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Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 2007
NCES 2010-004
April 2010


This report updates two previous reports: Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 1999 (Bielick and Chapman 2003) and Trends in the Use of School Choice: 1993 to 2003 (Tice et al. 2006). Using data from the National Household Education Survey (NHES) of the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), this report examines the patterns and trends in students' enrollment in public schools (assigned and chosen) and in private schools (religious and nonsectarian) from 1993 to 2007, as well as the characteristics of students in these schools in 2007. Additionally, the report describes student enrollment in charter schools in 20071 and demographic characteristics of homeschooled students in 2007.2 The report also examines parents' satisfaction with and involvement in their children's schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education non-regulatory guidance on the parental involvement provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), "the involvement of parents in their children's education and schools is critical to that process. A synthesis of the research concluded that ‘the evidence is consistent, positive, and convincing: families have a major influence on their children's achievement in school and through life. When schools, families, and community groups work together to support learning, children tend to do better in school, stay in school longer, and like school more.'" See No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Title I, Part A, Section 1118.

School choice in American education has long been available to parents with sufficient resources to send their children to private schools or move to a particular school district. Choice within the public school system did not become readily available to parents until the 1960s, however, with the advent of alternatives such as magnets (Schneider, Teske, and Marschall 2000). Since then, the range of school choice options has expanded to include interdistrict choice plans, intradistrict choice plans, charter schools, and vouchers to attend private schools. In addition, NCLB has a public school choice provision that requires that students enrolled in a Title I school that is identified for school improvement, corrective action, or restructuring have an opportunity to attend a public school that has not been so identified. See No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Title I, Section 1116 (b)(E). Parents may also choose to homeschool their children.

Charter schools are public schools that provide free elementary or secondary education to students under a specific charter granted by the state legislature or other appropriate authority (Hoffman 2008). 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 (Hoffman 2008). However, all types of school choice options are not available in all communities. Community size, distance, density, and local and state policy influence availability. For example, there are some states that do not have the charter school option. In 2008, there were 11 states without charter school legislation: These states were Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia (Center for Education Reform 2008).

With the range of school choice options now available to parents and the NCLB guidance and provisions, it is useful to track how the rate of student enrollment and parent satisfaction and involvement in various types of schools, both public and private, has changed over time. Specifically, this report provides information on the following six topics:

  • Trends in students' enrollment in public schools (assigned and chosen) and private schools (religious and nonsectarian) between 1993 and 2007.
  • Demographic characteristics of students enrolled in public schools (assigned and chosen) and private schools (religious and nonsectarian) in 2007.
  • Demographic characteristics of students enrolled in public charter schools in 2007.
  • Demographic characteristics of students who were homeschooled in 2007.
  • Demographic characteristics of students whose parents report there are public school choice options available in their district.3
  • Association between the type of school a student attends and parental satisfaction with and involvement in that school.

The results presented in this report are based on five administrations of the NHES (1993, 1996, 1999, 2003, and 2007). In each survey year prior to 2007, parents were asked whether their children attended a public or private school. Parents who answered that the child attended a public school were asked if it was the assigned public school or a public school of their personal choosing. Parents who answered that the child attended a private school were asked whether the school was church-related or not.4 Starting in 2007, NHES matched the NCES identification number for the child's school to data from one of two NCES surveys—the Common Core of Data (CCD) for public schools and the Private School Universe Survey (PSS) for private schools— yielding additional details about characteristics of the students' schools, including school type. Parents were also asked about the degree of satisfaction they had with their children's schools and the types of involvement they had in the schools.

The NHES surveys used for the analyses are as follows: for 1993, the School Readiness Survey and the School Safety and Discipline Survey; for 1996, the Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey; for 1999, the Parent Survey; and for 2003 and 2007, the Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey. Each survey was based on telephone interviews of U.S. households, with full samples ranging from 45,000 to 60,000 households.5 When survey weights are used, each survey is nationally representative of all civilian, non-institutionalized students in kindergarten to grade 12 in the 50 states and the District of Columbia for the school year in which the data were collected. The samples were selected using random-digit-dialing (RDD) methods, and the data were collected using computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) technology.

This report uses data reported by parents about students in grades 1 through 12.6 Data were collected for 16,957 students in 1993, for 16,145 students in 1996, for 15,939 students in 1999, for 11,273 students in 2003, and for 9,530 students in 2007. The unit of analysis in the NHES is the child, not the parent or guardian. Thus, all percentages referenced in this report refer to the percentage of students whose parents or guardians reported particular information about them. The overall unit response rates were 74 percent for the 1993 School Readiness Survey (used for 1st and 2nd grade), 73 and 74 percent for the 1993 School Safety and Discipline Survey (3rd through 5th grade, and 6th through 12th grade, respectively), 63 percent for the 1996 Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey, 65 percent for the 1999 Parent Survey, 54 percent for the 2003 Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey, and 39 percent for the 2007 Parent and Family Involvement in Education Survey.7 In all five survey administrations, item nonresponse (the failure to complete some items in an otherwise completed interview) was very low (less than 2 percent for most variables in this report). Please see Appendix A for more information about response bias analyses and the survey methodology.

All specific statements of comparisons have been tested for statistical significance at the .05 level using Student's t-statistics to ensure that the differences are larger than those that might be expected due to sampling variation. All comparisons reported are significant at the .05 level. Adjustments for multiple comparisons were not included. Readers are cautioned not to draw causal inferences based on the univariate and bivariate results presented. Many of the variables examined in this report may be related to one another, and complex interactions and relationships among the variables have not been explored. The variables examined here are also just a selection of those that can be examined in these data.


1 Charter school students are a subset of the students who are discussed in this report elsewhere as attending either assigned public schools or chosen public schools. A small number of students (0.3 percent) are reported by parents to be in assigned schools, which were later identified as charter schools. For these cases, it is not possible to verify whether or not, for example, the student was assigned to the charter school because of a special situation, the student had been assigned to a school that converted to charter status, or if this was a reporting error by the parent. Therefore, the data are presented as reported by the parent.
2 For additional information on the number of homeschoolers and reasons for homeschooling, see Bielick (2008).
3 The NHES provides data on parents' perceptions about the availability of school choice in their district. However, the NHES does not collect administrative data about the specific choice programs that districts offer.
4 The categories for private school enrollment were reported in previous versions of this report and in NHES 1996, 1999, and 2003 data collection as "church-related" or "not church-related." NHES 2007 data on private school affiliation come from the Private School Universe Survey (PSS), and the categories have been renamed "religious" and "nonsectarian" to reflect this.
5 For more information about the specific surveys, see Appendix A: Technical Notes in this report or the following data file user's manuals: Brick et al. 1994a; Brick et al. 1994b; Collins et al. 1997; Nolin et al. 2000; Hagedorn et al. 2004; Hagedorn et al. 2008.
6 Kindergarten students are excluded from the analyses of students enrolled in public and private schools in this report because not all states have mandatory kindergarten attendance policies. Also, the parent satisfaction and involvement analyses are limited to grades 3 through 12 because the 1993 NHES only covers students in those grades.
7 The estimated overall unit response rate is computed by multiplying the screener interview unit response rate by the appropriate extended interview response rate. A methodological bias study was conducted in 2007 and showed no substantial bias (Montaquila et al. 2008). Unlike other survey years, in 1993 there were multiple surveys based on age-group, which were combined to form the analysis in this report. Response rates for 1993 were therefore calculated separately by age-group. See Appendix A: Technical Notes for more information on response rates.