The Political Dynamics of District Reform: The Form and Fate of the Los Angeles Public School Choice Initiative
by Julie A. Marsh - 2016
Background: Scholars widely acknowledge that politics help explain why policies are adopted and how they play out in states, districts, and schools. To date, political analyses of education reform tend to isolate a particular policy and examine the politics of its adoption or implementation, but pay less attention to the effects of the politics of surrounding reforms and broader issues.
Purpose: In this article, I use the instrumental case of the Los Angeles Public School Choice Initiative (PSCI) to demonstrate the ways in which the political dynamics of other policy issues in the same local environment greatly affect the form and fate of a reform. The article examines what led to the adoption of PSCI and what explains its implementation and adaptation over time.
Research Design: The study employed an embedded case study design and gathered 3 years of data from leader interviews, observations, interviews, and focus groups in nine case study schools, media articles, and documents. I drew on an ecological-political framework to analyze these data and to understand the evolution of PSCI.
Findings: I find that PSCI provided a vehicle to advance the goals of six education reform “subgames”—decentralization, charter expansion, accountability, union reform, academic rigor, and community empowerment—as well as goals of two broader local “games” of electoral politics and bridging, and that each was consequential to at least one or more phase of PSCI. At times in its evolution, players seeking success in one area of reform aligned with, used, or were used by players seeking success in other areas of reform. It is the interactions of these players in relation to the environment and to others working to advance complementary and conflicting reform issues and goals that explains how a reform touted to improve accountability and learning for low-performing schools and to empower the community became a broader referendum on school governance and reform writ large.
Conclusions: Consistent with recent scholarship, this research demonstrates that an increasingly broad set of actors are engaging in decisions around public schooling and changing the nature of educational governance. The study also illustrates the value of examining local policy with an ecological-political lens and poses several hypotheses that could be explored in future studies. Finally, it suggests that prior to adoption, policymakers consider the extent to which a new policy advances or competes with the goals of surrounding reforms and investigate ways to bolster bridging games.
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