Section 2 Policy and Leadership

We understand the unbinding relationship between policy and leadership. Policy studies related to urban education can have a profound impact on what happens inside of schools. However, some policy analyses are more descriptive and analytic, while others bring a more critical lens to the study of urban schools and classrooms. We brought diverse perspectives to this second edition of the Handbook that allow the field to ponder issues that they may not have considered otherwise.

For instance, Berends addresses several essential issues related to school choice, an issue central to policy studies in education and urban education in particular. Questions that are pondered include: How is the landscape of school choice changing? What does the research tell us about the effects of school choice policies? What theories inform the debates about school choice? Dixson, Koval and Henry discuss the political nature of school reform and carefully examine the contexts of Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans. Based on their analysis, these authors concluded, “the reforms we see emerging since the mid-1980s have been part of a much larger neoliberal project aimed at defunding and dismantling perhaps the nations largest public works program: public education.”

Chapman delineates charter school growth, demography trends, and potential impacts based on systematic analyses. She examines contexts of New York, Boston and Wisconsin and other states, and finds some disturbing patterns. Chapman wrote:

most charter school students are matriculating through schools not unlike their original failing traditional public school counterparts. Moreover, they [students] are in charter schools with fewer resources than their traditional public schools, and are far less able to access the same sort of resources found in their suburban counterparts.

After a vigorous discussion of school choice and policy implications in urban education, this second section of the Handbook shifts to an explicit focus on school leadership. Drawing from a selected review of research literature about Black education leaders from the antebellum period to the present, Horsford, James-Gallaway and Smith examine how “historic movements and moments in the Black freedom struggle for education embody shared beliefs, values, traditions, and practices that can enrich the field s theoretical understanding of leadership for equity and justice in urban contexts.”

Policy and Leadership

The authors study the marginalization of Black education leadership and discuss how research perspectives have “compromised the capacity and utility of leadership theory and research when applied to issues of race, inequality, oppression, and injustice.”

Common across these chapters are explicit policy and leadership challenges that the authors argue must be addressed in future policy, research and practice endeavors committed to improving the educational experiences of young people.

The Continuously Evolving Landscape of School Choice in the United States



Mark Berends

Recent evidence from international comparisons reveals that students in the United States (U.S.) tend to compete well with those in other countries at younger ages (e.g., grade 4), but as U.S. students age, their academic achievement scores lag behind those of their international contemporaries. For instance, results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which administers assessments to nationally representative samples of 15-year-olds from all participating Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, reveal that in mathematics, 30 OECD members had higher average scores than the U.S., eight were similar, and 39 had lower average scores. In reading, eight countries had higher scores than the U.S., and in science, 11 countries had higher average scores than the U.S. The average math and reading PISA scores for U.S. students in 2018 did not differ from their average scores in the early 2000s, when PISA was first administered in reading (2000) and math (2003) (U.S. Department of Education, 2020).2

Yet, these international scores obscure the test score inequalities in the U.S. For example, if we examine the wealthiest schools or districts, the U.S. ranks near the top of the international comparisons (Gamoran, 2015). Moreover, the gap within the U.S. for students from wealthy vs. poor families appears to be getting worse over time. As Reardon (2011) shows, the academic achievement gaps between children from high-income and low-income families has been growing over the past 50 years. For cohorts with more reliable data, the wealthy-poor achievement gap was 30-40 percent larger in 2001 compared with students born in the 1970s (see also Reardon, Robinson-Cimpian, & Weathers, 2015).

There is also an increasing percentage of high-poverty schools in the U.S., a disproportionate number of which are located in central cities, typically enrolling a high percentage of African American and Latinx students. The 2020 Condition of Education defines a high-poverty school as one with more than 75 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In 2009—2010, about 19 percent of students in the U.S. attended a high-poverty school, and this increased to 25 percent in 2017—2018. Higher percentages of Latinx students (45 percent) and African American students (45 percent) attend high-poverty schools compared with non-Hispanic White students (8 percent) (Aud et al., 2012; Hussar et al., 2020). Moreover, the percentage of high-poverty schools has increased from 12 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2010 (Rowan, 2011).

There are myriad educational policies and reforms currently being implemented and examined in this nation to address these national and international challenges and to help our students compete academically. There is no lack of data for educators, policymakers, and researchers to motivate their approaches, policies, and studies to address the nation’s education problems.

One such set of policies has to do with school choice, which some argue is a notion becoming embedded in the public discourse (Berends, 2015, 2020; Berends, Cannata, & Goldring, 2011). The public may not understand the meaning of the many forms of school choice (e.g., charter schools, private schools, magnet schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, inter- and intra-district public school choice, virtual schools, and homeschooling), but the idea that parents should have some choice in the education of their children is deeply engrained in U.S. culture (Berends, Primus, & Springer, 2020). This is not to minimize significant debates over the past several decades about school choice and their impact on research, policy, and public opinion. Whether research and debates focus on the effects of vouchers or charter schools, these debates have not only been covered in national media outlets, but they have also propelled the research community to be transparent and careful in explaining methods, findings, interpretation, and policy implications — a significant development (Berends et al., 2011; Berends et al., 2020). The debates should continue, informed by research, to address whether school choice policies and their implementation have an impact on the learning opportunities of our nations youth.

