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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.

School districts face colossal pressure to improve student performance, particularly in their lowest performing schools. Federal accountability policies and incentives, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver policy, Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grant programs, raised the stakes for “turning around” schools and districts characterized by chronically low test results and unfavorable student outcomes. These pressures are especially acute in large, urban districts, whose students lag far behind their counterparts across the nation in achievement and graduation rates. Faced with limited capacity, challenging student populations, and increasing demands for change, leaders of these districts are experimenting with a range of improvement strategies, ranging from the firing and rehiring of staff, to the provision of increased autonomy to school leaders, to the adoption of new school reform models, to the introduction of greater choice and external management of schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)’s Public School Choice Initiative (PSCI) is one such attempt to improve districtwide performance. Adopted in 2009, PSCI allowed teams of internal and external stakeholders to develop plans for and compete to turn around the district's lowest performing schools and to operate newly constructed schools designated to ease overcrowding. LAUSD was one of more than 25 urban districts nationwide adopting the “portfolio” strategy (Hill, Campbell, & Gross, 2012).1 The ultimate goal of this district reform was to build a diverse portfolio of high-performing schools tailored to and supported by the local community. More than 130 schools participated in this reform from 2009–2014.

The case of PSCI offers important lessons about reforming urban districts. Our research published elsewhere examines the effects of this policy on student achievement (Strunk, Marsh, Hashim, Bush, & Weinstein, 2016) and the implementation of key policy mechanisms such as parent engagement and plan development (Marsh, Strunk, Bush, & Huguet, 2015; Strunk, Marsh, Duque, & Bush, 2016), illustrating the challenges and successes of enacting complex, systemwide reform. Yet, equally important—and the focus of this paper—are the insights this case provides into the political dynamics of education reform and governance.

To date, political analyses of education reform tend to isolate a particular policy and examine the politics of its adoption or implementation (e.g., the politics of adopting a new reading curriculum or choice policy, of implementing site-based management), but pay less attention to the effects of the politics of surrounding reforms and broader issues. That is, they often fail to capture the complexity of policymaking in settings crowded with multiple reforms and issues. In this paper, I use the instrumental case (Stake, 2000) of 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. I intend to show how educational reforms and electoral politics in Los Angeles interacted in ways that shaped the adoption, implementation, and adaptation (or co-optation) of PSCI over time. In so doing, I demonstrate the value of examining local policy with an ecological-political perspective and offer insights into the evolving nature of U.S. educational governance.

In the remainder of the paper I first review past studies of the politics of education reform on which this analysis builds. I then present background on PSCI, followed by a description of the paper’s conceptual framework. Next I explain my research methods and then analyze the reform during three phases. I conclude with a discussion of cross-cutting findings and implications.


Scholars widely acknowledge that politics help explain why policies are adopted and how they play out in states, districts, and schools (Cooper, Cibulka, & Fusarelli, 2008; Malen, 2006; Marshall, Mitchell, & Wirt, 1985; McDonnell & Weatherford, 2000; Wong, 1991). Districts, in particular, are commonly recognized as important arenas of political activity, whose reforms are best understood within this political context (Shipps, Kahne, & Smylie. 1999; Wirt & Kirst, 2005).

To date, many studies of the politics of education reform present a narrow analysis of the dynamics of power relations shaping a particular policy or initiative. For example, a large body of research has examined the implementation of site-based management (e.g., Fine, 1993; Goldring, 1993; Malen & Ogawa, 1988; Merz & Furman, 1997; Wohlstetter & Odden, 1992). These studies illustrate the ways in which the political dynamics of parent-teacher-principal interactions affect the enactment of new governance structures, such as repeated instances in which principals overtly and covertly exert power to dominate decision-making. Studies of whole school reform (e.g., Datnow, 2000), reconstitution (e.g., Malen, 2006), incentive pay (e.g., Marsh, 2012), differentiated staffing (e.g., Noblit, Berry, & Dempsey, 1991), and accountability (e.g., Brown, 2008) policies follow in a similar tradition, often explaining the policy’s adoption and/or implementation as a function of the interactions of individuals and groups seeking to advance their interests. In many of these studies, scholars focus on the political dynamics of the initiators and implementers to explain why a policy’s implementation deviates from its original design or intent. Although at times other policies may be discussed as contributing factors or background, these studies generally foreground a particular policy and select actors intimately involved in its enactment.

Another body of research examines the ways in which policies initiated at higher levels influence implementation at lower levels—including studies of federal policy playing out in states (e.g., Fuhrman & Elmore, 1990; Kolbe & Rice, 2012; McGuinn, 2012) and federal and state policies affecting districts (e.g., Chrispeels, 1997; Firestone, 1989a; Kirp & Driver, 1995; Manna, 2011; Spillane, 1996, 1998; Vergari, 2007). These studies often demonstrate ways in which players at lower levels are not only implementers but also significant generators of policy with considerable power to adapt and subvert policies from above to advance local interests (Berman & McLaughlin, 1977; Firestone, 1989b; Fuhrman & Elmore, 1990; Lusi, 1997; Malen & Hart, 1987; Spillane, 1996). While more expansive than a siloed examination of a single policy and its local actors, these studies add nuance primarily around the interactions of issues and players at different governance levels.

Finally, other studies adopt an even broader understanding of education politics within the local context. Most notably, Clarence Stone and colleagues have examined civic capacity and the role of broad community stakeholders and cross-sector coalitions in advancing education reform in urban cities (Orr, 1996; Shipps, 2003; Stone, Henig, Jones, & Pierannunzi, 2001).2 Unlike past studies characterizing politics as obstructing reform, this research emphasizes the potential for politics to advance and sustain reform (Malen, 2006). Although this strain of research has shifted over time from an examination of education reform in general to the various types of reforms around which school reform coalitions or “regimes” form (Bulkley, 2007; Shipps, 2003), these studies nonetheless maintain a fairly high-level perspective on local issues. That is, broad categories of reform (e.g., altering power relations) may mask even finer grained reform issues within these categories (e.g., some seek to alter power relations via increased autonomy, others desire complete independence via charter schools, others push for greater parent involvement in decision-making). These studies also generally assume actors participate exclusively in one reform coalition, such as community activists and foundation elites pushing for pedagogical reform competing with corporate leaders and the Mayor to sustain market-based reforms (Shipps, 2003). Yet, a more fine-grained analysis of reform issues may indicate that an individual actor is active simultaneously in multiple reform efforts. While useful in broadening our understanding of the many stakeholders and broad reforms active within local districts, these studies leave room to uncover even greater potential complexity and interdependencies that may be affecting the politics and policy of education reform in a local arena.


Overseen by a seven-member elected Board of Education, LAUSD is the second largest school district in the country, serving approximately 655,000 students in over 900 schools and 187 charter schools. The district serves a diverse student population: nearly three quarters of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and over one quarter are English language learners.

Adopted by the LAUSD Board of Education in August 2009, the Public School Choice resolution built on decades of past reform efforts in Los Angeles, most notably a series of systemic reforms seeking to empower local actors and advance student achievement in the 1990s (Kerchner, Menefee-Libey, Mulfinger, & Clayton, 2008). Responding to the “chronic academic underperformance” of many district schools and the strong interest from parents and communities to “play a more active role” in “shaping and expanding the educational options” (Flores Aguilar, 2009, p. 1), the resolution invited internal (e.g., teachers, administrators) and external (nonprofits, charter operators) teams to compete to turn around the district's lowest performing "focus" schools (selected by LAUSD administrators based on a diverse set of performance indicators) and to operate newly constructed "relief" schools designated to ease overcrowding (built using funding from state and local bonds). The initiative was not intended to be a typical “choice” program in which parents choose the school their child will attend. Rather, this process provided the community with the opportunity to participate in developing school plans. The ultimate "choice" in PSCI was made by district leaders.

The district's implicit theory of change asserted that multiple mechanisms would lead to improved schools and student achievement, including: competition from multiple applicants, intensive supports for teams as they designed and implemented plans, rigorous screening of plans, opportunities to gain autonomies from district and union policies, district oversight and accountability for achieving school goals, and parent/community engagement in design and operations. According to the resolution, the ultimate goal of PSCI was to build a diverse portfolio of high-performing schools tailored to and supported by the local community (see Marsh, Strunk, & Bush, 2013).

Designed for gradual scale-up, PSCI involved annual rounds (or cohorts) of schools in a multistaged process. In each round, LAUSD identified a set of focus and relief schools to participate, and then opened up the application process to internal and external teams. Responding to a detailed Request for Proposals, interested teams submitted lengthy school plans that covered topics from curriculum to school organization to professional development. In addition, applicants were asked to select one of a set of governance models that varied in the levels of autonomy schools had from district and/or union policies and over resource use: ranging from traditional schools to pilot schools operating under “thin” teacher union contracts (limited to only 20 when PSCI began3) to independent charters. Submitted applications underwent extensive review, which in the first two rounds included panels of internal and external reviewers, parent and community voting, and Superintendent recommendations to the LAUSD Board, which voted on the final set of winning applicants. Consistent with the portfolio management approach, district leaders were expected to be neutral, selecting school plans on the basis of quality rather than personal preferences for a particular type of operator. As I will explain, the review and selection process changed in later years, as did other key elements of the reform. Further, not all reform elements of PSCI’s theory of change played out as designed. In all, 42 schools (28 relief/14 focus) participated in the first round of PSCI; 28 (23 relief/5 focus) in the second round; and 41 (22 relief/19 focus) in the third round.4

While this complex initiative built on past reforms, it nonetheless represented a shift in district policy, expanding competition as a key lever of change and opening up the possibility for external teams to operate both new and existing campuses. The stakes were high, including possible loss of jobs and dramatic changes in school operations and instruction. In a large urban district with multiple competing reform efforts, interest groups, and actors, how did this policy come about and how did it unfold over time? I take up these questions in the remainder of the paper.


I use an ecological-political framework (Figure 1) to leverage understanding of the political dynamics of district reform and the evolution of PSCI over time. This orientation builds on a tradition of research in education that embraces both an ecological perspective to conceptualize the complexity of policy and the interdependence of actors, issues, and the environment (e.g., Weaver-Hightower, 2008) and a political game perspective to conceptualize how actors collectively exercise power to influence policy development (Firestone, 1989a: Malen, 2006). Specifically, the framework draws on an adaptation of the metaphor of an ecology of games (EOG) (Long, 1958). Rather than a formal theory, I call upon the metaphor as a “sensitizing concept”5 to make sense of the cross-issue dynamics occurring within the ecology of a district.

