School Choice: A Very Brief History

School Choice Isn’t New

The idea and practice of school choice has been around for more than 150 years. 


In fact, the Founding Fathers asserted that the success of American democracy would depend on the proficiency of our citizens. They also believed that preserving this nation, an unprecedented experiment, would require a well-educated population that could understand complex political and social issues to participate in civic life, vote, and protect rights and freedoms.


However, the first instances of educational choice took shape in small communities in newly established colonies. Families could choose whether or not to send their children to school if they deemed it to be valuable. 


Puritans, Pilgrims, and Founders – Oh My!

The Puritans were the first to recognize education’s importance in teaching basic academics and religious values. In 1635, the first public school was established in Boston. Boston Latin School was a boys-only public secondary school led by Philemon Pormont. After that, access to education began to grow. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1647, prescribed towns of 50 individuals would house public elementary schools. Those with over 100 residents would have a Latin school.


In the 18th century, education was primarily private or religious, strictly educating male students. This eventually created a pipeline for Ivy League universities. Thomas Jefferson, however, called for an establishment of an educational system funded by the taxpayer: 


“I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. no other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”

  • Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, August 13, 1786


Yet, it wasn’t until the 19th century that education evolved into what it is today. By the 1950s, government entities almost entirely monopolized education.

As the Founders knew centuries ago, a nation can reach its potential only if every child has the chance to achieve their potential. In early America, parents were the primary drivers of their child’s educational journey. By the time schooling was standardized, children had begun to attend local public schools regardless of whether the school fit the child’s needs.


The Modern School Choice Movement

Rather than forcing children to attend schools strictly within arbitrary boundaries, states have begun to focus on “students over systems.” In 1991, Wisconsin became the first state to create a school voucher program. That same year Minnesota became the first state to make a law permitting charter schools.


2011, considered the “year of school choice,” marked monumental education reform. Twelve states passed legislation to create school choice programs or expand existing programs. In addition, Arizona was the first to create an education savings account.


School Choice Helps Public Schools Too

Unfortunately, due to public education being ingrained in modern culture, many believe the availability of choice harms public school programs. However, this is not the case. In reality, choice provides refinement for traditional public schools, allowing American education to return to its roots.


In 2020, the National Bureau of Economic Research published research examining the impact Flordia tax credit scholarship accessibility had on students who remained at a traditional public school. Their research found that people’s fears of harm to public schools caused by choice programs didn’t match reality. Instead, the Flordia scholarship’s eligibility expansion improved math and reading test scores along with absenteeism and school suspensions for students still enrolled in public education. This is great news for teachers, parents and students!


The Hope Scholarship

Soon, West Virginia will allow parents to access approximately $4,300 per child in state funding. This program, dubbed the “Hope Scholarship,” allows families to tailor their children’s educations to fit their unique needs. The money awarded each year will change slightly depending on the funding formula of state vs. federal dollars. The Hope Scholarship awards the state’s portion of education funding to the family while federal and local dollars remain in the child’s zoned public school district.


This new method of education in West Virginia will not only reinvigorate academic success but also boost the public school system. Fewer students and more funding can provide teachers with classroom autonomy and fewer out-of-pocket costs. The traditional public school system remains another method of choice for millions of children across the nation and, with increased options, will continue to thrive and grow.


All children should be allowed to follow their own path to achieving their vision of happiness through an education that best fits their needs. 


Jessica Dobrinsky is the Policy Analyst for the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.