Federal policies have provided support for school choice over the past two decades. For instance, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) promoted choice for families if schools failed to make adequate progress over time. More recently, Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education in the Donald Trump administration, has been a longtime advocate for parental choice, particularly in the form of school vouchers and tuition tax credits. And with the COVID -19 pandemic beginning in early 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a stimulus bill providing “$13.5 billion available for formula grants to states and an additional $3 billion to be divided up for governors to allocate at their discretion” (Hess, 2020). Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos admitted defeat by chief state school officers in her push for wanting states to use this stimulus money for both public and private schools; many some state officials want to direct these funds only to public schools (Ujifusa, 2020). This support for school choice at the federal level comes on the heels of the Obama administration, which called for an expansion of charter schools as part of the $4 billion Race to the Top stimulus (during the Great Recession of2008), which awarded funding to states for school reforms related to adopting standards and assessments for college and workplace readiness, recruiting effective teachers and principals, building data systems to measure student progress and inform educators, turning around low-achieving schools, and expanding the number of charter schools (Education IVeek, 2013).

As school choice options expand, public debate continues. Politicians scrutinize scholarship or voucher programs in cities and states — such as Florida, Indiana, Milwaukee, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC — while policy makers re-examine the role of school choice in post-desegregation school districts. The rigorous study of issues related to school choice is both timely and important for policy makers, practitioners, scholars, and families to understand what choice options are effective or not and the social context and conditions that promote or inhibit the effectiveness of school choice alternatives.

But how is the landscape of school choice changing? What does the research tell us about the effects of school choice policies? What theories inform the debates about school choice? This chapter focuses on these questions in terms of three of the popular school choice options that have been promoted to provide greater learning opportunities to students, particularly those in urban settings that lack high quality options: charter public schools, vouchers, and education tax credit programs. Charter schools are government funded public schools that are run under a charter by parents, educators, community groups, or private organizations to encourage school autonomy and innovation. Vouchers or choice scholarships provide parents the option of sending their children to the school of their choice, whether public or private, religious, or non-religious schools. With public funds usually spent by the district, vouchers are allocated to families for tuition payments, in part or perhaps in full. Education tax credits are provided to either corporations, individual families, or both. At the corporate level, businesses receive a state tax credit for making donations to nonprofit organizations called scholarship granting organizations (SGOs), which use the donated money to fund private school scholarships for students. Anyone can start an SGO, and some establish certain income criteria for students to be eligible for scholarships. At the individual level, parents can receive a tax credit or tax deduction from state income taxes for approved educational expenses, which typically include private school tuition, books, supplies, computers, tutors, and transportation. Some programs have income restrictions for family eligibility or set the amount families can claim on their taxes.

Following are descriptions of how the landscape has changed over time, highlights of some key research findings, and suggestions for further research. Because these programs often target students in urban areas, it is important to understand the changing landscape and the research and theoretical basis for these policies. By urban, this chapter refers to students who attend schools in large cities (defined in the Census as an urbanized area with a population of 250,000 or more), in mid-sized cities (urban area with population between 100,000 and 250,000), or small cities in urban areas with a population of less than 100,000. For example, these school choice reforms are being implemented in large cities like Boston, Chicago, Miami, New York, and Los Angeles, as well as in cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis, and in smaller cities like Ft. Wayne and South Bend, IN.

Charter Public Schools

Charter schools are public schools funded by the government, but they have a different governance structure compared with traditional public schools in that they are established under a charter by parents, educators, community groups, or private organizations to encourage school autonomy and innovation. In exchange for such autonomy and flexibility, charter schools are held accountable to current state and federal accountability standards, such as NCLB, which requires testing in certain grades and sets performance targets over time (overall and various subgroups). When a charter school has more students applying than there are seats available (i.e., oversubscription), the school is required to hold a lottery to select students for open seats at random.

Numbers and Composition

The first charter school appeared in 1992 in Minnesota after that state passed the first charter school law in 1991. Between the early 1990s and 2018, the number of schools has grown to over 7,000, serving over 3.1 million students; leading states are California (1,267 charter schools), Texas (766), Florida (661), Arizona (565 charters), Ohio (365), and Michigan (315) (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2020). Much of this growth has occurred in the last two decades, as shown in Figure 6.1 and Figure 6.2. In the 2000—2001 school year, there were 1,941 charter schools serving 458,664 students, and in 2017—2018, the number grew to 7,193 schools serving 3,143,269 students.

Just over half of the charter schools are located in urban areas; about one-fifth are in suburban locales; the rest are in rural areas or small towns. Thus, over the past 20 years or so, the number of charter schools has increased on the scale of four and half times. In part, this significant expansion is likely due to bipartisan support for charter schools at the federal, state, and local levels, but there are still many questions about what other factors have led to charter school expansion and the variability within and across states in charter school legislation, expansion, and implementation (Wong & Shen, 2008; Wong & Klopott, 2009).