Initially developed by Long (1958) to describe how local communities are governed, the ecology of games metaphor combines the idea of community ecology—that diverse communities interact, coadapt, and coevolve with the environment—with the concept of games—that within communities there are structured, goal-oriented games in which actors participate, following particular rules, in front of particular audiences, in cooperative or competitive ways. According to Long, “These games provide the players with a set of goals that give them a sense of success or failure. They provide them determinate roles and calculable strategies and tactics. In addition, they provide the players with an elite and general public that is in varying degrees able to tell the score” (p. 252). In any “territorial system,” such as a city, there are multiple games played simultaneously and individuals may play in any number of them.

Thus, in a city there may be banking, political, and newspaper games, with expected roles for players in each game. Knowing that the politician will seek to maximize his chances of re-election and the newspaperman will seek to expose news that sells papers is an important part of the game, allowing players to “estimate the possibilities for their own action in their particular game” (Long, p. 253). As a result, symbiotic relationships form across games, as players seeking success in one game “make use of players in another and are, in turn, made use of by them”—in other words, “each is a piece in the chess game of the other” (p. 253). As such, the politician’s need for publicity and the newspaperman’s need for “a scoop” may bring together these actors from two separate games.

Under Long’s original conception, education reform would be one of many games occurring in Los Angeles, along with perhaps an “economic development game,” a “health and welfare reform game,” an “electoral politics game,” etc. In this paper, I focus primarily on the dynamics within one particular game, education reform, to examine its multiple subgames, and their occasional intersection with broader games (primarily electoral politics). As such, within local education reform the rules may be quite similar (e.g., one must mobilize support among interest groups and gain Board approval for policy adoption), but the immediate goals and objectives of these subissues—and their conceptions of the problem—may be quite different. Some reforms seek to improve educator accountability (problem defined here as lack of motivation), others hope for expanding charter schools (problem defined as lack of autonomy), while still others aim for more rigorous curriculum and instruction (problem defined as lack of capacity). Further, players seeking success in one area of reform align with, use, or are used by players seeking success in other areas of reform. This framework suggests that the interaction of competing and complementary issues with one another and with the local environment, and the actions of players seeking to advance these issues, shape the collective adoption, implementation, and adaptation of policy over time.6

The framework further foregrounds the reform issues. Past applications of the EOG in education defined “games” around levels of government (e.g., state, district, school, classroom games in Firestone, 1989a; 1998; Garrett, 2007; Standerford, 1997), rather than their goals for reform. While useful for advancing a loose-coupling argument about the difficulty of achieving uniform responses to policies developed at higher levels, past applications limit our understanding of the political dynamics within each level. By assuming a unitary “district game” this hierarchical conception obscures the multiple and often conflicting reform subgames within a district.7

As such, I apply the ecological metaphor of goal-oriented games and subgames to education reform in LAUSD. The framework recognizes that at any one time in this arena there are multiple reform ideas and initiatives seeking to improve the system and multiple, often overlapping actors strategizing to advance those ideas. At times these ideas bring in actors who traditionally do not engage in education reform, such as elected officials, business leaders, and foundations, whose primary focus may lie in other non–education reform games. When a new policy idea emerges within this arena, its evolution might best be understood in relation to surrounding reform issues in this environment and the interconnected actors tied to these issues. Much like the ecological perspective adopted in other fields,8 this framework also recognizes that the environment plays a critical role in determining the form and fate of various ideas which coadapt and coevolve with it over time.9

In summary, the ecological-political framework draws attention to the interactions of 1) the multiple reform issues defined by specific goals for and approaches to improving the education system, 2) the actors, their interests, and the strategies used to advance these issues at all policy phases, and 3) the local economic, social, historical, and political environment conditioning the actions and interactions of issues and actors.


This article draws on 3 years (2010–13) of qualitative data to answer the following research questions: What led to the adoption of PSCI? What explains its implementation and adaptation over time? Employing an embedded case study design (Yin, 2003), our research team collected data from leader interviews, observations, documents, case studies, and media.10 The combination of these sources allowed for triangulation of data about the core constructs of the ecological-political framework and emergent reform issues and themes.


I conducted interviews with 46 leaders, including the Superintendents (2 were in office during the period of study), central office administrators, Board members, and leaders and staff from the teachers and administrators associations, foundations, charter school organizations, the Mayor’s office, and civic organizations. The interview sample initially included traditional political actors known to participate in PSCI and district reform generally and broadened over time through “snowball” techniques to include actors and groups named by others to play a role in PSCI and surrounding reform issues. Interview protocols asked about individuals’ roles and interests, involvement in PSCI and other reform issues, and perceptions of the origins and implementation of PSCI (see Appendix A for sample questions). A team of researchers also observed 35 district meetings (74 hours), including orientation sessions and workshops, and collected all relevant documents (e.g., Powerpoints). These data provided valuable information about the PSCI reform and the role of various actors and issues.


The team conducted case studies of nine school sites—five from the second cohort (hereafter PSCI 2.0 schools) and four from the PSCI 3.0 cohort—and the stakeholders involved in either developing proposals to operate those campuses or belonging to the community associated with the target sites. In the development year, for each site we interviewed at least one member from all teams submitting applications, conducted parent focus groups, observed site-specific meetings, and reviewed documents (e.g., print and social media, school plans). In the implementation year we interviewed school administrators, teachers, and regional district administrators; conducted parent focus groups, and observed meetings. In total, we conducted interviews and focus groups with 156 individuals and observed 54 school meetings (155 hours). Collectively, these site-level data provide insights into the implementation of PSCI and the ways in which competing reform issues at times interacted in ways that altered the intended roll-out.


From October 2010 to March 2013, researchers ran weekly internet searches using the Google News database and on the Los Angeles Times website for relevant media articles using several standard search terms (e.g., Public School Choice, LAUSD). We also ran archival searches on both databases to obtain articles dating from July 2009. In total, 290 media articles were collected and analyzed, providing information about the broader reform context for PSCI, as well as the specific issues, actors, and political strategies that came into play.


Using NVivo software, I began coding all interview and focus group transcripts, observation notes, articles, and documents with an initial set of a priori codes related to the ecological-political framework, including: actor, interests, strategies, policy phase, and environment. In the second phase, inductive open coding and memoing led to the identification of games relevant to the enactment of PSCI, described in the sections that follow. By games, I draw on Long’s (1958) definition as “structured group activities” that bring people together with common goals. Inductive coding also uncovered four main strategies used by actors to advance their reform issues: use of top-down authority, persuasion, information control, and collaboration. Consistent with past research (Fowler, 2009; Malen & Cochran, 2008), these strategies represent both overt (e.g., lobbying) and covert (e.g., spreading misinformation) strategies. I also developed more fine-grained categories of “environment.” In the final coding phase, I revised the names of and collapsed some coding categories. For example, I merged games previously coded “teacher evaluation” and “union legitimacy” into one “union reform” game. I also determined that six of the games fell within a broader education reform game (termed subgames) and two (electoral politics and bridging) were non–education reform games. Still others were dropped because they lacked adequate evidence or they existed primarily outside of the local arena. In the end, a reform issue or game was determined to be relevant when at least three sources identified it as interacting with PSCI during at least one phase of the reform. Appendices B–D provide a full list of codes and how they evolved during each round of coding, examples of each category in the coding scheme, and a sample coded transcript excerpt.

In the next phase of analysis I ran coding queries and developed spreadsheets investigating patterns in and relationships between coded categories. Through this analysis I identified games that were more or less central to adoption, implementation, or adaptation, as well as the key strategies and interests associated with actors. Throughout this process I developed memoranda that helped track emerging patterns and themes, along with the evidence to support them.

To enhance the internal validity and trustworthiness (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) of my data, I triangulated data from multiple sources (Stake, 1995). I accepted interview data as valid reports of actual events only when corroborated by at least two other participant accounts, by direct observation, or by document or media. I also worked to ensure trustworthiness through prolonged engagement in the field (more than 3 years), member-checking (presenting emergent findings to district and community partners and soliciting their feedback on manuscript drafts), and “peer debriefing” (reviewing findings with other researchers familiar with PSCI) (Guba, 1981). To ensure external validity I strove to provide a detailed description of the case and a detailed account of data collection and analysis strategies .

The bounding of this case to focus primarily on the education reform game and subissues does not allow me to examine the other possible interactions with and reverberating effects of PSCI on all non–education reform games in Los Angeles. While these instances emerged in my analysis (e.g., the United Way’s endorsement of key changes to PSCI sparked a backlash that affected their broader community development efforts), they are not the focus of this article. Future research might employ a wider lens to examine these linkages. Finally, limited space prevents the presentation of all supporting data: quotes included are illustrative of the typical language used by respondents.


The PSCI policy evolved in several phases—adoption, implementation, and adaptation—each influenced by distinct reform issues, broader games, and interconnected players. As I will explain, PSCI provided a vehicle to advance the goals of six issues 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. Each was consequential to at least one or more of the different phases of PSCI. Figure 1 illustrates these games and subgames, while Table 1 summarizes their key goals and players and their centrality to each phase of PSCI. Appendix E provides a timeline of key events surrounding the evolution of PSCI. Collectively, this narrative illustrates the ways in which the politics of surrounding reform issues and games helps explain the form and fate of an education policy in an urban district.

Figure 1. Conceptual framework: The LAUSD ecology of reform


Table 1. Summary of Key Players, Games, and Subgames in LAUSD Ecology of Reform During the Evolution of PSCI



Why was PSCI passed by the Board in 2009 and why in this particular form? My analysis suggests that the broader Los Angeles environment at this time and PSCI as a policy concept provided fertile ground for six key education reforms and two broader games. Key actors aligned with one another in and across these games and subgames to advance their goals through the adoption of PSCI.

Interaction of Reform Issues

For more than 2 decades, actors within LAUSD had sought to advance decentralization, a reform effort committed to changing the district from within, or what some call a strategy of “voice” (Hirschman, 1970; Reckhow, 2013). A series of systemic reforms in the 1990s—the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN) and the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project (LAAMP)—sought to empower local actors and increase school autonomy (Kerchner et al., 2008). While these reforms made some headway, many felt they fell short of stated goals. Over the years, other efforts paved the way for even more dramatic change in this area. One historical marker of further decentralization wins came in 2007, when after years of advocacy among a coalition of community, business, civic, and education leaders, the district, in partnership with the teachers association, established the Belmont Zone of Choice and Belmont Pilot Schools Network. The effort allowed residents in central Los Angeles to choose among a portfolio of small, autonomous high schools (some, modeled after Boston’s pilot schools, would have greater freedom in the areas of curriculum, staffing, budget, etc.). The plans for these redesigned schools were written by teacher leaders. According to observers, several LAUSD Board members had expressed interest in expanding the Belmont concept to other areas of the city and many viewed Belmont as a catalyst or model for PSCI.

