract" a racially diverse student body and, as a result, are predominantly an urban phenomenon, often associated with court-ordered desegregation plans.  These schools offer alternatives to the traditional curriculum available within districts and typically share three primary characteristics:  (1) a curriculum designed around a specific theme or method of instruction (such as fine arts, math and science, environmental studies); (2) a selected student population and teaching staff; and (3) students drawn from a variety of attendance areas.

Most magnet schools have little difficulty attracting students from within the district, so much so that long waiting lines to attend these schools are common.  Admissions procedures for magnet schools vary from district to district.  In some cases, it is first-come, first-served; in others, seats are allocated for racial balance; and in still others, a lottery is used.  In practice, many magnet schools have procedures for "selecting out" certain categories of students that do not fit into the school's mission. 

What distinguishes magnet schools from other categories of intra-district choice is the decision by the district to limit choice to a small number of schools that have additional resources that other schools do not have and that are able to operate with more flexibility than other schools.

(B) Second-Chance Schools

Second-chance schools gained acceptance in the 1960s and were designed for students who, for a variety of reasons, did not function well in traditional schools.  These schools typically serve students who have dropped out of school or who are in danger of dropping out due to under-achievement, pregnancy, low skills, or drug or alcohol dependency.  These schools seek to "rescue" students by providing an alternative to traditional schooling.

Second-chance schools differ from traditional educational programs in organizational structure, size, and curricular offerings.  Typically, these schools offer open, flexible alternatives to students who are more philosophically comfortable with open learning environments.  Good second-chance schools usually have long waiting lists.  Like magnet schools, however, interest in these programs has not significantly increased the number of second-chance schools.  Therefore, these successful educational programs typically serve a relatively small percentage of the student population.

Although second-chance schools are often thought of as occupying separate facilities, they can and do exist within traditional school buildings.  For example, the "school-within-a-school" approach to increase choice within government schools is an important alternative for many children and parents who do not want to leave neighborhood schools. 


(C) Open Enrollment

In intra-district open enrollment, families may choose to send their children to any school (offering the appropriate grade levels and with available space) located within their resident school district (or a region thereof in larger districts).  In practice, most intra-district choice plans leave intact the existing "neighborhood" school attendance areas; that is, children of families in the school's "attendance zone" are assigned to that school unless their parents choose another school.  In addition, students from outside a neighborhood may not displace resident students in neighborhood schools.  

The amount of space available for students from outside the attendance area is usually limited because districts continually redraw attendance areas to use available building space efficiently.  Rarely do neighborhoods produce exactly the right number of children at each grade level to fill up the schools precisely.

Despite differences in organizational structure, size, curricular offerings, and institutional setting, intra-district schools-of-choice share some common characteristics.  Most notably, each continues to operate under the authority and, therefore, control of the district's central administration.  They depend on the district for their operating revenue rather than generating their own revenue based on level of enrollment.  Rarely do these schools have control of their own budgets, and thus they are unable to expand their capacity spontaneously in response to greater enrollment demand.  This explains why popular government schools-of-choice usually have long waiting lists.  In addition, intra-district schools-of-choice are usually subject to the same rules and employee contracts that govern existing neighborhood schools.  As a result, they have limited control over such personnel matters as hiring and firing.  Therefore, intra-district schools-of-choice are limited in their diversity and responsiveness to parental and student demand by their lack of organizational independence.


Inter-District Choice

Inter-district choice typically allows families to send their children to any government school in the resident state or a region therein, subject to the following restrictions: (a) the receiving district agrees to accept nonresident students; (b) available space exists within the receiving district's schools; and (c) the transfer will not adversely affect racial desegregation mandates.  In a very few cases, districts are required by the state to accept nonresident students if the districts have space available.  Some plans are the result of voluntary compacts between districts apart from any state mandate.