Regarding the demographic characteristics of students in charter schools, there is concern about the racial/ethnic composition in terms of promoting social integration (Zimmer et al., 2009; Ladd, Fiske, & Ruijs, 2011; Orfield & Frankenberg, 2013). Based on data from the National Alliance for

Total Number of Charter Schools From 2000—2001 Through 2017—2018

Figure 6.1 Total Number of Charter Schools From 2000—2001 Through 2017—2018

Source: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Common Core of Data, U.S. Department of Education

Total Number of Charter School Students From 2000—2001 Through 2017—2018

Figure 6.2 Total Number of Charter School Students From 2000—2001 Through 2017—2018

Source: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Common Core of Data, U.S. Department of Education

Public Charter Schools and the Common Core of Data, the percentage of charter public students who were White or African American/Black declined, while the percentage of charter students who were Latinx has increased significantly over time. For example, in 2000—2001, the percentage of charter students who were White was 41 percent, and this percentage declined to 32 percent in 2016—2017 (see Figure 6.3). The percentage of charter students who were African American declined from 32 percent in 2000—2001 to 26 percent in 2016—2017. By contrast, in 2000—2001, Latinx students comprised 19 percent of the charter school population, but this percentage increased to 33 percent in 2016—2017. The percentage of charter students who classified themselves as Asian or some other racial/ethnic group increased over time, as well (from 3 percent to 4 percent for Asian students and from 1.5 percent to 5 percent for students classifying themselves as some other racial/ ethnic group). The changes in demographic characteristics over time is likely due to charter school expansion in states like California, Texas, and Florida with large percentages of Latinx students; between 2000—2001 and 2016—2017, the number of charter schools in Florida expanded from 113

—% White


= = % Latinx


% Other

Figure 6.3 Percentage of Charter School Students by Race/Ethnicity From 2000—2001 Through 2016—2017

Source: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Common Core of Data, U.S. Department of Education

to 661 and the number of charters in California expanded from 238 to 1,267 (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2020).

Based on the most recent year with available data for public schools in the U.S. (2017—2018), the percentages of students by different racial-ethnic groups in traditional public schools were 48 percent white, 15 percent African American, 27 percent Latinx, 6 percent Asian, and 5 percent from some other racial/ethnic group (Hussar et al., 2020). Thus, when compared to traditional public schools in 2016—2017, the racial-ethnic composition of charter schools is disproportionately African American (26 percent vs. 15 percent) and Latinx (33 percent vs. 27 percent); white students are under-represented (32 percent vs. 48 percent). These compositional differences are due to many social factors within American society, not the least of which is that charter schools are predominately located in urban centers that have disproportionate numbers of students of color attending public schools, whether traditional or charter.

Over time, it also appears that the percentage of charter school students who are poor is increasing (see Figure 6.4). In the 2000—2001 school year, 29 percent of charter school students were eligible for free/reduced price lunch, but this percentage has increased significantly over time — to 58 percent in 2018—2019 (which is somewhat higher when compared to 52 percent of the nations students who are eligible for free/reduced-price lunch and attending traditional public schools).

Types of Charter Schools

In addition to the growth in numbers for charter schools and students, there has been growth in education management and charter management organizations (see Miron, Urschel, Aguilar, & Dailey, 2012). Charter management organizations (CMOs) are nonprofit organizations that operate like districts without borders in the sense that they run multiple charter schools as well as start new ones (e.g., KIPP, YES Prep, Green Dot Schools, Aspire). Educational management organizations (EMOs) are similar except that they are for profit (e.g., Imagine Schools, Academica, National Heritage Academies, EdisonLearning Inc.).

Percentage of Charter School Students by Free/Reduced Price Lunch Status From 2000—2001 Through 2018-2019

Figure 6.4 Percentage of Charter School Students by Free/Reduced Price Lunch Status From 2000—2001 Through 2018-2019

Source: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Common Core of Data, U.S. Department of Education

  • ----Independent
  • -—Managed by CMO
  • ---Managed by EMO


% Independent

  • ---% Managed by CMO
  • ---% Managed by EMO

Figure 6.5 Number and Percentage of Charter Schools by Management Organization

Source: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (2020)

Despite the national attention on EMOs and CMOs in the news media and even movies (e.g., Waiting for Superman), it is important to remember that over two-thirds of charter schools are independent and not affiliated with either CMOs or EMOs. Yet, the growth of CMOs is noteworthy. As Figure 6.5 reveals, CMOs have increased in terms of the percentage of their share of the charter school sector from 11.5 percent in 2007—2008 to 24 percent in 2016—2017. There has been a slight drop in the percentage of charter schools that are independent, from 78 percent in 2007—2008 to 57 percent in 2016—2017. EMOs have also expanded in terms of the percentage of charter schools, ranging 10 percent of all charter schools in 2007—2008 to 18 percent in 2016—2017.

With the COVID -19 crisis, many districts and schools moved learning online for public health concerns, and there is a question about how schools can effectively educate students through e-learning. Because charter schools have historically been granted autonomy and flexibility to be innovative, one might suspect that they have a competitive advantage in implementing online learning strategies and that virtual charter schools may be quite popular. Yet, at this point, virtual schools


Number and Percentage of Charter Schools by Brick and Mortar, Virtual, and Hybrid, 2018—2019

Figure 6.6 Number and Percentage of Charter Schools by Brick and Mortar, Virtual, and Hybrid, 2018—2019

Source: Common Core of Data, U.S. Department of Education


Charter Schools, Charter Schools, Charter Schools, Brick & Mortar Virtual Hybrid

do not constitute a large percentage of all charter schools. Moreover, recent research suggests it is doubtful that charter schools are indeed more innovative in implementing online learning that leads to increases in student achievement (Fitzpatrick, Berends, Ferrare, & Waddington, 2020). In any case, at this point, the vast majority of charter schools are brick-and-mortar schools (88.0 percent of all charter schools in 2018—2019) compared with virtual charter schools (2.5 percent) and a hybrid version that mixes virtual learning with in-classroom experiences (9.4 percent) (see Figure 6.6).