Superintendent Cortines indicated strong interest in building on these efforts. Leaders described his “theory of action” as “personalization and decentralization … He was explicit about getting money out of this building [district headquarters] into the schools.” In the summer of 2009, members of the LA Compact—a coalition of civic leaders and institutions of higher education committed to transforming local education—were also advocating for expanded autonomies and innovative school models. Board Member Flores similarly noted the importance of devolving authority to local educators and tied this directly to PSCI: “I wanted to create a space for teachers here to in a way unleash their creativity, to remove the barriers; if they had a better idea of how to run schools, let’s let them play the game.” Allowing PSCI teams to select governance models, including pilot, that provided autonomy from district policies clearly advanced this agenda.

Perhaps the most hotly contested of the reforms spurring PSCI was that of charter expansion, founded on theories of competition, choice, and reforming the district via external pressure, or a strategy of “exit” (Hirschman, 1970; Reckhow, 2013). It too had a long history in LAUSD, involved players from all levels of government, foundations (e.g., Broad, Walton, Gates),11 and local organizations, and found in PSCI an opportunity to address one of the most vexing problems facing its players: facilities. In an earlier phase of this reform effort, charter school advocates and others lobbied for state legislation (Proposition 39) that lowered the threshold for votes required to pass local bonds, with an expectation that charter schools would be guaranteed some of the new campus space. As a result of this proposition, Los Angeles voters approved more than $20 billion in revenue bonds to build 130 new facilities over the past decade (Fuller et al., 2009). Yet, as these schools began to open, some encountered problems. According to one leader, “a lot of new schools were opening with beautiful … externals and miserable internals.” Another described this as “doing crappy schools in great buildings … what an insult to taxpayers.” This provided one of the rationales for tying PSCI to new campuses: to ensure that new campuses implemented effective educational programs. Another came from charter school advocates who argued that LAUSD was denying campus space to which they were entitled under Proposition 39 (a matter litigated in 2010). Thus, the inclusion of 50 new campuses in the PSCI competition provided charter school players with an enormous opportunity to advance their interests. Skeptical observers and opposing players—including several Board members and union leaders—expressed deep concerns about this charter expansion effort, describing it as a “real-estate grab,” an “attempt at privatization,” and “purely about land and power.”

Not surprisingly, many of the actors involved in charter expansion also participated in union reform, a long-standing effort to change collective bargaining rules and enhance administrator autonomy over personnel decisions. Although more consequential in later phases, several key actors believed the adoption of PSCI could serve as an important catalyst for union reform. One charter school leader, for example, hoped that the transfer or threat of transfer of schools to external operators would spark a “mini revolution inside” of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and a realization that “This is serious. We can’t lose 2,000, 3,000 members a year, and just sit there and do nothing. Clearly, the public is demanding this.” This leader believed PSCI “would have jolted the system into a much more, ‘Okay, we’re willing to try things. We’re willing to come to the bargaining table and put on the table non-seniority-based layoffs. Put on the table a real evaluation system.’” When conversations about PSCI emerged, UTLA, clearly opposed to this possibility, organized a grassroots campaign mobilizing members to contact the Board to defeat the resolution. One UTLA-disseminated document described the proposed policy as “a union busting resolution” that if passed “could strip rights and jobs from thousands of classified and certificated school employees by giving schools away to non-union or other private interests” (UTLA, 2009).

The discussions around PSCI also intersected with efforts to promote accountability, a reform pushed by the federal administration seeking more aggressive measures to turn around low-performing schools. At the time of its inception, some local players were concerned with new schools, while others were greatly concerned with existing schools that repeatedly failed to achieve accountability targets.12 In fact, according to many accounts, PSCI was initially designed to focus solely on the newly built campuses, but upon urging from Superintendent Cortines, Board Member Garcia, and other community groups concerned about the quality of existing schools, Board Member Flores added the lowest performing campuses to the policy’s target group. Several observers saw the turnaround of Locke High School—one of the city’s most troubled campuses taken over by Green Dot charter management in 2007—as a catalyst for PSCI and an incentive to include more external operators in efforts to dramatically improve the lowest performing schools. In all, the combination of internal and external pressures and the large number of failing schools made PSCI an attractive option to advance accountability for low-performing schools. It would demonstrate LAUSD’s decisive action in tackling chronic underperformance and responding to community pressure, and possibly avoid further actions imposed from state and federal governments. One UTLA leader, however, questioned the sincerity of adding focus schools to PSCI, viewing it as a calculated effort to add legitimacy to a reform primarily intended to focus on new campuses for charter expansion.

Reforms advancing academic rigor and community empowerment also provide context for the emergence of PSCI in 2009. In terms of academic rigor, the Mayor’s vision of reform upon taking office in 2005 called for higher standards, and for years, community organizations, parents, students, and a consortium of interests forming the LA Compact had advocated for better preparation of students for college and careers. Collectively and individually, community organizations had communicated a sense of urgency around improving the academic programs in their local schools. These demands were particularly strong in the home district of Board Member Flores, who explained that upon her election in 2007, she had worked with the Southeast City Schools Coalition “about how could we really bring a different level of quality to our schools in the south east because … it’s not in the city of LA [and] they often feel like a stepchild and get forgotten.” To some, PSCI provided a partial response to these demands for change. The Ford Foundation, in particular, invested in PSCI early on in part to advance innovative learning designs and more instructional time in schools. As I will describe, once PSCI rolled out, however, issues of governance trumped most curricular and instructional matters, sidelining players dedicated to academic rigor.

The drive for community empowerment—grounded in a belief that engagement will align school reform to local needs and provide much-needed social capital to support change—also dovetailed with the PSCI effort in early 2009. Building on early LAAMP and LEARN reforms, a bevy of community organizations and one in particular, Parent Revolution (PR), had been pushing to enhance opportunities for parent input into educational decision-making. The inclusion in PSCI of an advisory vote to solicit local parent and community member preferences on school plans represented a win for many advocates of empowerment. However, others players had sought even stronger voice for parents. PR hoped to insert into the PSCI resolution a “parent trigger” allowing a majority of parents to submit a petition that would require the district to adhere to their desired form of school turnaround. When this effort failed, PR organizers moved to the state legislature to accomplish this goal. (In essence, the local terrain did not yield the full set of rewards, so players shifted to another arena to fulfill this goal.) Despite this setback, PR and other advocates of community empowerment worked hard to advance PSCI. One such leader recounted “helping to line up [Board] votes,” “talking to reporters” and “just building political support for this.”

Non–Education Reform Games

In addition to these education reforms, PSCI also served to advance the goals of two key non–education reform games, electoral politics and bridging.13 In the electoral politics game, PSCI gave Board members and the Mayor an opportunity not only to advance their substantive reform agendas, but also to gain public recognition for leading change, which could serve their career interests. “[Board members] are ambitious politically,” said one leader, “if they think they can pass this motion it will make them progressives in the world of education, that they’re in favor of reform.” Having lost a bid to take over the district in 2006 in a previous round of the electoral politics game, the Mayor and his allies perhaps saw PSCI as a way to regain footing and visibility in local education. One leader explained:

[T]he people around him who fuelled the attempt to have the mayoral takeover have always been looking for ways that they can mitigate that loss for him. … to find different avenues to capture that level of influence. And the Partnership schools [operated with the district by a nonprofit group the Mayor started] … weren’t big enough. Public School Choice was a much bigger stage … another way to kind of be a big equation changer, when it came to the schools, in a much faster and more high profile, and easier to understand way.

Elected officials drew upon a host of persuasive strategies to advance their goals via PSCI. Prior to the vote the Mayor, surrounded by civil rights leaders, held a press conference endorsing the resolution. Standing in front of the LAUSD headquarters among 2,000 parents—many mobilized by charter school and community empowerment advocates to attend and wearing shirts reading “My Child, My Choice”—the Mayor stated, “We’re here today to stand up for our children. … I am pro-union but I am pro-parent as well. If workers have rights, then parents ought to have rights too” (Song & Blume, 2009). The Mayor also indirectly used his influence to shape the landscape for this reform. Similar to other actors (e.g., Chamber of Commerce, UTLA), he raised money for and/or endorsed Board members in prior elections in the hopes of gaining their support in future policy decisions such as PSCI. Many credited the Mayor’s electoral strategies (including campaign contributions of $3.5 million) with building up a four-member Board majority that favored his interests of charter expansion and decentralization. Board members were also quite strategic in their actions. One Board member, for example, encouraged local community groups to “use their power” to publicly push the district for change. This Board insider leveraged external pressure to advance her interests in adopting the resolution and expanding school options and charter schools.

Finally, the ecology of reform giving rise to PSCI is incomplete without a recognition of the bridging game, a specialized game designed to link players across games (Firestone, 1989a) and, I would argue, subgames. This game was spearheaded in large part by the Chamber of Commerce and its affiliate Unite LA, which convenes the LA Compact (described above) and seeks to “build the collaboration between the parties.” Described by some as a “neutral” party, “broker,” and “trusted intermediary,” the Chamber/Unite LA communicated with players across reform issues and broader games and ensured that the final policy addressed competing interests. For example, they made sure PSCI included a mechanism providing support to internal applicant teams who many argued did not have the same experience writing plans as external teams. One leader explained,

[R]epresenting UTLA and AALA [Associated Administrators of Los Angeles] and shared interests … [we suggested] that the Superintendent should have an affirmative responsibility to create support for existing teams. Because the way it was originally written, it was silent to that issue … [and] had the risk of favoring charters. … [T]he major charter organizations had full-time development staff. They were writing proposals to foundations and they had capacity then to put forward a proposal, whereas a full-time teacher or principal doesn't have that excess capacity.

This move addressed some of the concerns of opponents to charter expansion and union reform and advanced the cause of decentralization and academic rigor advocates. Similarly, the Chamber/Unite LA helped develop policies regarding enrollment boundaries for all PSCI schools, such as ensuring that charter operators gave preference to local residents. They also helped establish the Workforce Stabilization Task Force to develop guidelines around the provision of maintenance, custodial, food, and other services in PSCI schools awarded to external operators. These moves once again placated charter expansion opponents who were concerned “that if charters got a lot of the schools, then all the jobs associated with it then would be displaced. Not only teachers but service, supports.”

