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School Choice in the United States: 2019


The term “school choice” describes an array of elementary and secondary educational options available to students and their families. Parents can send their children to the public schools designated for their home address, or they may have other options within the public school system such as to enroll their children in charter schools or to apply for enrollment in other public schools within or across districts.1 Parents can also choose to send their children to private schools, which can be either religious or nonsectarian. Additionally, parents can choose to homeschool their children instead of enrolling them in a public or private school.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has a long tradition of analyzing issues related to school choice. NCES has implemented a wide range of data collections to measure student enrollment in different types of schooling. For example, surveys of traditional public schools and private schools started more than 100 years ago, and new data collections on charter schools and homeschooling were administered beginning in the 1990s. Using data from the National Household Education Survey (NHES), some previous NCES reports examined school choice: Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 1999 (NCES 2003-031); Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 2003 (NCES 2007-045); Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 2007 (NCES 2010-004); Parent and Family Involvement in Education, From the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2012 (NCES 2013-028); and Homeschooling in the United States: 2012 (NCES 2016-096). Drawing from multiple data sources, the current report provides updated information on a range of topics related to school choice in the United States.

In this report, indicators using sample survey data collected at the household level often categorize public schools as either assigned or chosen. A student is considered to be attending an assigned public school if the parent indicates that the school is the student’s “regularly assigned” school; a student is considered to be attending a chosen public school if the parent indicates that the school is not the student’s regularly assigned school (e.g., a traditional public school located outside the assignment boundary based on the student’s residence, a charter school, or a magnet school).2 In indicators using administrative universe data or school-based sample survey data that rely on the universe data for sampling, two categories of public schools are discussed—traditional public schools and public charter schools. Public charter schools are publicly funded schools that are typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract (or charter) with the state, district, or other entity. Traditional public schools include all publicly funded schools other than public charter schools. Since data on parental choice of a program or school other than the assigned public school are not available in the school-based administrative data, in indicators using these administrative data the traditional public school category also includes chosen public schools that are not charter schools. In this report, private schools are educational institutions that are controlled by an individual or organization other than a government agency and are usually not supported primarily by public funds. Data for private schools come from either household-based or school-based surveys. Students are considered to be homeschooled if their parents reported them being schooled at home instead of at a public or private school, if their enrollment in public or private schools did not exceed 25 hours a week, and if they were not being homeschooled only due to a temporary illness. All homeschooling data in this report come from household-based sample survey data.

The foundation of the public school choice movement can be traced back to the alternative schools reform models of the 1960s (Schneider, Teske, and Marschall 2000). Since those early reforms, other approaches to public school choice have emerged; these approaches have increased the number of options available to parents and their children. For instance, enrollment in charter schools has been rising since the inception of this type of school in the early 1990s. In the 2000–01 school year, 1,993 charter schools in 35 states and the District of Columbia served 1 percent of all U.S. public school students. In the 2016–17 school year, 7,011 charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia served about 6 percent of all public school students.3

Besides an expanded range of school choice programs provided by the public school system, parents also have the option of sending their children to private schools. Based on the school’s religious orientation, this report categorizes a private school as Catholic, conservative Christian, affiliated religious (schools that are affiliated with denominations other than Catholic or conservative Christian), unaffiliated religious (schools that have a religious orientation or purpose but are not affiliated with any specific denomination), or nonsectarian. Private school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 was lower in fall 2015 (5.8 million students) than in fall 1999 (6.0 million students).4

Homeschooling is an additional education option available to parents. While fewer families choose this option instead of enrolling their children in public or private schools, the number of students who receive homeschool instruction is still substantial: over 1.7 million students were homeschooled in the United States in 2016. This number was higher than in 2003 (1.1 million students) and in 1999 (850,000 students).5

Although the availability of school choice options has generally increased over time, not all options are available in all communities due to factors such as the enrollment size and density of the school district and local and state policies. This report is designed to provide a national perspective on general patterns in the availability of school choice across broad categories of schooling arrangements: enrollment in an assigned public school versus in a chosen public school, enrollment in a traditional public school versus in a public charter school, enrollment in a private school, and the choice to homeschool. This report does not provide detailed breakouts on other school choice options within these broader categories, such as magnet schools,6 virtual schools,7or the usage of open enrollment within or across districts. Also, the general national patterns in school choice availability and participation described in this report do not necessarily reflect patterns for specific states or localities.