Choice Scholarships and Voucher Programs

Besides the changes in the charter school sector, another choice option is vouchers, or school choice scholarships, that provide parents with public funding to send their children to the school of their choice, which includes public or private schools (religious or non-religious). These public vouchers are often means-tested and are allocated to families for tuition payments to pay for part or all of the tuition. Vouchers have also been highly contested and debated in educational policy, the media, and research communities. For instance, studies in the 1990s of the Milwaukee voucher program, researchers disagreed about the effects of the program on student outcomes (see Berends et al., 2011). Although policy makers suspected that evaluation of the program would settle disputes about the effects of vouchers on students, the research findings instead were nuanced and mixed (for reviews, see Zimmer & Bettinger, 2015; Epple, Romano, & Urquiola, 2017; Austin & Berends, 2018; Gegenheimer & Springer, 2020; Waddington, 2020)

Increase in Voucher Programs

The number of voucher programs increased dramatically in the last two decades. Figure 6.7 depicts the number of voucher programs, individual tax credit credits and deductions, tax credit scholarships, and education savings accounts.3 For example, Figure 6.7 shows there were five voucher programs in the U.S. in 2000, which increased to 12 in 2010 and to 27 in 2019 (EdChoice, 2020). Individual tax credits/deduction increased from five in 2010 to nine in 2020. There were nine first tax credit scholarship programs in 2010, and there are now twenty-three programs in the U.S.

Participation in Voucher Programs

In addition to the increase in the policy actions at the state level, the number of students participating in different voucher programs across the nation has increased significantly in the last decade — even

Number of Currently Enacted Private School Choice Programs by Year Launched

Figure 6.1 Number of Currently Enacted Private School Choice Programs by Year Launched

Source: EdChoice (2020), used by permission

though the total number of students receiving vouchers is a small fraction of the total number of students in the U.S. Figure 6.8 shows the number of U.S. students using vouchers over time. When the first voucher program began in Milwaukee in 1991, 341 students used a voucher. Since then, 16 states have voucher programs, and in 2020, students using vouchers totaled 217,910 (EdChoice, 2020).4

One of the more well-known voucher programs is the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which started in 1990. The program provides vouchers (capped at $7,754 in grades K—8) to families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level (about $77,250 for a family of four in 2019— 2020). In 1991, 341 Milwaukee students received a voucher; in 2020, 28,978 students received one (see EdChoice, 2020, pp. 33—34). Another voucher program of note is Florida’s John M. McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, which started in 2000 with two students. These McKay Scholarships allow public school students with disabilities to receive vouchers to attend private or other public schools. This program has expanded to 28,935 students in 2020 (pp. 33—34). Ohio launched its Educational Choice Scholarship Program in 2006 with 3,169 students, and now has expanded it to include 28,197 students in 2020. Ohio’s students who are attending chronically low-performing schools are eligible for vouchers to attend private schools; the cap on the number of vouchers is 60,000 (pp. 62—63).

In addition to this Ohio statewide voucher program, two other states — Indiana and Louisiana — have statewide programs. Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program allows student in low- and middleincome families to receive vouchers to attend private schools, and it’s the largest of its type in the U.S. The program began in 2011 with 3,919 students and at the time of writing, that number had increased to 36,707 in 326 participating schools (Indiana Department of Education, 2020).’ Students qualify for the program based on their family’s total household income, and the scholarship’s dollar amount is based on the public school corporation in which students live, with an average voucher amount in grades 1—8 of $5,843 for a “full” voucher provided to low-income families. Indiana also

  • 250,000
  • 217910
  • 200,000
  • 150,000
  • 100,000
  • 50,000

■ Vouchers

Figure 6.8 Number of Students Using Vouchers in the U.S., 1991—2020

Source: EdChoice (2020), used by permission

provides “half” vouchers to middle-income families, with an average value of $3,168 for students in grades 1—8 (Indiana Department of Education, 2020).

Louisiana’s statewide voucher program began in 2009 with 640 students and increased to 6,747 in 2019. Only about one-third of eligible students participate. Because the state placed regulations on participating schools (open admissions, state testing requirement, state accountability), many of the private schools in Louisiana chose not to take part, and there is concern that the participating private schools are lower in quality (Mills & Wolf, 2017).

Education Tax Credits

Another school choice option that has increased dramatically over the past decade is providing education tax credits to businesses and individuals. Parents can receive a tax credit or deduction for educational expenses (tuition, books, supplies, transportation), and businesses can receive a tax credit for making donations to SGOs, which use the funds for private school student scholarships. Often, education tax credits are seen as equivalent to vouchers in that they provide students with funds to attend private schools; it’s the transfer mechanisms that differ. In addition, education tax credits have been seen as a more palatable way to get legislation passed in different states because of the controversies and debates around vouchers and the direct provision of public funds to attend private schools. Education tax credits are a more indirect transfer of public funds.

Perhaps because education tax credits seem more acceptable in state legislatures and are not under scrutiny like voucher programs, there has been a great deal of policy activity at the state level since the 1980s, and certainly over the past few years (Huerta & d’Entremont, 2007; Schaeffer, 2009).