Ultimately, these collaborative strategies cleared the way for the resolution’s passage. “I was doing what I thought was sort of balancing interests,” explained one broker, who described “behind the scenes” efforts to communicate with Board, union, and district leaders to forge “more collaborative” reform and language that was neither pro-charter nor pro-union. The Chamber/Unite LA knew that without these bridging efforts, PSCI may have not only failed, but also derailed its other concurrent collaborative endeavor, the LA Compact, and perhaps other brokering efforts in non–education reform games (e.g., community and economic development).

Bringing It All Together

In the end, the resolution morphed to meet the needs of actors working within and across games. The final language was informed by conversations among district and civic leaders over the spring and summer of 2009—described as “sausage making” by one participant and a “tug of war” by another. Adopted by a Board vote of 6-1 in August 2009, PSCI provided wins for self-labeled “progressive” elected officials and brokers, as well as proponents of decentralization, charter expansion, union reform, accountability, academic rigor, and community empowerment. Bridging games, nevertheless, tempered the wins of key charter school proponents: they had access to new facilities, but constraints on operation. For example, they could not conduct an open lottery to enroll all students and they had to utilize district service providers for the first year. Of course, the “losers,” most notably union leaders and pro-union Board members, were not pleased with the outcome. One such Board member described PSCI as an attempt “to reduce the number of teachers and the size of UTLA as an influential entity” and “to run the school district … like a private business.” “We call it Public School Giveaway and I think it is masquerading as a reform,” said a union leader.

The description above also indicates that the environmental context played a key role in the reform dynamics giving rise to PSCI. Federal accountability pressures clearly shaped the focus on low-performing schools.14 The Obama administration was “trying to up the ante” with new funds and incentives, which one observer saw as “fuelling the atmosphere” within LAUSD in the summer of 2009. Economic conditions also heightened battles occurring across reform issues, particularly concerns about charter conversions displacing jobs of classified staff. One stakeholder said: “We were in the middle of this budget crisis … I think the Board members would always be concerned, you don't want [to harm] some of your hardest working people who are depending on those jobs. But it was compounded because we had other layoffs going.” Finally, several high-profile past initiatives in Belmont and Locke High appeared to have built momentum for change within LAUSD, softening the ground for similar reforms such as PSCI.


By design, PSCI laid out a detailed process for the development and review of proposals to operate annual cohorts of new and focus schools. One and a half months after the policy was adopted, LAUSD released a Request for Proposals (RFPs). Teams were expected to develop plans to instill research-based, rigorous teaching and learning in PSCI schools. These plans would undergo a careful review, informed by parent and community input, and end in the selection of the highest quality plans. To what extent did PSCI play out as intended and what explains this implementation?

Consistent with extensive literature on policy implementation (e.g., Honig, 2006), PSCI in the early years did not always conform to the initial design and theory of change (for further details see Marsh et al., 2013). In the following sections I analyze the enactment of two central design elements—neutrality of support and selection, and meaningful parent and community participation—to illustrate the ways in which the interactions of reform issues and games, actors, and environment help explain implementation in the first 2 years.

Neutrality in Support and Selection

One major tenet of PSCI and portfolio reforms generally is that district leaders support teams, allow them to develop locally-driven plans, and select plans based on quality. Our data indicated however that this principle of neutrality was not always adhered to in all cases and that there were widespread perceptions of unfairness. Key interactions among players engaged in charter expansion, academic rigor, and electoral politics help explain these results.

At the heart of this matter was the battle over charter expansion. Heading out of a major loss with the passage of PSCI, union leaders mobilized quickly to block charter operators from winning cohort 1.0 schools. They “ignited their political machine” to sway the Board and parents to support plans written by internal teams. Union leaders organized get-out-the vote drives, precinct walking, and newspaper and radio advertisements; and disseminated door-hangers, mailers, and bumper stickers endorsing the internal plans and often criticizing the opposing plans. Charter school proponents, including staff from the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and local charter management organizations (CMOs), as well as regional district administrators also actively promoted their favored plans using similar strategies. “It was supposed to be about collaboration,” explained an internal team leader, “But you create this extreme competition between these strong competitors, and no one wins… If we put out a flyer … or … a door hanger, [the other team] put out a hanger, a pin, and a button.”

At the end of this 1.0 selection process, charter school proponents found themselves on the losing team with very few plans selected. The Board was significantly more likely to select plans from internal teams than from external charter school organizations and network partners. For example, 16% of plans proposing a charter school governance structure (6 of 38) were selected compared to 76% of plans proposing more traditional governance structures. Many participants and observers were disappointed in this outcome and claimed that ideological and partisan positions rather than quality drove Board decision-making—bringing in the electoral politics game once again. The Mayor, for example, publicly criticized district leaders for favoring district-led proposals over plans submitted by charter school teams. Many observers inside and outside of the district described “horse-trading” on the day of selection and characterized the Board meeting as “politicized” and “a spectacle” of political activity. Consistent with our own observations of movement during the meeting (videotaped), one central officer attending the meeting recalled,

[We saw] raw politics … at the Board level when some of the votes took place. … You actually saw movement in some chairs. You know, Board member stepping up, going to one chair … some very obvious displays of ‘something is going on here.’ [It] made it very political, made folks say, ‘what's this process about?’

Individuals interviewed repeatedly named Board members who committed to voting for a particular plan prior to reading all competing plans or, in a clear assertion of authority, told teams they would only vote for their plan if they adopted a particular governance model. For example, one Board member was adamant about having a team adopt a pilot school model. From the perspective of PSC’s theory of change, this move did not cohere with the vision of locally determined plans. However, from the perspective of the electoral politics game, the acquisition of a pilot school elevated the Board member’s reputation. “It must be some sort of coup,” conjectured one observer, “there’s a finite number of pilots that have been negotiated, so getting one … that it’s a good thing to get, let’s get one, let’s put our hat in the ring because they’ll disappear.” It is also possible the Board member’s demands for a pilot accomplished a simultaneous decentralization goal: providing greater autonomy to teachers while maintaining overall control within the district.

Although our independent analysis of PSCI 1.0 (and 2.0) plans suggests that the Superintendent’s recommendations and Board votes were relatively aligned with an objective measure of plan quality (see Strunk et al., 2016), there were a small number of high-profile cases in which assessments of quality may not have driven district leader actions. There was at least one case in which Mayor-backed Board members decided against the Superintendent’s recommendation to adopt an internal team’s plan in favor of a plan from the Mayor’s nonprofit organization Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS). This raised suspicions by some that Board members were “doing a favor” for the Mayor to whom they were “beholden.” In fact, we heard multiple reports of the Mayor “quickly lobbying” for his PLAS schools to Board members. In the end, these cases drove a widespread perception that electoral politics dominated district leaders’ selection decisions, as illustrated by the comments below:

Although in theory if you have a strong track record and if you submit a strong application you should be the operator of choice. What it actually comes down to is getting those four votes and the quality piece doesn’t necessarily translate to the votes. (Charter school leader)

Everyone who’s really involved as a decision maker … they’re not reading the application without a huge filter. … The decision is made based on political affiliation and who’s got the most political clout. (Nonprofit, external partner)

Ultimately, their losses in round one of PSCI re-ignited the efforts of many pro-charter expansion players. One CCSA leader explained, “After the first round we sort of sat down and said ‘Wow! Are we ever going to do this again?’ Because everyone felt so defeated. … and we decided ultimately, yes we are going to do this again and if we’re going to do it we actually have to treat it like a campaign.” CCSA staff began to meet with charter applicants and explain the importance of dedicating a full-time person to this work:

[Y]ou have to have a good field operation and political operation. So you have to have parents who are actively engaged and vocalizing what they want from the school and why they want you to be operator and then you have to make sure those parents are getting to the Board members and then you also go leverage all the partners to get to the Board members. And so it truly was like a political campaign for each school and we supported them in their strategy, thinking through it and trying to help set up meetings with Board members or other electeds who might be influential.

Anti–charter expansion players continued their defensive tactics as well in 2.0. Many union leaders and district administrators reported a renewed commitment to protecting the district from any future losses to charter teams. For example, UTLA infused strong messages of PSCI as “giving away” public schools to private operators in a PR campaign. Following the announcement of the new PSC 2.0 cohort of schools, a UTLA leader was quoted in a local newspaper stating, “We don’t think in this period of economic crisis the district has the capacity to support these schools, and that is going to make it more likely that they will be taken over by charters. This is the kind of recipe for giveaway we want to avoid” (Llanos, 2010). We also heard reports of UTLA leaders urging internal teams to adopt governance models that retained the full teacher contract and avoid the pilot option. In addition, there were reports of regional district (RD)15 Superintendents directing teams about the content of plans and the types of governance models to adopt. Staff also offered planning support to teams in the form of paid teacher-release time, as well as editing and consulting services. This support provided to teams, however, was not distributed evenly, raising concerns about the neutrality of the process. In fact, several teams reported receiving little to no RD support. In some cases, teams believed their RD used resources to advance a favored team’s chances of success.

Even a nonprofit started by the Chamber of Commerce/Unite LA (key bridging partner) to support internal design teams—the Los Angeles School Development Institute (LASDI)—did not provide support consistently to all teams. As a collaborative between LAUSD and the two major unions, LASDI made a decision early on to only support internal teams that included both administrators and teachers (i.e., members of the unions codirecting LASDI). As a result, charter school teams and teams consisting of only teachers did not receive LASDI support—a move that raised further questions about the neutrality and fairness of the process for some. When interviewed, four of six LASDI-ineligible teams in 2.0 conveyed strong, negative opinions about the lack of access to these capacity-building resources. As such, several teams dedicated to creating strong academic programs at PSCI schools were denied what they viewed to be equal opportunity in this process. From their perspective, efforts to advance academic rigor were trumped by other reform issues and broader political agendas. Even district administrators observed this shift in emphasis: “it was difficult to get people to really think about the instruction.”

In the end, there was a pervasive perception that PSCI selection and support was biased. In interviews, teams of all types commonly reported that the district had not created a “level playing field” and that certain teams had the “upper hand” with greater access to resources.

Meaningful Parent and Community Participation

Parent and community engagement was another core component of PSCI. These stakeholders were expected to provide input into district leaders’ plan selection by evaluating the plans and providing feedback via an advisory vote. The first two years of this vote, however, proved to be far less participatory or meaningful than intended (as documented further in Marsh et al., 2015). In PSCI 2.0, fewer than 1% of eligible parents voted in this process (Beltran, Cruz, Guevara, Holmquist, & Logan, 2011). Further, limited numbers of parents attended the informational PSCI parent engagement meetings prior to voting—raising questions about their level of understanding of the plans and the extent to which they were well-informed voters.

In fact, our case study and observation data surfaced widespread misperceptions. Although parents in focus groups at two of the five PSCI 2.0 case schools reported high levels of understanding of PSCI, they also demonstrated a limited grasp of how their input would be used and how plans would be selected. In the remaining three schools, parents reported that the content was not communicated clearly and that they did not have a clear understanding of the process. When asked why they had come to the school that evening, one parent said “That’s what I couldn’t understand. What were we voting on?” Further, when asked about governance models, most parents focused on the difference between charter and traditional schools and admitted to being unsure of the distinction. “The only thing I know about a charter school is [that it’s] private,” said one parent.

Once again, the implementation of the advisory vote was profoundly affected by players active in other games and reform efforts. Although many hoped PSCI would provide a vehicle to empower local parents and citizens, their efforts were overshadowed, if not co-opted, by actors involved in charter expansion. Political tactics of players on both sides contributed to parents’ low turnout and pervasive misunderstandings, ranging from authority-based efforts to prevent information dissemination (e.g., a principal reportedly called school police to block distribution of charter school flyers in the front of campus) to more subtle efforts to manipulate and control information (e.g., using print and social media to promulgate misinformation). For example, an article in a local paper protesting the decision to award a school to a CMO explained “The community should be aware that charter schools are run by outside entities. They are businesses, designed to make profits” (Walker, 2011). Many charter teams reported spending a lot of time trying to correct misinformation. According to Board Member Flores, parents communicated, “over and over again, they didn’t understand the information, they were getting lied to, they felt manipulated, they didn’t know who to believe. … and they certainly got bombarded with political paraphernalia.” The most egregious example came from PSCI 1.0 when an unidentified group distributed flyers warning immigrant parents that they would be deported if they voted for an outside operator.

Information control was widespread across stakeholder groups, including central, regional, and school staff, and parents. As one LAUSD leader explained, “there’s spin both by union and by the district.” Similarly, a charter school proponent reported that all teams used parents to help advance their cause: “So if you tell parents to become meaningful partners in this, don’t pretend that they are because you just frankly use them for your own purposes. We did, too. We used them.” One LAUSD administrator reported, for example, that RD colleagues changed the script of phone messages left for parents inviting then to attend meetings to include words such as “don’t let your teachers lose their jobs.” Parents also wittingly or unwittingly spread misinformation, such as sharing messages that charter schools charged fees or were profit-seeking.

At times, these strategies crossed ethical boundaries; there were reports of teachers telling students how their parents should vote. Although the district instituted a new code of ethics for PSCI 2.0, these behaviors nonetheless continued. One report documented “23 reports of voter intimidation, disruption or electioneering at 11 sites” of the advisory vote (Patterson & Cruz, 2011, p. 5). Volunteers from the League of Women Voters Los Angeles also observed incidents of electioneering in the voting line and some schools encouraging voting by allowing parents to substitute voting for mandatory volunteer hours. Some parents noted that tension was so high that they refrained from sending their children to school on voting day. Calling this “not the best moment as a city,” one charter leader explained, “people were using parents with the worst possible manners, spreading rumors, and horrible behaviors came out. I felt it was really demeaning.”

Bringing it All Together

In the end, early implementation was dominated by the battle over charter expansion and complementary goals of electoral politics. Although many actors had hoped PSCI would advance community empowerment and academic rigor, these efforts were eclipsed by other dominant forces at play in the district. Notably, support and selection was perceived to be biased, and parents were in some respects used by players engaged in other reform efforts who benefited from perpetuating fear and resistance to charters and external school partners. While parents’ limited involvement and understanding conflicted with the intent of PSCI, it may have advanced the interests of those engaged in broader reform issues.

The above narrative also once again illustrates that several contextual conditions shaped the ecology of reform during early implementation. First, the short time frame between policy adoption and the RFP’s release greatly affected implementation. District leaders were forced to quickly roll out PSCI, leaving little time for refinement or monitoring. By all accounts, few anticipated the intensity with which players would approach the competition. Only after 1.0 did administrators have time to make adjustments, such as adding a code of ethics and external monitoring. Second, the fiscal crisis made it difficult for LAUSD to justify additional funding to educate and inform parents. One administrator explained, “What would it look like for the superintendent to start investing thousands of dollars into radio ads/campaigns that focused on Public School Choice and informing families about their school choices when we were facing one of the most challenging budget shortfalls in recent history?” Worsening economic conditions also continued to provide an important backdrop to opposition building against charter school conversions, adding particular weight to the anti-charter “giveaway” message.


Soon after the Board selected PSCI 2.0 schools, momentum was building to alter the policy. At first, the district and its partners addressed some of the early implementation problems. For example, the Board replaced the advisory vote with a series of community feedback meetings and added plan-writing support for LASDI-ineligible teams. During the spring and summer of 2011, however, movement was afoot to enact even bigger changes—culminating in a negotiated agreement between UTLA and LAUSD to limit competition in PSCI in exchange for new opportunities for all schools to obtain greater autonomies from district policy and labor contract rules.

Under a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), ratified by UTLA members and approved by the Board in December 2011, external teams of charter operators and nonprofits were only eligible to participate in PSCI if they agreed to operate schools using district employees under the collective bargaining agreement. In exchange, all district schools now had the option of adopting a new governance model—called Local Initiative Schools (LIS)—allowing for greater autonomy regarding curriculum, instruction, scheduling, and staffing selection. The negotiations also lifted the cap placed on the number of pilot schools in LAUSD and granted the Superintendent final authority to select PSCI plans. When asked why he advocated for the latter change, the Superintendent explained, “There was a great amount of drama around decisions that got highly politicized that could possibly have been avoided [had we] funneled all [the teams’] energy into what a good plan is and making us accountable for delivering on it, rather than what the decision would be.”

What explains this dramatic change to the PSCI policy? In this phase, three key reform issues come to the fore: union reform, decentralization, and charter expansion. In this next section, I begin with a description of the environment which sets the stage for the interactions described next.


Early 2011 brought several key leadership changes, including a new Superintendent with an interest in expanding autonomy for teachers; the loss of “a reform seat” (the original sponsor of the PSC resolution) and gains for “pro-union” forces on the Board; and a new UTLA president backed by a “caucus” of teachers called “NewTLA” dedicated to reforming UTLA from within and open to more progressive reforms, such as the elimination of seniority-based layoffs. Several participants attributed the seeds of the MOU to these leadership changes. One central office leader recalled, “Once leadership changed on the Board, … once UTLA had a new president … a lot of this started to germinate.” “With Yolie [Flores] leaving the Board,” noted another key LAUSD leader, “there was momentum to stop Public School Choice.”

The lagging economy and district budget deficit also continued to shape the local reform climate. Many participants believed that continued participation of charter schools posed a risk to the district’s economic well-being. “When you give schools away to charters,” said one team leader, “you lose the financial part too. You’re still holding on to all the employees down at the school.” Many acknowledged the difficulty district leaders faced in justifying charter expansion in this climate.

The participation patterns of charter school organizations also helped set the stage for the MOU. In early PSCI implementation, charters and CMOs primarily sought to take over the new “relief” campuses in PSCI. Drawn to the new facilities and the ability to start afresh with their own staff, few charter organizations demonstrated interest in the “focus” turnaround schools. Given that PSCI 3.0 would be the last round to include new campuses (the remaining ones had participated in 1.0 and 2.0) and perhaps the last year to include large numbers of participating charter schools, the situation created a small period of time within which to leverage play within charter expansion. As one Board member explained, and the Superintendent later confirmed, “[Superintendent] Deasy smartly saw the writing on the wall… This is over after this year. … I could either have so much leverage, or so much hell, if we go through this one more time you know. He chose leverage.”

Finally, broader efforts to curb the influence of labor unions and alter teacher evaluation policy may have also colored the reform atmosphere in LAUSD at this time, once again bringing into relief union reform. For example, federal Race to the Top funding requirements linked student achievement with teacher evaluations, and in early 2011 proponents began collecting signatures for a California ballot initiative that would have banned automatic deductions of employees’ wages to be used for political activity, a practice common among labor unions. As one union leader noted, this broader climate “was not favorable to teacher unions.” With the UTLA-LAUSD 3-year contract expiring in June 2011, a new window of opportunity had opened.

Interaction of Reform Issues

The policy revisions resulting from district-union negotiations derived from three interacting issues: union reform, decentralization, and charter expansion. These dynamics may help explain the bewilderment many observers expressed when trying to understand why the Superintendent, a seeming pro–charter expansion player, endorsed an anti–charter expansion policy adaptation and, in the eyes of some, ignored early outcome data on PSCI. One foundation leader explained,

You basically had the charter schools doing incredibly well. If you compared those schools against the internal district new school operators, we just did way better. [For] anybody that was going to make a decision based upon data … it's very clear: you should triple Public School Choice. You should quadruple it. Yet we all know what happened.

Had the Superintendent and key advisors within the central office only been actively pursuing PSCI, these observations may have been more justified. When viewed as simultaneously engaged in other reform issues, these actions become easier to understand. The political environment in early 2011 provided the Superintendent with an opportunity to achieve what he believed to be a big win advancing autonomies for all district schools (decentralization and union reform games)—autonomies he believed that schools were demanding.16 He explained,

Taking the Public School Choice process and then negotiating an entirely new contract with the teachers union so that schools could have the same autonomies as charters did … that to me was unlocking an unbelievable door that had been just kind of bolted shut in LAUSD for God knows how long.

With this in mind, the Superintendent launched a campaign to advance this cause. For example, soon after the UTLA-LAUSD contract expired in summer 2011, the Superintendent published an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, entitled “The Contract L.A. Unified Needs,” in which he endorsed key ideas for which he would advocate in the negotiations, such as mutual consent in hiring and lifting the cap on pilot schools (Deasy, 2011).

Conversely, UTLA appeared to be willing to concede losses in battles over decentralization and union reform—agreeing to a new LIS semiautonomous school model available to all schools, to lifting the pilot cap, and to suspending their legal complaint against the district’s new teacher evaluation system17—to achieve a major win in the fight against charter expansion. “UTLA saw the threat of Public School Choice and the threat of having achievement be part of their evaluation as very daunting,” explained one observer, “And the only way they were willing to make progress was if one of those things was thrown out the door.” One UTLA leader said, “What some folks in the union felt they got out of it [the MOU] was the limits on charter school competition for three years which was huge because … that means you're stopping to some degree the loss of membership. And for a union, that’s obviously important.” This same leader acknowledged what was lost:

And we thought it was a risk to negotiate this … the LIS and lifting of the caps. … [F]or weaker schools…that don’t have strong UTLA chapters, … they can be bullied by administrators into accepting waivers to the contract [as part of LIS] which may not be in the best interest of the teachers at the school … such as doing a lot of extra work for no pay and things like that to supposedly improve the school.

