USC to investigate school choice policies under $10 million grant

July 17, 2018

New federally funded center creates a national partnership of school choice scholars

Julie A. Marsh

The USC Rossier School of Education will help lead a new effort to understand how to improve policies related to charter schools and school choice.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences has awarded a five-year, $10 million grant to establish the first national research center that will study how different approaches to school choice, such as voucher programs and charter schools, can better serve historically marginalized students.

The National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice, or REACH, will be housed at Tulane University and brings together top scholars from across the country.

Julie A. Marsh, an associate professor of education at USC Rossier, will direct the center’s qualitative work.

“The center’s goals of improving access and equity are critical,” Marsh said. “If we want to achieve them we must understand how these policies are enacted; the local factors shaping the choice opportunities available to students and families; and what challenges policymakers, educators and families face. The qualitative work also complements the quantitative studies planned for our center, and can help explain why particular policy efforts are or are not achieving intended outcomes and identify ways to adjust policies in the future.”

Most states have charter school systems, and more than half have voucher or tuition tax-credit policies that allow students to use public funds to attend private schools. School choice programs have delivered some notable successes in cities like Boston, New Orleans and New York but have not succeeded everywhere, research suggests.

National scope

In addition to Marsh, the center’s five-person leadership team includes Douglas Harris of Tulane, Joshua Cowen and Katharine Strunk of Michigan State University and Amy Ellen Schwartz of Syracuse University. The center has also recruited experts from almost a dozen other prominent universities and organizations to pursue its scholarship.

Marsh specializes in policy implementation, accountability policy and state and district governance reform. She has conducted a number of studies on school choice systems, including one of the first studies of charter schools in California and an evaluation of the educational management organization Edison Schools. Marsh is currently a co-editor of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a flagship journal of the American Educational Research Association.

She and the other researchers will focus on how school choice is working for students of color, low-income, English-language learner and special education students, as well as other historically marginalized student populations. REACH will track student outcomes and other metrics in essentially every school and every state.

“We designed REACH to answer one big question: How can we improve policy and implementation to make school choice deliver on its promise of raising outcomes and increasing opportunities for disadvantaged students?” said Harris, professor of economics and Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education at Tulane and the center’s director.

Researchers say five key policy areas—transportation, communication strategies, enrollment systems, oversight and teacher supply—are most likely to drive the success of choice policies. Investigators will study these policies in depth in Louisiana, Michigan, Florida, Oregon, Denver, New Orleans, New York City and Washington.

The center will receive input from a National Policy Advisory Board representing public, private, charter and virtual schools across the country. Members include the Council of Chief State School Officers, Council for Exceptional Children, National Association of Public Charter Schools, National Association of Charter School Authorizers, National Association of Independent Schools, National School Boards Association, Great Schools, Public Impact and The Shanker Institute.

Related Stories: