What Are School Vouchers?

How to fix lousy public schools is a big issue in this year’s presidential race. Just what are school vouchers, charter schools, and magnet schools?

Vouchers: You don’t like your public school? A voucher gives you some of the tax money the school would have spent to educate your child and allows you to use it to pay for tuition at a private or religious school. Though vouchers are getting a lot of attention, only a few small programs exist. Those in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Florida all target low-income families. In November, Californians will vote on Proposition 38, which would give $4,000 vouchers (called “scholarships”) to any child of any income level to pay for private or religious school. Other synonyms are “parental choice,” “opportunity scholarships,” “full school choice,” or “option of transferring.”

Charter Schools: These are public schools that are not run by the public school system. A group of people, often parents, teachers, or members of nonprofit organizations, apply for a contract to create a new school. The schools can have broad leeway in teaching methods and curriculum, but students have to meet certain achievement standards and participate in statewide testing. First established in Minnesota in 1991, charter schools now exist in 36 states and the District of Columbia.

Magnet Schools: Started in the 1970s, these are public schools designed to attract students outside their immediate neighborhood. They generally have a joint purpose of racial balance and a distinctive academic focus–such as arts or sciences.

Public School Choice, Public School Option, Open Enrollment: This gives parents some ability to pick which public school to send their children to instead of being required to go to the nearest one.

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Explainer wishes to thank Nina Shokraii Rees of the Heritage Foundation and Mary Kayne Heinze of the Center for Education Reform.