600,000 ,

■ Education Savings Accounts ■ Vouchers ■ Tax-Credit Scholarships

Figure 6.9 Number of Vouchers, Tax Credit Scholarships, and Educations Savings Accounts in the U.S., 1991—2020

Sorrrre: EdChoice (2020), used by permission

When the first tax credit program began in 1997 in Arizona, 128 tax credit scholarships were awarded (see Figure 6.9). Tax credit scholarship programs have expanded to 17 states, and 299,171 scholarships were awarded in 2020.

As policy activity has increased, so too have the number of students participating in education tax credit programs throughout the U.S. For example, Florida s Tax Credit Scholarship Program — which provides a tax credit on corporate income taxes and insurance premium taxes for donation to SGOs that provide scholarships to low-income students and foster children, and funds for transportation to schools outside a students district — had 15,585 students in 2003 and nearly 108,570 in 2020 (EdChoice, 2020). Similarly, Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit expanded from 17,350 in 2002 to over 37,725 in 2020. Corporate contributions in Pennsylvania can go to SGOs to provide scholarships to students (eligible if their families make less than 890,000 plus $15,842 for each child in the family in 2019—2020) or to Educational Improvement Organizations, which are nonprofits that support innovative programs in public schools. In Arizona, one of the longer standing tax credit programs is Original Individual Income Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides a credit on individual income taxes for donation to SGOs. Individuals contributing to SGOs may claim a dollar-to-dollar credit up to $569 (married couples up to $1,138); students must be in grades K—12 or be a preschool enrollee identified by the school district as having a disability (EdChoice, 2020).

What the Research Says about School Choice Effectiveness: A Brief Summary

With the massive expansion of charter schools, voucher programs, and education tax credit programs in the last two decades, what does the research have to say about the effects of these programs onstudents? In part, the argument for these choice programs is to allow low-income students at low-performing schools to attend a private school, presumably providing improved opportunities to learn. But as these programs have expanded, what does the research suggest? Are students performing better in schools of choice as measured by their test score gains relative to their traditional public school counterparts?

Unfortunately, the research appears to be less than conclusive — “unfortunate” because this provides fodder for continued debate at different levels of policy about whether or not to scale up these choice options. What is needed is more systematic research that looks at the educational trajectories of students in choice and non-choice schools with data not only on test score gains and graduation rates, but other non-cognitive measures of student outcomes (e.g., behavior, engagement, motivation, educational and occupational expectations and attainment). In addition, more systematic information needs to be gathered from the choice and non-choice learning environments, including not only instructional conditions but also differences in the social organization of schools (see Berends, Goldring, Stein, & Cravens, 2010; Berends, 2015, 2020; Berends & Dallavis, 2020). What follows is a brief review of the research examining the effects of charter schools, vouchers, and education tax credits on student achievement. More thorough reviews are cited in the appropriate sections.

Research on Charter Schools

Charter schools are the fastest growing area of school choice, and the evidence base is growing as well, amidst attempts by the federal government and states to scale up charter school reform. For instance, some studies using randomized designs show positive effects on academic achievement gains for students in charter schools compared with those students who are not so enrolled (Hoxby & Murarka, 2008; Hoxby, Murarka, & Kang, 2009; Abdulkadiroglu et al., 2011; Angrist et al., 201 1; Dobbie & Fryer, 2011, 2013; Abdulkadiroglu, 1’athak, & Walters, 2018; Dynarski, Hubbard, Jacob, & Robles, 2018). Other studies relying on broader samples of schools within a randomized design (Gleason, Clark, Tuttle, & Dwoyer, 2010; Clark, Gleason, Tuttle, & Silverberg, 2015) and those using quasi-experimental methods show mixed effects on achievement — some positive, some negative, and some null (for a review, see CREDO, 2009; Berends, 2015; Epple, Romano, & Zimmer, 2016; Austin & Berends, 2018; Gamoran & Fernandez, 2018; Betts & Tang, 2019). These inconsistent effects mask a great deal of heterogeneity among different types of charter schools, operators of charter schools, and authorizers of charter schools (Berends & Waddington, 2019; Carlson, Lavery, & Witte, 2012; Fitzpatrick et al., 2020; Zimmer, Gill, Attridge, & Obenauf, 2014).

Although it is important to understand that overall charter school studies show that effects on achievement vary, it is important to note that some studies have found significant and substantial positive effects of charter schools, particularly in urban areas where it has been difficult to implement meaning educational reforms. For example, comparing students who won and lost charter school lotteries, Hoxby et al. (2009) found that charter students outscored the comparison group in both mathematics and English. The authors noted that students who attended charter schools in New York City over a longer period of time (e.g., Kindergarten through grade 8) matched the mathematics performance gains of their peers in affluent suburban schools — what they called the closing of the “Harlem-Scarsdale” achievement gap. Dobbie and Fryer (2011), who examined students who won and lost the charter school lotteries in the Harlem Childrens Zone, found that the effects of charter elementary schools were large enough to close the racial achievement gap across subjects — i.e., students gained about 0.20 of a standard deviation a year in both mathematics and English/Language Arts. Large effects of charter schools have also been found in Boston (Angrist et al., 2011).