In the end, the MOU translated into huge losses for charter expansion proponents, who were not surprisingly unhappy with this policy adaptation. One charter leader, cognizant of the political strategizing occurring within the district, captured this sentiment:

UTLA wanted to end it. They were incredibly threatened by it and they were willing to make some concessions in their contract negotiations if the district would agree to ice out charters and to end Public School Choice. This is a very typical dynamic that plays out. Superintendents and Boards, your management of districts, use charter schools as a lever to get concessions from labor, and when they feel like they've gotten enough, they throw charters under the bus.

“He’s ruthless at playing the game, the chess game of what it takes to move a large system,” commented another charter leader about the Superintendent.

Of course, the Superintendent did not achieve this win alone. First, the Board assisted with agenda-setting. Soon after PSCI 2.0, Board members began discussing options to amend PSCI by giving internal applicants preference in school selection and excluding charter schools from the initial application process. Ultimately they tasked the Superintendent and UTLA to negotiate an agreement and stated that if they could not negotiate by a set deadline, the PSCI process would remain unchanged. “Through the setting of the [deadline] … the Board had its big role in stating its preference in my opinion very politically,” stated one LAUSD administrator, who went on to explain “I think the Board made … its wishes to be known by the way that they chose to frame the discussion and the way they chose to allow it to continue.” Another district leader concurred: “that started the clock. It really forced the district and the union to sit at a table in a timely fashion.”

Second, a coalition of community-based organizations supported many of the Superintendent’s interests in the MOU negotiations. The group, called Don’t Hold Us Back (DHUB), included civil rights, community-based, and parent organizations (e.g., United Way, Urban League, Families in Schools) and advocated for lifting the cap on pilots and supporting performance-based evaluations, among other things. Many observers indicated that the group’s persuasive tactics, such as launching a media campaign (e.g., full-page advertisements in all major newspapers), meeting with leaders, and mobilizing parents to attend Board meetings and sign a DHUB pledge, played a critical role in moving along negotiations and pressuring UTLA to concede on key issues. One media account described these efforts as “drawing up a third chair to the bargaining table,” noting that “the increasingly bold and strident parent and community voice, amplified and modulated with foundation money, changes the politics of collective bargaining and challenges the union’s historic claim on parent loyalty” (Kerchner, 2011). Several informants, however, questioned the grassroots nature of this group and alleged that district leaders orchestrated this effort—suggesting a more covert political strategy to advance the cause of decentralization and union reform.

Bringing it All Together

The adaptation of PSCI evolved through a complex set of interactions between reform issues and key players. With the MOU, the Superintendent, Board members, and community organizations appeared to skillfully leverage charter expansion efforts to achieve wins in decentralization and union reform. These policy changes were also made possible by an environment marked by fiscal crisis, leadership turnover, and antiunion sentiment.


In summary, the evolution of the Public School Choice Initiative resulted from dynamic political interactions within LAUSD’s ecology of reform. Although touted as a means to improve accountability and learning for low-performing schools and students, the reform’s enactment became a broader referendum on school governance and reform writ large. PSCI provided an opportunity for players with diverse goals to press for coveted prizes in the form of jobs, membership, career advancement, facilities, autonomy, and voice. 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 the form and fate of PSCI. In this concluding section, I first synthesize cross-cutting observations about the nature of district reform and education policymaking in LAUSD. I end with broader implications for research and policy.


First, consistent with recent research, the case of PSCI indicates that an increasingly diverse set of actors was shaping policy within LAUSD, including foundations (Gittell, 1994; Orr, 1996; Reckhow, 2013; Stone et al., 2001), intermediary organizations (e.g., Honig, 2004; Mitra, 2009), and the Mayor (Edelstein, 2008; Orr, 1996; Wong & Shen, 2003). Many of these actors played important “cross-over” positions, participating in multiple games and issues, including the Mayor, UTLA, the Superintendent, foundations, and the Chamber of Commerce. Although it is clear that individuals and groups with greater resources—and thus power—were more able to work across reform issues (i.e., Superintendent, UTLA, Board), the case of PSCI also illustrates that their power was both relational and contextual (Malen, 2006). Having formal authority, for example, did not guarantee wins outright. As such, Superintendent Deasy’s influential role in PSCI adaptation depended on the environment at that time (weak economy, movement to reform unions) and his relationships with the Board and other actors pursuing similar goals. In fact, in subsequent post-MOU years of PSCI (2012–13), the ecology of reform changed dramatically due to the Mayor’s departure (resulting from term limits) and the failed election of two Board candidates supported by Deasy allies. No longer bolstered by a clear “reform-oriented” Board majority and increasingly challenged by members’ scrutiny of his policies, Deasy’s position within LAUSD began to weaken—raising the question of whether the MOU altering PSCI could have occurred at any time other than 2011. Similarly, the passage of the PSCI resolution hinged on the efforts of multiple actors, including those with formal authority (Board members) and those with less traditional roles in setting district policy (Mayor, Chamber of Commerce, foundations), in an environment ripe for this type of reform.

Second, the evolution of PSCI also surfaces important insights about the strategies used by actors to advance their interests. Notably, efforts to control and manipulate information were common across policy phases and players. Moreover, individuals with formal authority (e.g., Board, Superintendent, UTLA) were just as likely to use top-down authority as they were to use non-authority-based strategies, including persuasion, collaboration, and information control, to protect their interests. While Board members at times asserted formal authority to influence play (e.g., setting the agenda for a decision on charter participation), at other times they advanced their interests with informal strategies such as encouraging community groups to advocate for change. Similarly, the Superintendent used his authority to negotiate with UTLA, but also engaged in sophisticated information campaigns to sway public opinion and build pressure for change.

Third, the PSCI case further illustrates the critical role the environment played in shaping the politics of the policy process. Notably, LAUSD’s fiscal crisis often elevated the relevance of certain reforms and tipped the scales toward the offense or defense within these battlegrounds. UTLA’s framing of PSCI as a “school giveway” resonated strongly within the context of a budget crisis and fear over job losses. One can only imagine how the policy would have unfolded had the economy been stronger or had there not been turnover in key leadership positions.

Finally, this research demonstrates the reciprocal relationship between politics and policy. Building on extant literature (e.g., Cuban & Usdan, 2003; Malen, 2006; Stone et al., 2001; Wong, 1991), this case illustrates the complex ways in which politics shaped policy. The political backlash against charter schools and constraints later placed on their participation capture this dynamic. Equally important, however, are the ways in which policy affected politics. Throughout its history, PSCI mobilized forces on all sides of multiple reform issues. “[PSCI] kind of jolted UTLA into playing a lot more aggressively,” said one charter leader, “[T]hey’re putting millions and millions of dollars and they can support [School Board] races. … They didn’t used to be like that. … It’s gotten a lot more tactical.” Also, the events leading up to the MOU inspired the formation of a new civic coalition (DHUB) that some believe will continue to shape LAUSD policy in coming years (Reckhow, 2013). Fallout from the MOU also re-energized charter school advocates. As one foundation leader and charter advocate said:

On several occasions … the charter school community came out in very large numbers in support of this thing. … I think Public School Choice was one of these moments when the level of political support, the level of grassroots activism that we have became more visible... It was a milestone and … a signal to people that it's only going to get stronger going forward.

Much like other examples of “policy feedback,” PSCI proved to “reshape political activity” in LAUSD’s ecology of reform (Reckhow; 2013, p. 7; see also McDonnell, 2013; Pierson, 1993). In the end, the policy was both the instigator and product of politics. Reflecting on the MOU negotiations to shift the final selection decision away from the Board to himself, Superintendent Deasy arrived at this exact conclusion: “Removing politics from any main decision making…. That step created unnecessary drama, I think. But if we didn't have that [the politics], we wouldn't be here today [talking about the MOU].”


While the ecology of reform in LAUSD is conditioned by local context, many of its reforms and the simultaneity of their enactment are nonetheless not unique to Los Angeles. In districts nationwide, administrators, Board members, and mayors are enacting, often in tandem, policies around charter schools, decentralization, union reform, community empowerment, and academic rigor. As such, the PSCI case may be instructive to other district and city leaders. For example, when adopting new policies it would be important to assess the current landscape, including key players, games, and subgames at play. Leaders might consider the extent to which the new policy advances or competes with the goals of surrounding reforms and the likely strategies that will be invoked to support or resist the new policy. Faced with significant conflict among players, leaders might investigate ways to bolster bridging games, forming partnerships with organizations that have credibility and social capital to collaborate and ensure continuity across games and subgames.

This work also has important implications for the academic community. First, this research contributes to ongoing scholarship on the changing nature of education governance (Marsh & Wohlstetter, 2013). Much like Henig’s (2013) observations about the end of education exceptionalism, the case of PSCI demonstrates that an increasingly broad set of institutions and actors are engaging in decisions around public schooling. Whereas locally elected school boards and the parents and unions to which they were accountable used to dominate, the governing landscape at a local level now includes non-education-specific elected officials (e.g., mayors) and their constituencies who are not only weakening the power of traditional actors, but also bringing with them an increased receptivity to contracting out services. In fact, the emergence of the portfolio model embodied by PSCI, allowing nonprofit groups to operate schools, is one indicator of this shift. The PSCI case provides much-needed empirical evidence of the costs and benefits of this shift. On one hand, local battles over who controls the schools often overshadowed the intended focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning, and parents caught in the cross-fire often lacked the information needed for genuine participation. On the other hand, the PSCI case demonstrates that a broadening of actors may have channeled new resources and capacity into the system to tackle the seemingly intractable problem of low-performing schools. Of course, more research is needed to assess how these governance shifts affect school practices and outcomes.

Second, this research illustrates the value of examining local policy with an ecological-political lens that is both broad—embracing longitudinal analyses that consider intersections with other local issues and the environment—and fine-grained—investigating variation within groups of actors and nuances within the “reform” agenda (e.g., recognizing that foundations often support different types of reforms and that factions may exist within employee unions). Such perspectives provide considerable leverage for understanding the forces propelling and resisting the adoption and implementation of policy within districts teeming with multiple reform efforts and actors.