Drawing from both school-based and household-based data sources, this report presents data on the following topics: how student enrollment in public and private schools has changed over time; how frequently families use homeschooling; the characteristics and experiences of students enrolled in various schooling arrangements; and whether there are differences across school types in student perceptions of school safety, in parental satisfaction, and in student outcomes.

Organization of the Report

This report begins with a discussion of the changes over time in enrollment in elementary and secondary traditional public, public charter, and private schools, as well as changes in the number of students who were homeschooled (Indicator 1). It then presents the individual, school, and household characteristics of students enrolled in public and private schools (Indicators 2, 3, and 4), as well as characteristics of students who were homeschooled (Indicator 5). Next, this report discusses reading and mathematics achievement for students enrolled in traditional public and public charter schools (Indicator 6). To shed light on the school environments, Indicator 7 examines differences between public and private school students’ reports of various incidents related to school crime and safety. Finally, Indicator 8 examines the differences in the school choice options that parents selected and their satisfaction with their children’s school.

Data Sources

The data in these indicators were obtained from many different sources—including students, parents, and local elementary and secondary schools—using surveys and compilations of administrative records. Users should be cautious when comparing data from different sources. Differences in aspects such as procedures, timing, question phrasing, and interviewer training can affect the comparability of results across data sources.

Most indicators summarize data from surveys conducted by NCES. Brief explanations of the major surveys used in these indicators can be found in the Guide to Sources and Table A. More detailed explanations can be obtained on the NCES website ( under “Surveys and Programs.”

Table A. Nationally representative sample and universe surveys used in this report

Survey Population Year(s) of survey Reference time period Indicator(s)
Common Core of Data (CCD) Universe (public primary and secondary schools in the United States) 2000–01 through 2016–17 School year 1, 2
National Assessment of Educational
Progress (NAEP)
School-based sample of students in grades 4 and 8 2017 School year 6
Parent and Family Involvement in
EducationSurvey of the National
Household Education
Surveys Program (PFI–NHES)
Household-based sample of children and youth age 20 or younger enrolled in kindergarten through 12th-grade in a public or private school or who are being homeschooled for the equivalent grades 2003, 2007, 2012, 2016 Time of data collection (January through April 2003; January through May 2007; January through August 2012; January through September 2016) 1, 4, 5, 8
Parent Survey of the National
Household Education Surveys
Program (Parent–NHES)
Household-based sample of children and youth age 20 or younger enrolled in kindergarten through 12th-grade in a public or private school or who are being homeschooled for the equivalent grades 1999 Time of data collection (January through April 1999) 1
Private School Universe Survey (PSS)    Universe (private schools in the United States) 1999–2000 through 2015–16 School year 1, 3
School Crime Supplement (SCS)
to the National Crime
Victimization Survey
Household-based sample of students ages 12–18 enrolled in public and private schools during the school year 2001 through 2017 Incidents during the school year 7

1 Open enrollment includes interdistrict and intradistrict school choice policies. Interdistrict school choice policies allow students to attend a public school district other than the one in which they live and were mandatory in 23 states in 2017. Intradistrict school choice policies allow students to attend a school, other than their neighborhood school, within their district and were mandatary in 19 states in 2017. For more information, see State Education Reforms (SER) Table 4.2:
2 The assigned public school could also be the chosen public school for a family if the family chose its residence based on public school assignment. In such cases, the parent might identify the student as attending an assigned public school.
3 See Digest of Education Statistics 2018, table 216.90:
4 See The Condition of Education, Private School Enrollment:
5 See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 206.10:
6 A magnet school is a school designed to attract students of different racial/ethnic backgrounds or to provide an academic or social focus on a particular theme (Wang, Schweig, and Herman 2014). A magnet school can offer an entire schoolwide program or a magnet program within a school.
7 A virtual school, or cyber school, is a school that delivers academic instruction via the Internet or a computer network to students in locations other than a classroom supervised by a teacher who is physically present. Children can be enrolled in online courses to supplement their regular curriculum, or they can be enrolled as full-time virtual school students. As of the 2017–18 school year, 37 states allow full-time virtual charter schools; for more information, see State Education Reforms (SER) Table 4.3:

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