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School Choice in the United States: 2019

Executive Summary

Across the United States, an evolving school choice landscape reflects changes in the accessibility and desirability of an array of educational options, including traditional and nontraditional public schools, private schools, and homeschooling. Using survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), this report examines eight indicators related to enrollment, achievement, safety, and parent satisfaction for multiple categories of elementary and secondary school settings. Of note:

  • Enrollment Trends: Between around 2000 and 2016, traditional public school, public charter school, and homeschool enrollment increased, while private school enrollment decreased (Indicator 1). Traditional public school enrollment increased to 47.3 million (1 percent increase), charter school enrollment grew to 3.0 million students (from 0.4 million), and the number of homeschooled students nearly doubled to 1.7 million. Private school enrollment fell 4 percent, to 5.8 million students.
  • School and Student Characteristics: Public schools enrolled higher percentages of Black and Hispanic students than private schools (Indicator 3). Compared with traditional public school students in fall 2016, a higher percentage of charter students were enrolled in high-poverty schools (34 vs. 24 percent).1 Over half (56 percent) of charter schools operated in cities in fall 2016 (Indicator 2). Additionally, more public school students than private school students lived in one-parent households or had parents whose highest education level was less than a high school diploma, a high school diploma or GED, or some college (Indicator 4). Of the 5.8 million private school students in 2015, 76 percent attended religious schools (Indicator 3).
  • Characteristics of Homeschooled Students: In 2016, the percentage of students who were homeschooled was higher for White and Hispanic students than for Black and Asian students (Indicator 5). Homeschooling was more prevalent among students in rural areas than for those in cities and suburban areas, and was also most prevalent among households with three or more children. Concerns about the school environment drove the choice to homeschool (a reason cited by 34 percent of families), followed by dissatisfaction with instruction (17 percent) and a desire for religious instruction (16 percent).
  • Academic Performance: In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools (Indicator 6).
  • School Crime and Safety: In 2017, higher percentages of public school students than of private school students reported a gang presence, seeing hate-related graffiti, and being called hate-related words at school (Indicator 7).
  • Parental Choice and Satisfaction: In 2016, household perceptions of school options differed by family characteristics, with a higher percentage of students in cities than of students in other locales having parents who reported that public school choice was available (Indicator 8). Lower percentages of poor or near-poor households had considered other schools than had families with more resources. Families of students in private schools largely reported that they were very satisfied with their schools (77 percent of students), with families of 60 percent of students who chose their public school and 54 percent of students assigned to their public school reporting the same.

1 Schools in which more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are considered high-poverty schools. Schools in which 25 percent or less of students qualify for FRPL are considered low-poverty schools. In fall 2016, some 5 percent of public charter school students and less than 1 percent of traditional public school students were enrolled in schools which did not participate in the NSLP or had missing data.