Voluntary compacts between districts, however, are the exceptions: Most school districts are reluctant to waive their claim to per-student state aid for resident students who want to enroll in another district.  School districts that might enroll students from other districts have little incentive to accept students who bring no state aid to their school system, unless the student's family can afford to pay tuition out-of-pocket.  Therefore, most inter-district open enrollment plans are the result of a state legislative mandate that, in effect, allows a per-pupil share of state aid to follow students from the resident district to a non-resident district of their choice.

In some states, inter-district choice has been used to facilitate voluntary desegregation between two or more districts by offering unique and special-focus schools to attract children from both urban and suburban settings.  Inter-district choice also has been used to give parents and children attending government schools greater flexibility in choosing educational programs.  Frequently, small towns and rural communities have only one school at the middle and high school levels, so inter-district choice enables parents to expand their educational options to neighboring communities.

Inter-district choice is usually complicated by the fact that school districts spend different amounts per student and have different mixes of local and state tax revenue.  In most states, local government revenues cannot be appropriated by the state legislature for state purposes or transferred to other governmental districts without local voter approval.  As a result, state revenues are the only source of revenue for participating inter-district choice schools.  The greater the reliance by a state on local tax revenues to fund government-run schools, the more difficult it is to implement inter-district choice, for taxpayers within a particular district are understandably reluctant to absorb most of the educational costs of nonresident students.  Even in states that heavily subsidize local districts with state revenues, the amount of state subsidy often varies greatly among districts.  In such states, high-spending districts—which are most often the subject of choice by nonresident students—are reluctant to accept any amount of state aid less than their per-pupil cost without charging additional tuition.


Charter Schools 

Charter schools are new kinds of government schools that operate as schools-of-choice.  Unlike traditional government schools, no students are assigned to charter schools on the basis of the neighborhoods in which they live.  Charter schools rely solely on voluntary choice for their enrollment.  Charter schools receive government funding based upon the number of students they are able to attract, not based on local property taxes or other revenue streams.  If charter schools do not attract students, they do not receive funding.  Minnesota passed the nation's first charter school law in 1991; and by 2000, thirty-six states and the District of Columbia had adopted charter laws.  However, only 2 percent of all public schools are all charter schools serving approximately 1 percent of all students.[63]

 In general, charter schools can be defined simply as government-sponsored autonomous schools, substantially deregulated and free of direct administrative control by the government.  The essential idea behind charter schools is to grant educational professionals and others greater freedom to create and operate their own schools in exchange for their agreement to be held accountable for their performance.  Charter schools are designed to provide educators greater managerial freedom than that which is enjoyed in district-sponsored schools-of-choice and to give parents a much greater choice among government schools.

In their most uncompromised form, charter schools operate as independent government schools with control of their own budgets and staffing.  Non-educators as well as educators can create them, or they can be conversions of existing government or private schools.  They are authorized via a charter by governmental authorities such as school districts, public universities, or the state board of education.

A charter is, in effect, a performance-based contract: If the school does not perform up to the academic standards outlined in its charter, the charter can be revoked by the authorizing governmental body.  Generally, these standards are at least as stringent as those that apply to all district-operated government schools.

Charter schools are typically exempt from some rules and regulations that apply to district-operated schools, not including those pertaining to health and safety, public accountability, and nondiscrimination.  Generally, however, charter schools cannot be selective in their admissions policies beyond any means used by traditional government schools.

Charter schools generally receive no government funding for start-up expenses or for their physical facilities, nor can they charge tuition.  As a result, charter schools must raise voluntary private resources to establish themselves.

Charter schools have been described as government schools "operating in a private school environment."  Charter schools have similarities to private schools, such as their level of autonomy and their incentives to satisfy parents and attract students.  But they depend on government for their funding and their legal authorization.

[62]       Louann A. Bierlein, Controversial Issues in Educational Policy (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1993), pp. 91-92.

[63]       U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, The State of Charter Schools, 2000, January 2000; available on the Internet at