Although studies of school choice shed some light on the main effects in different locales, researchers are starting to provide limited information about the schools as organizations and the conditions within them that may promote student achievement, particularly the curriculum and instruction that is most likely to affect student learning (for review, see Berends & Dallavis, 2020). Many researchers and policymakers advocate looking further inside schools to better understand the conditions under which schools of choice have (or do not have) positive effects on achievement, pointing to the importance of detailed information about curriculum, instruction, organizational conditions that promote achievement, and teacher characteristics and qualifications (Zimmer et al., 2003; Gill, Timpane, Ross, & Brewer, 2007; Zimmer & Buddin, 2007, 2008; Berends, Watral, Teasley, & Nicotera, 2008; Berends etal., 2010; Berends, Penaloza, Cannata, & Goldring, 2019; Berends, 2015, 2020; Betts & Loveless, 2005). To date, however, these calls to look at the organization of schooling within the charter sector have not been heeded, by and large — suggesting an important avenue for future research (see Austin & Berends, 2018; Berends, 2015, 2020; Oberfield, 2017).

Research on School Vouchers

With the expansion in the number of voucher programs, the research addressing the effects of these programs has increased, as well. However, the research portrays a mixed view of voucher impacts (for reviews, see Zimmer & Bettinger, 2015; Epple et al., 2017; Austin & Berends, 2018; Gegenhe-imer & Springer, 2020; Waddington, 2020).

A number of voucher studies at the elementary and middle school levels have focused on specific cities — Milwaukee (Greene, Peterson, & Du, 1998, 1999; Rouse, 1998; Witte, 2000; Witte, Wolf, Cowen, Carlson, & Fleming, 2014), Charlotte (Cowen, 2008; Greene, 2001), Cleveland (Metcalf, West, Legan, Paul & Boone, 2002), Dayton (Howell & Peterson, 2006), New York City (Barnard, Frangakis, Hill, & Rubin, 2003; Jin, Barnard, & Rubin, 2010; Krueger & Zhu, 2004) and Washington, DC (Dynarski, Rui, Webber, Gutmann, & Bachman, 2017, 2018; Howell & Peterson, 2006; Wolf & McShane, 2013; Wolf et al., 2010, 201 1, 2013). Generally, the experimental and quasi-experimental research in these cities shows either modest positive effects on student test scores for certain subgroups of students and for certain years of program participation, or no effects at all.*’

More recent statewide studies on the impact of voucher programs in Louisiana, Ohio, and Indiana have shown negative effects on student achievement for students in elementary and middle school grades. Abdulkadiroglu et al. (2018) examined the Louisiana Scholarship Program, analyzing data during the 2012—2013 school year (the first year of the program). Following students who won and lost the lottery for a scholarship, they examined students who won and lost the lottery for a scholarship during the 2012—2013 school year, and found significant and large negative effects across subject area tests (—0.41 standard deviation in math, —0.27 in science, and —0.34 in social studies). The negative effects were consistent across student and school characteristics. The effects were consistent across income groups, geographic areas, and private school characteristics (higher and lower proportion of white students, enrollment, achievement scores, and whether the private school was Catholic).

Mills and Wolf (2017) investigated the Louisiana program through its second year, reporting negative effects in both math and reading in year one, but less negative effects in year two. Only the effects for mathematics were statistically significant. In mathematics in year two, they found that students who won the voucher lottery and transferred to a private school scored 0.34 of a standard deviation below those students who lost the voucher lottery. “The magnitude of these negative estimates,” the researchers wrote, “is unprecedented in the literature of random assignment evaluations of school voucher programs” (p. 2).

These findings are consistent with what Figlio and Karbownik (2016) found in their evaluation of the Ohio EdChoice Scholarship Program. The researchers used propensity score matching to estimate the programs effects because the program did not rely on a lottery to provide scholarships. Analyzing student-level data between 2007 and 2010, with several estimation specifications, they found significant negative effects on both reading and mathematics scores: about —0.40——0.20 standard deviations in reading and —0.60——0.45 standard deviations in mathematics.

Examining the Indiana voucher program, Waddington and Berends (2018) also find negative effects in mathematics for students who transfer from public to private schools with a voucher. However, their research differs from evaluations of the Louisiana and Ohio statewide voucher programs in a number of ways. Unlike Louisiana and Ohio, students in Indiana’s public and private schools have all taken the same state tests for a number of years. Thus, the Indiana findings come from a state context where annual testing in grades 3—8 is common across the board, particularly in a broad sample of over 300 voucher-participating private schools. In the year prior to the voucher program (2010—2011), the average private school had achievement 0.10—0.20 standard deviations above the state mean in both math and English language arts. While average private school achievement varies substantially, there are many higher performing private schools participating in Indiana than in other states. In addition to broader income eligibility in Indiana, students from all public schools are eligible, as opposed to just those enrolled in the lowest performing schools as in Ohio. Although students in low- or modest-income families may be eligible to receive a voucher, our Indiana study focuses on the lowest-income students for estimation purposes and better comparisons of our findings with other contexts.

Similar to the research on charters, there have been very few studies that examined the specific learning conditions that students experienced in their schools of choice vis-à-vis comparable students in traditional public schools (Figlio, Goldhaber, Hannaway, & Rouse, 2013; Austin & Berends, 2018; Zimmer & Bettinger, 2015). Although such studies are difficult to design and implement, more research is needed on school and classroom experiences to understand the conditions under which voucher programs provide more meaningful and substantive learning opportunities — or not.

