Beginning in 1991, when the Minnesota legislature passed the first charter law, more decision-making power over a child’s public school enrollment was given to parents. Since then, nationwide, states have continued to pass both public and private school choice legislation empowering parents to choose their child’s education. Currently 23 states and the District of Columbia have in place 48 private school choice programs (such as school vouchers or tax-credit scholarships), and 42 states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws.
The growing portfolio of school choice options invites healthy competition among schools that raises the bar for learning across the board. When parents are given the option to send their child to a traditional public school, charter school, or private school, teachers and administrators are incentivized to innovate and improve to garner student enrollment. But the strength of market mechanisms in education to raise school quality varies across states and school districts by the level of choice that is made available.
On-going school choice victories that have increased the participation in school choice, allow relative comparison of the strength of public and private school choice across states and even within-states. A recent publication, A Comparison of School Choice in Texas School Districts, by Lloyd Bentsen IV and Gabriel Odom of the National Center for Policy Analysis accomplishes this by estimating the strength of public school choice across Texas school districts.
As cited in the study, currently Texas has more than 500 public charter schools enrolling approximately 180,000 students with over 101,000 students on waiting lists. Additional alternative public school options include the state’s 286 magnet schools/programs that enroll more than 250,000 students with many more students on wait lists for those schools. These numbers alone make it clear that the demand for school choice options in the Lone Star state — which has failed to pass any private school choice legislation — is strong.
Based on the evidence that there is greater demand for charter and magnet school enrollment than traditional public school enrollment, Bentsen and Odom estimate the level of school choice for 1,025 Independent School Districts (ISDs) in Texas. Their findings show that urban and suburban school districts, on average, have more school choice. They also found that a large number of districts with higher-than-average school choice are in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan areas.
Two noteworthy school districts among Texas districts with higher-than-average school choice also happen to be among the top school districts nationwide for their market share of public school choice. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, San Antonio ISD is among the top 10 school districts for highest percentage of public charter school students served. And, Houston ISD is among the top 10 school districts for highest number of public charter school students served.
Bentsen and Odom’s findings shed light upon which Texas school districts are best equipped to offer parents and students more choices for where they earn an education. However, these findings have not created spots in magnet and charter schools for the 100,000 plus students on waiting lists across the state. The authors’ concluding policy recommendations point to the nation-wide trend of school choice expansion. Like several other states with charter law, Texas should amend their law to allow unrestricted charter school authorization (currently Texas is limited to authorizing 10 schools per year), and to push for private school choice programs in order to benefit more families seeking school choice.