Finally, some readers may be disappointed in an analysis that is not more definitive in predicting which particular players are likely to “win” and which particular strategies guarantee such wins in district reform. My purpose, however, was not to make such predictions, but instead show that winners and losers are determined by a complex set of interactions over time. While Kingdon (1995) has long argued that changes in the composition of actors and in the environment can contribute to the opening of policy windows to initiate change, I demonstrate that the composition of surrounding issues also matters greatly, and that the interactions of environment, reform issues and broader games, and players are important for not only the adoption of or adaptations to policies, but also their implementation.

While the ecological-political perspective employed herein may not predict the exact outcome of a policy process, it does indicate how individuals within certain issue areas are likely to behave. As Dutton (1992) argues, “If we know the roles of players in an Ecology of Games, we can anticipate some of the choices and strategies open to them,” (p. 323). As such, this research can lead to hypotheses of how actors are likely to behave and how policies are likely to play out under certain circumstances, which can be tested in future empirical work. The work presented herein leads to several hypotheses that could be explored in future studies:

While policy adoption can translate into wins for actors across multiple games and subgames, it is difficult to sustain those wins over time. The promise of a policy may appeal to many actors across multiple reform issues and broader games, but its enactment may deviate from design in ways that no longer align with this broader set of interests. Players engaged in bridging games may assist in bringing together disparate actors to enable policy adoption, but may lose significance during implementation when stakes are higher and intentions are now enacted.

Significant wins for actors advancing union reform and decentralization are most likely to occur following the consideration and adoption of policies affecting job status, particularly in an environment of fiscal crisis. In unionized districts facing financial pressures, the backlash and fear of job losses from policies expanding charter schools or leading to school reconstitution or closure are likely to create incentives for labor partners to make concessions in areas of reform that they otherwise may not consider under different conditions (e.g., agreeing to changes in collective bargaining agreement provisions in exchange for limits on policies threatening to reduce positions for its members).

Without safeguards to ensure the dissemination of objective information, policies that expand charter schools will have a difficult time simultaneously empowering greater voice for parents and community members in decision-making. The high stakes of charter expansion create incentives for co-option and manipulation among actors seeking to preserve the status quo (which may include labor unions, current district employees, and elected officials), which greatly complicates efforts to educate stakeholders and engage them in meaningful participation.

Future research can also advance our understanding of education policy and politics through further comparative studies. For example, one might generate important insights by comparing LAUSD to New Orleans, where charter expansion reform efforts are more advanced. Future research might also compare districts with and without mayoral control to explore differences in electoral politics and whether certain reform issues are more consequential as a result of this shift in authority. Researchers might also complement qualitative methods with quantitative approaches. Work in other policy fields suggests researchers might use network analyses and multidimensional scaling to visually represent the nature and structure of games and subgames (e.g., the key actors, interrelationships) and identify linkages across games (e.g., measure how integrated systems are and who matters most to the ecology) (Cornwell, Curry, & Schwirian, 2003). Such studies might further deepen our understanding of education policy in urban districts.


1. Portfolio reforms encourage districts to allow a diverse set of service providers to operate schools. Under this model, districts take on a new role as “performance optimizer” and, periodically, remove the lowest performing providers and expand the operations of higher performers based on student outcomes (Bulkley, 2010; Lake & Hill, 2009).

2. In a similar vein, other researchers focus on particular stakeholders who shape these broad reform agendas. For example, Reckhow (2013) examines the roles of foundations in New York City and Los Angeles. Historically there are of course many other examples of research on the role of local stakeholders in shaping schools and neighborhood institutions (e.g., work by David Tyack and even Daniel P. Moynihan).

3. Plans proposing a pilot school model were also reviewed by a Pilot Schools Steering Committee. LAUSD and the teachers’ union (UTLA) established the pilot schools (modeled after an initiative in Boston) in February 2007 initially as part of a plan to relieve overcrowding at Belmont High School. The initial agreement included a cap of 10 on the number of pilot schools in the district. In 2009, when PSCI was adopted, UTLA agreed to add another 20 pilot schools.

4. I report numbers by school rather than site because some participating campuses were broken into smaller schools. PSCI required separate proposals for each school and proposals were reviewed and selected by school rather than site.

5. Sensitizing concepts are commonly viewed as useful starting points for qualitative research (Bowen, 2006; Patton, 2002). Rather than “provide prescriptions of what to see, sensitizing concepts merely suggest directions along which to look” (Blumer, 1954, p. 7) and “offer ways of seeing, organizing, and understanding experience” (Charmaz, 2003, p. 259). Bardach (1980) similarly used a metaphor of games to frame his classic analysis of policy implementation, justifying it as “a master metaphor that directs attention and stimulates insight. It directs us to look at the players, what they regard as the stakes, their strategies and tactics, their resources for playing, the rules of play” (p. 56). Much like these other researchers, I use the metaphor in a qualitative sense, rather than to conduct formal game modeling. The EOG idea has been applied to many fields and policy arenas, including technology and communications (Dutton, 1992; Shields, 1995; Vedel & Dutton, 1990), community affairs and city planning (Cornwell et al., 2003), water management (Lubell, Robins, & Wang, 2011), land use and transportation planning (Lubell, Henry, & McCoy, 2010), and nonprofit management (Mendel, 2003).

6. Research has long illustrated the profound effects of the interaction of these reforms on policy. For example, the well-documented “gaming” strategies—such as narrowing curriculum and focusing on students close to proficiency targets (e.g., Booher-Jennings, 2005; Hamilton, 2004; Reback, 2008)—of educators seeking to achieve accountability targets and avoid sanctions in ways that advance accountability can impede efforts to improve academic rigor of curriculum and instruction, a reform that measures success by evidence of improved learning.

7. Prior applications also mask ways in which actors within broad categories may support different reform issues. For example, as opposed to a monolithic “foundation game”—a likely category in the more hierarchical definition adopted in past education-related studies using EOG—a goal-oriented framing of subgames recognizes that foundations may invest in a district or its reforms for different reasons (e.g., some may support charter expansion, others do not).

8. Organizational ecology, for example, asserts that organizations that become incompatible with their environment are replaced through competition with new organizations that may be better adapted, and that organizations continually coadapt and coevolve in relation to the environment and other organizational populations (Hannan & Freeman, 1993).

9. Although other frameworks and theories offer potentially useful perspectives on aspects of district reform over time, I believe the political-ecological framework is better suited to the holistic, longitudinal examination of policy in a crowded reform environment. Thus, regime theory (used in most studies of civic capacity cited herein) does not necessarily lend itself to a more fine-grained analysis of cross-issue dynamics and cross-cutting actors. Policy entrepreneurship (Baumgartner & Jones, 2010; Kingdon, 1995; Mintrom, 2000) focuses on select actors and not necessarily their interdependence, and may be better suited to examining policy adoption as well as a single issue rather than the intersection of multiple issues and implementation over time. While the traditional systems model (Easton, 1965) may be useful for examining policy feedback loops (how actions at one stage of policymaking affect later stages) and the role of the environment, it provides little conceptual understanding of actors’ interdependent, overlapping actions occurring across reform issues.

10. The funding and start date of this study (September 2010) coincided with the 2nd year of the initiative. As such, all accounts of the adoption of the policy and the first year of implementation are based on retrospective interviews and analyses of documents, articles, and video (e.g., Board meetings).

11. According to Reckhow (2013), the Broad and Walton Foundations each gave more than $3 million for charter school expansion in 2005 and the Gates Foundation gave $8.5 million.

12. In 2008–09, LAUSD had 321 schools in Program Improvement, failing to meet No Child Left Behind Adequate Yearly Progress targets for 2 or more years: 222 had failed to meet these targets for 4 or more years (dataqest).

13. As noted, while there were many non-reform games occurring in Los Angeles at this time, only two emerged as relevant in the data and were cited by at least three data sources as pertaining to PSCI.

14. Soon after PSCI was adopted, LAUSD and community partners applied for and later received a nearly $5 million federal Investing in Innovation grant to support the PSCI process. This grant competition emphasized efforts to support the turnaround of low-performing schools. The author and research team were the official evaluators of this grant.

15. During these early years, LAUSD was organized into seven local districts with regional offices and staff supporting schools within a geographic boundary. In 2012–2013, LAUSD reorganized into five education service centers: four defined by geographic region and one with high-needs and innovative school models, including all PSC schools.

16. Behind the scenes, advisors had reportedly pushed the Superintendent during his transition to the position to take on the issue of autonomy. One such advisor reportedly told the Superintendent “you have to liberate these people. They are suffocated inside that maze” of policies and regulations. This same advisor also believed that independent of this advice, the Superintendent brought with him “proclivities” to push for greater autonomy and “had been looking for the right place to start in a pathway forward.”

17. As the future would soon tell, UTLA’s willingness to back off of the fight against performance-based evaluation was a temporary move in the broader union reform game. A later move in October 2012 to block the district’s application for $40 million in federal Race to the Top funds due to its teacher evaluation component and other legal moves indicate this game was far from over.


I gratefully acknowledge support for this research from the United States Department of Education Investing in Innovation Grant. I greatly appreciate the cooperation of leaders, administrators, and Public School Choice Initiative (PSCI) participants within the Los Angeles Unified School District and the broader community. I am also indebted to Katharine Strunk and Susan Bush for their assistance on this research and their feedback. Finally, I benefited greatly from invaluable guidance from Betty Malen, as well as feedback from Donna Muncey, Rand Quinn, anonymous reviewers, and the editor. 


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Appendix A

Sample of Protocol Questions

Leader Interviews


Please briefly tell us about your professional background and your role and responsibilities here.


What are your organization’s main policy priorities?


As part of our study we’re trying to be sure we understand the history of the PSCI. From your perspective, how did PSC come about? Who were key players in the creation of the Initiative?


What was your role in developing the Initiative? Were other [organizations like yours] involved?


What was been [organization’s] position on PSCI? Did you support it at the outset? Had you hoped for different design elements or program features?


What are the long-term goals of the Public School Choice Initiative? What problems did the designers of the initiative think they were solving with PSCI?


What are your impressions of how the PSCI process played out in the first two cohorts?


Were there particular challenges and successes you heard about with regard to the plan development and selection process? How about the advisory vote?


As you know, the initiative was greatly altered at the end of last year. How have the superintendent’s recommended changes to the Initiative (in August 2011) and the new MOU (December 2011) impacted the efficacy of PSCI?


››Why did these changes come about? Who was involved in recommending/pushing for these changes? Was [organization] involved in those conversations?


In what ways have these changes altered the reform and its potential to bring about change?