Research on Education Tax Credits

The research on education tax credits is very limited (as mentioned by Belfield, 2001; Huerta & d’Entremont, 2007; Zimmer & Bettinger, 2015), probably because education tax credits are often equated with vouchers.

There have been two recent studies on the long-term effects of the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program. Chingos and Kuehn (2017) found participating students were 6 percentage points more likely to enter college than their matched peers, and most of these students entered community colleges. Chingos, Monarrez, and Kuehn (2019) further studied the Florida program with data from the National Student Clearinghouse, and they found that students who participated in the Florida Tax Credit program were 6—10 percentage points more likely to enroll in both two-year and four-year institutions compared with matched comparison students who did not participate.

Similar to voucher programs, which in the end result in students transferring from the public to the private sector, more information is needed about the instructional practices and school organizational conditions that students using tax credits experience compared with their counterparts. Some questions that might further our understanding of tax credit effects include: Who chooses to apply and use a tax credit? What are the characteristics of students and their families receiving tax credits? To what schools do such students apply and attend? What are the learning opportunities in these schools vis-à-vis the schools that students attended before? What are the differences in the organizational and instructional conditions in the schools of destination (attending with vouchers) compared with schools of origin (where students attended previously)?

Theoretical Perspectives on School Choice

As school choice programs continue to expand, additional research will likely increase our understanding of the impact of choice options on families and students. As this research unfolds, it is important to keep in mind different theoretical frameworks that guide the research. Specifically, there are two competing theories about the possible impact of choice schools on teaching and learning and in-school organizational conditions — market theory and institutional theory (Berends et al., 2010; Berends, 2015, 2020). Many reformers maintain that market-style mechanisms of consumer choice and competition between autonomous schools will encourage diverse and innovative approaches to school organization, teaching, and learning (e.g., Chubb & Moe, 1990; Wal-berg, 2011; Walberg & Bast, 2003). The assumption is that as school choice undercuts bureaucratic political control of public education, it provides educators in schools of choice the opportunity and motivation to experiment with new organizational and instructional strategies to improve student achievement.

Proponents of choice argue that providing this freedom not only diversifies educational opportunities, but also creates incentives for the improvement of traditional public schooling through increased market competition for services (Chubb & Moe, 1990; Friedman, 1962). In large part, this argument is about how market competition decreases the amount and influence of historical bureaucratic structures to increase the opportunities for parents and school staff to better relate to address parents’ demands.

Some hold that privatization and school choice can bring about “creative destruction,” borrowing from Joseph Schumpeter, who in the 1940s argued that entrepreneurs relied on radically new technologies — whether more effective, more efficient, or both — to promote economic progress and replace older technologies (Walberg, 2011; Schumpeter, 1942). As the theory goes, such privatization and increased choice will lead to better outcomes, lower costs, and greater satisfaction of employees, parents, and students. According to Walberg (2011, p. 73), “market-based consumer-driven school choice seems the best hope for creative destruction of new technologies, the expansion of choice, competition, and diversity for substantial, sustained achievement improvement.” Chubb and Moe (1990, p. 217) hold a similar position, calling choice a “revolutionary reform that introduces a new system of public education.”

Critics of the market model, however, raise questions about the empirical validity of its key assumptions about parent-consumers (demand-side), schools (supply-side), and the products that a market in education would generate (Finnegan, 2007; Henig, 1999). From such criticism comes an alternative theory about the consequences of school choice: institutional theory. Stemming from broader organizational analysis, this new institutionalism, developed by John Meyer and colleagues over several decades (Meyer, 1977; Meyer & Rowan, 1977, 1978; Powell & DiMaggio, 1991; Scott & Meyer, 1994; Scott & Davis, 2007), characterizes schools as institutions with persistent patterns of social action that individuals take for granted.

Agreeing with market theorists that the bureaucratic form of schooling dominates the public school sector in the U.S. (and many other countries), institutional theorists take a different tack in their analysis of the education environment. For instance, the increase in bureaucratization of schools has led to an increase in rational coordination among the nested layers of the school — from the federal government to the state, districts, schools, and classrooms. According to institutional theorists such as Meyer and Rowan (1977, 1978), this bureaucratic, rational network has resulted in a system of categories or rules, called “ritual classifications,” that define the actions of schools, teachers, and students. Over time, these ritual classifications become institutionalized and accepted as the norm for what constitutes a legitimate school and its activities (Bidwell & Kasarda, 1980). Institutional theorists refer to this as isomorphism and have documented its diffusion both in the U.S. and throughout the world (Meyer & Ramirez, 2000; Bidwell & Dreeben, 2006).

School compliance to ritual classifications is important for legitimacy — more important, according to institutional theorists, than maximizing efficiency and innovations of school operations (Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Scott & Meyer, 1994). In other words, schools adapt to their environments by adopting accepted rules and structures, leaving actual classroom instruction and learning relatively unexamined and unmonitored. Such loose coupling helps schools maintain their validity (Weick, 1976) and is further promoted by schools’ logic of confidence that delegates instruction to teacher professionals who ultimately control what goes on inside their classrooms. It is the teachers who typically have made the choices about what to teach and how to teach it in their classrooms, a set of activities that — until more recently — have been beyond the purview of principals, parents, and policymakers at the district and state levels (Weick, 1976; Elmore, 2007). With the implementation of NCLB and now the Every Student Succeeds Act, states and districts have attempted to guide instruction in schools through high-stakes accountability, but even with specific instructional materials, it is the teachers in the classrooms and their relationships with students who are making choices about what to teach, how to teach, and how to learn (see Stecher & Veniez, 2010).

