Glossary of Terms

While many political issues are decided at the federal level, school choice is almost entirely a state issue. The federal government has some sway, but the bulk of the laws and policies are made by state and local governments – which means there are at least 50 different ways of doing things.

Here are some terms to know to help you follow the news and keep tabs on what’s going on.

Charter schools.

These are public schools – tuition-free, like traditional schools – but they’re run a little differently than traditional district schools. Typically, a private organization (for profit or nonprofit) will run the school. Some charter schools are run by large school networks, like KIPP, and others are run at a more local level. Charter schools have more autonomy than traditional schools; often free from union control, charter administrators have more freedom in which teachers they hire and which they retain. Charters give parents more freedom, too – students aren’t assigned to attend charter schools, and only attend if their parents choose to enroll them there. Typically, charters use a lottery system to accept students if they receive too many applications. Earlier this year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported that more than a million students were on waiting lists to attend charter schools.

State laws vary as to how many charter schools can be opened, which organizations can authorize charter schools, and even whether charter schools can run at all. Currently charter schools are legal in all states except: Vermont, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana.


Vouchers are publicly funded scholarships that help parents pay their children’s tuition at a private school. The amount of the scholarship, the total amount of state money set aside for scholarships, and which students are eligible varies from state to state.

In its 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution did not rule out state voucher programs. The court ruled that voucher programs must be neutral to religion, and school selection must be based on the private choice of the students’ parents or guardians. A voucher program that only allowed students to attend Christian schools, for example, would not be allowed, and a voucher program that assigned students to religious schools would also not be allowed.

While Zelman decided things at the federal level, each state voucher law must pass muster under the state’s constitution. Nearly every voucher program has been ruled constitutional by state supreme courts.

Tax credit scholarships.

On a practical level, tax credit scholarships work much like vouchers, but they’re funded differently.  Vouchers are funded by taxes; tax credit scholarships are funded by private donations. Here’s how it works: private donors give money to a nonprofit and receive a tax break for their donation. That nonprofit uses the donations to award scholarships to students, to help defray the cost of tuition at a private school.

Because tax credit scholarships are not publicly funded, they can work better in states that have strict Blaine amendments. These amendments to state constitutions prohibit the use of public money at religious schools. Originally intended to keep the government from funding Catholic schools (while allowing public schools to remain generically Protestant), the amendments are now used to overturn voucher programs, since the public money funding the scholarships goes to private (and sometimes religious) schools, albeit indirectly.

Blaine amendments are named for James G. Blaine, who proposed this type of amendment to the U.S. Constitution while he was Speaker of the House. It failed, but 38 states passed Blaine amendments in their own state constitutions. For more information, see the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) or Personalized Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSAs)

ESAs have most school choice proponents very excited because they allow parents even more freedom of choice than traditional school choice programs do. The state deposits a certain amount of money into a savings account, and parents use that to educate their children. They can pay private school tuition, or for tutoring, educational therapy, textbooks, transportation – almost anything educational. If the money isn’t all spent in one year, it rolls over to the next year – and if there’s money left over upon high school graduation, it can go towards college tuition.

Education savings accounts made their debut in Arizona in 2011, and the state’s supreme court effectively upheld the program when it declined to hear the case against it. Florida has passed a similar program, and several other states have considered it in the past few years.

Parent Trigger

First passed in 2010 by California, parent trigger laws allows parents to start a legal process where they can drastically change a poorly performing public school. Once a school is identified as under performing, the Parent Empowerment Act gives parents the several options to turn their school around including turning the school into a charter school, replacing the administration, dismissing the principal, or even shutting the school down and relocating the students.

Since 2013, the Compton Unified School District, Adelanto School District, and the Los Angeles Unified School District have all petitioned to implement a trigger.

Currently, 20 states have proposed parent trigger laws while Louisiana, Mississippi, Connecticut, Texas, Indiana, and Ohio have all passed similar laws to California.