What are some of the lessons other districts can learn from this reform effort?


Is what we saw play out in PSCI any different from the ways in which other reforms have been enacted in LAUSD and other large urban districts?


Do you have any final thoughts or comments that you would like to share?

Case Study Principal Interview


Can you briefly describe your background and how you came to this school?


In your words, what is the mission or goals of Public School Choice Initiative?


We know this is the first year operating under the Public School Choice plan developed by the design team and approved by the Board. Do you feel that you have been able to accurately implement the plan this year? Please explain.


Did you attend any LAUSD workshops or seminars prior to opening the school in the fall? What did they cover? Were they helpful?


Did you receive any support from LASDI during that planning phase, prior to the school opening in the fall? What was the nature and quality of that support? Was it useful?


Did you receive any other support during the planning phase and was it useful?


Do you have any final thoughts or comments that you would like to share with us?

Parent Focus Group


In your own words, what is the Public School Choice Initiative?


Aside from today, have you attended any other meetings related to PSCI? If so, what were the meetings about and were they helpful? Why or why not?


What are you looking for in a school plan when you are making your decision to vote for a plan? What do you believe is important for the school proposals to address?


Are you satisfied with the options you’ve been given for this school? Are there enough school plan options that meet the needs of your children?


Could you explain how the winning applicant team is selected? In other words, who decides which team is going to manage this school and how?


Do you have any other final thoughts or comments that you would like to share with us?


Appendix C

Example Coded Text



Board members

We would've lost one of our biggest allies, which is SEIU and we really care about this group of workers, again, they're the parents of our children and this was not about dismissing large numbers of employees who are great employees and who we wanted to keep, so we struggled hard that summer on this issue. [Board member – 1st person account]

It’s a lesson we learn over and over again which is that school boards are antiquated political animals that don’t always, that rarely serve the interests of children. They have other agendas, mostly regarding the adults that are appearing before them every day. [Foundation leader – 3rd person account]




And some of the local district superintendents were afraid that they were going to lose school and that they needed to dictate what the curriculum was going to be … This is the curriculum we are going to follow and that’s so anti-PSC … in Local District 8 one of the directors wrote all the plans …the principals got nervous because they were told that they had to follow this one plan …And when they said kind of pushback it was made very clear to them that if they didn’t follow the plan, they would be gone. [LAUSD administrator]


UTLA can motivate the grassroots in the neighborhood to start. We had people coming in from other schools to listen to the proposal and vote already being told by UTLA who to vote for. That’s a powerful stakeholder. [Teacher and leader of team submitting proposal for PSCI school]

[Also media: full-page Los Angeles Times advertisement paid for DHUB and Superintendent op-ed coded as persuasion]

Information control

The first time around people were so confused and there was ads in the -- in Spanish radio and I mean it was bad. And I remember hearing some of this, I was like, oh my God, like they are totally, you know, mystifying this process as if parents are losing control of the schools and when the reality is control was lost ages ago, generations ago. … Information that goes out to parents is always one-sided: the UTLA takeover scheme.. or … anti-unions … depending on who gets to them first, that’s the message that they kind of go by. [CMO leader]

I think they’re all bullsh*t. They live by their own rules?...All of the charters. The mandatory parent volunteer hours are ridiculous. And then they charge if you don’t meet your obligation. [Parent, PSCI school focus group]


There are times when we have to get into the politics of it …You need to all get in the same room and all get on the same page and work together or we’re not involved. [LAUSD administrator]




It was compounded because we’re in the middle of this budget crisis, so we already had layoffs going. So, had it been a different time where the dollars were flowing it might not have been as large. I mean, I think the board members would always be concerned you don't want some of your hardest working and people who are depending on those jobs-but it was compounded because we had other layoffs going on and so it really just heightened and elevated that to a level that was. [Board staff member]




The mayor feels real ownership of Public School Choice. He believes the idea started right here in the Mayor’s office. He has been involved in every bond in LA since I think 1989 or something and so for him the idea had origins and the fact that a lot of new schools were opening with beautiful as you would like to say externals and miserable internals and that he felt there was an imperative to address that. So he felt like we should be creating systems where we know that these buildings that are created to relieve overcrowded schools and so and so forth are opened with the best possible programs and opportunities for success for the school of students in them. [Mayor staff member]



Charter expansion

It is a private sector competitive model, and if you, the more land and power you get the more market share you have. [Board member]


In parallel through the LA compact we were talking about how to expand autonomies and innovative school models. [LAUSD administrator]

Union reform

They were trying to push UTLA to agree to some kind of vaguely stated school empowerment project. I think they were also interested in weakening seniority. Some of the, what they would consider sacred cows of unionization. They wanted to put pressure on UTLA to weaken. I think the seniority issue probably more than anything else was a big unifier for that group. [Union leader]

Academic rigor

In June 14th, 2005 … when the students came forward and said, “We want A through G. We want access to college prep classes and career and technical training.” … There’s a lot of dialogue about what is the drop-out rate. Finally people decide, whatever metric you’re using, it’s too high. We all have to do something. Then came the response. I would put this [PSCI] in that bucket of part of the response. [Board member]

Community empowerment

The real kind of theory of change behind the Parent Trigger Movement from our perspective in Parent Revolution is that right now at most schools, when big decisions are made, there’s two players at the table. It’s the district bureaucracy and the teachers’ union, and it isn’t—I don’t think that they shouldn’t have seats at the table; they should. They have expertise that parents don’t have. … The idea is to add a third seat to that table, and that’s empower parents. [Community leader]


Oh, so then when Ms. Flores put out to do this process for the new schools, I said, “We need to do something,” cuz the old schools already, the old building, can’t match the new building, right? You can’t allow the old schools just to stay in the—so PI-5s [Program Improvement year 5 under No Child Left Behind]. I was, because I’m a student of Richard and others—what are we gonna do about the PI-5s? The hard turnaround school is really tough, 4,000 kids, 2,000 kids, Locke. Today I can tell you about Huntington Park, Jordan, Burbank—I mean, schools that have been through a transformation, and they’re—LA Unified has done better by those schools. My concern was, we’ve built these schools, for example, Belmont. We’ve put a lot of energy and support into these new schools, but I have a very underserved building and program. What can we do to help them? Because while some folks would tell you it’s hostile, it’s threatening, blah, it also was about LA Unified accepting the responsibility they had, and figuring out how to better support schools, and kids, and people on the ground. [Board member]

Electoral politics

It’s a by-product of that kind of political climate and I understand it; I think that the board members want what’s best for their constituents; their role as a member of the Board of Education; I think they’re ambitious politically and so I think if they think they can pass this motion it will make them progressives in the world of education that they’re in favor of reform and all of that. [Union leader]


A good example is, so originally when the motion as passed, Public School Choice was to be housed out of the superintendent’s office and a huge reason for that was so the unions wouldn't feel like this was a charter movement, this is just at the superintendent’s office. So when it moved to I-division completely, LASDI and the UTLA and AALA partners were kind of in a tizzy about that so then [we] then went back to the superintendent’s office, saying ‘you know this is really important for these groups. This is something that was written in the beginning’ and now there's still a piece of it that’s housed in the superintendent’s office … So things like that, when things come up politically he tries to be a broker between organizations. [Chamber of Commerce staff member]

Appendix D

Sample Transcription Coding

Note. The following excerpt comes from a transcription of an interview with a Board member. Codes are as follows: Phase = P (adoption = PA; implementation = PI); Game = G (community empowerment = GCE); Context = C (capacity = CC); Actors = A (district = AD; union = AU; parent = AP; community = AC); Strategy = S (information control = SIC). [* before a code signifies the start of a coded passage; *] after a code signifies the end of a coded passage.

Interview question: What are the other pieces of the initiative, when you were putting together the resolution, that you thought were going to lead you to improvement in student achievement?

Response: [*PA Well choice is part of that, but really having different models available for children that could speak to some children’s strengths and others might speak to other children’s strengths and interests. [*GCE But the other very significant part for me is the engagement and involvement of parents in the community. What I had hoped for, which did not happen in the first year and still we’re struggling with it is that this would really help create a level of informed and empowered parents because I wanted them to really be part of driving what they wanted for their children and the ways we had to think differently about what children need to learn in their schools and so my hope was that we could have a process in place where we could really help parents to discern one plan from another and give us their best thinking and then have the superintendent know what parents were thinking and what they were concerned about and what they wanted, to factor that into his recommendations. PA*] [*PI *CC *AD So that didn't happen because we have not been a district that knows how to do that. We don't have the capacity to do that. We've not ever attempted to do that. CC* AD*] And so out of the gate it just didn’t turn out that way. [*AU *SIC We would have meetings but UTLA would staff the meetings and derail the meetings or do a lot of misinformation campaigns and so in fact the opposite happened.[*AP A lot of parents came out, a lot of parents were really engaged and involved but so many were turned off but they saw the politics, they saw the polarization and they didn't like what they saw. [*AC A number of parents, the Women’s club in Huntington Park met with me afterwards to give me their perspective and they said, “what this ended up doing was turning off parents.” We know that wants your intention but in Huntington Park we heard over and over again, they didn’t understand the information, they were getting lied to, they felt manipulated, they didn’t know who to believe and nobody was out there really giving them the facts and the truth in the way which they could learn it best. AU* SIC* AC* GCE* PI*]


JULIE A. MARSH, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. She specializes in research on K-12 policy implementation, educational reform, and accountability. Her research blends perspectives in education, sociology, and political science. Recent publications include: (2015). Democratic engagement in district reform: The evolving role of parents in the Los Angeles Public School Choice Initiative, Educational Policy, 29(1), 51–84; (2014). Trickle down accountability? How middle school teachers engage students in data use, Educational Policy, 1–28 (online first); and (2013). Recent trends in intergovernmental relations: The resurgence of local actors in education policy, Educational Researcher, 42(5), 276–283. 

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 9, 2016, p. 1-54
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21519, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:54:11 AM

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  • Julie Marsh
    University of Southern California
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    JULIE A. MARSH, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. She specializes in research on K-12 policy implementation, educational reform, and accountability. Her research blends perspectives in education, sociology, and political science. Recent publications include: (2015). Democratic engagement in district reform: The evolving role of parents in the Los Angeles Public School Choice Initiative, Educational Policy, 29(1), 51–84; (2014). Trickle down accountability? How middle school teachers engage students in data use, Educational Policy, 1–28 (online first); and (2013). Recent trends in intergovernmental relations: The resurgence of local actors in education policy, Educational Researcher, 42(5), 276–283.
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