DiMaggio and Powell (1983) argue that there are different types of environmental pressures on organizations to make them more similar than different. These pressures include “coercive isomorphism,” which stems from formal and informal pressures by organizations and groups on which the school depends (e.g., state mandates under ESSA); “mimetic isomorphism,” which stems from the adoption of similar structures and practices when facing uncertain tasks; and “normative isomorphism,” which stems primarily from professionalization of educators and professional networks.

When applied to school choice, institutional theory emphasizes that all schools operate within highly institutionalized environments which define what counts as legitimate education. All types of schools, no matter the sector or organizational form, adopt rituals, norms, and myths to support their validity (Meyer & Rowan, 1977, 1978; Scott & Davis, 2007). Thus, even schools of choice pay attention to institutional rules such as teacher certification, curricular subject matter, instructional time, reasonable class size, and mostly age-based grade organization.

In short, institutional theorists argue that the institutional environment of American education is so strong that significant changes in instruction are likely to be rare or short lived (see Elmore, 2007), and market theorists claim that increased choice will result in widespread autonomy promoting innovation, competition, and increased satisfaction and outcomes. Despite a couple of decades of school choice reform, researchers have not definitively supported market theory vis-à-vis institutional theory. The limited empirical research is mixed on improved and differentiated instruction and in-school organizational conditions, curriculum content, and pedagogy' in schools of choice, supporting neither market nor institutional theories (see Berends et al., 2010; Lubienski, 2003; Preston, Goldring, Berends, & Cannata, 2012; Berends & Dallavis, 2020).

Future Research Possibilities

Thus, additional research is critical for understanding the various effects of school choice reforms, particularly as the landscape of choice reforms continues to expand in a dramatic fashion for students located in urban areas. Such research can make significant contributions to educational policy related to charter schools, vouchers, and education tax credits. As argued here, an important component of this future research should address questions that go beyond horse races between charter and noncharter students, voucher and non-voucher students, and students benefiting from tax credits vis-à-vis those who do not. Rather, understanding the conditions under which these choice options are effective or not will help push policy' debates forward. Such research will help research not merely accumulate in a fragmented number of studies, but cumulate to further systematic knowledgebuilding, revision of policies, within research and policy communities, so that there is systematic growth in our understanding of the policies and research (see Cohen, 2003). In the future, research is needed not only to inform the policy debates about school choice, but to examine the effects on those of most concern — students who have historically' not had access to the resources and educational opportunities that lead to future educational and other adult attainments.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. As charter schools continue to increase in number and additional research continues to emerge about the variability of charter school effects, what paths of research would help explain this variation?
  • 2. As voucher programs scale up into statewide programs, what have been the overall effects for students receiving vouchers? What kind of research would be useful to explain the variability of voucher effects?
  • 3. How informative is it to compare different types of schools (e.g., traditional public, charter, and voucher schools) when addressing different choice policies? Are effects of school types on test scores an effective way to assess school choice policies? What other types of measures and data would be helpful to more fully understand school choice polices and their effects?


  • 1. Thank you to Paul DiPerna and Drew Catt at EdChoice for providing the data and figures that are incorporated in sections in this chapter. Thanks, too, to Roberto Penaloza for his calculations and to Ann Primus for her editing. Support for this chapter was provided by the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity (CREO), which is part of the Institute of Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame.
  • 2. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and includes 65 participating countries. The PISA administers assessments in reading, mathematics, and science every three years to nationally representative samples of 15-year-old students in the participating countries. The assessments attempt to measure applied knowledge and literacy to address how well student nearing the end of compulsory schooling apply their knowledge to real-life situations.
  • 3. Individual tax credits and deductions provide state income tax relief to families for approved educational expenses, including private school tuition, books, supplies, computers, tutors, and transportation (tax credits lower the total taxes a person owes; a deduction reduces a person’s total taxable income). Tax credit scholarships provide taxpayers (individuals and businesses) full or partial tax credits when they donate to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships. An Education Savings Accounts (ESA) allows parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts, with some restrictions. These funds can be used for private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, and higher education expenses (see EdChoice, 2020, pp. 3—4).
  • 4. Thank you to Paul DiPerna (Vice President of Research and Innovation) and Drew Catt (Director of State Projects and Special Projects) at EdChoice, for providing the data and figures incorporated in this section of the chapter.
  • 5. In 2011, when the program first began, students needed to attend a public school before using a voucher to attend a private school. In 2013, the criteria for eligibility expanded to include kindergarten students, siblings of voucher students, special education students, and those located in the attendance zones of failing public schools; in addition, there was no cap on the number of eligible Indiana students who can receive a Choice Scholarship. With these additional pathways, 61 percent of students receiving vouchers during the 2019—2020 school year had never attended a public school (Indiana Department of Education, 2020; Austin, Waddington, & Berends, 2019).
  • 6. The exception to these overall findings is a recent study in Washington, DC on the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program that found negative effects in mathematics after the first and second years of the program (Dynarski et al., 2017, 2018).


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