Nearly a quarter century ago, two Stanford University professors wrote that market forces could reform public education in ways that government dominated by interest groups, like teachers unions, could not. “Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools” by John Chubb and Terry Moe remains a guiding light for Republicans and a large swath of Democrats seeking to transform schools.
Recently, a report on Public School Choice, the program that gave outside operators and inside innovators an opportunity to take over schools in Los Angeles Unified, reminded us of why it’s difficult to mingle markets and politics. Creating an unrestricted market is no more possible in a school district than it is on Wall Street. Politics will always shape education reforms. With politics come unanticipated consequences. No one would have anticipated that some of the warring parties in L.A. would turn from competition to collaboration. But they did.
At the outset, Public School Choice took a page from the market advocates’ playbook and sought to increase and diversify the supply of school operators. Former board member Yolie Flores, who recalled she had watched in horror as some newly constructed sites marched straight from ribbon cutting to being listed as underachieving “program improvement” schools, introduced the school board resolution in 2009 to start the program.
Public School Choice involved 131 schools over four years: roughly equivalent to the entire number of schools in Oakland or San Francisco. It set up a competitive request-for-proposal process similar to those used by businesses or governments that contract for services, starting with some of the dozens of new schools that the district’s $19.5 billion school-building program had brought into being. For the first time in four decades, LAUSD schools were not to be filled to overflowing, and the new buildings created the capacity for diverse providers and for students being able to choose between them. Flores and others expected a supply of eager applicants.
However, Superintendent Ramon Cortines added a second purpose. Scores of LAUSD schools had been labeled as failing. They weren’t necessarily getting worse, but they weren’t getting better fast enough to escape the sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Throwing a new principal into a failing school wasn’t working, and closing down a school and reopening it, as Cortines did with Fremont High School, met with a firestorm of community opposition. Cortines thought that opening these schools to competition might work.
The initial political alignments were largely predictable. Established interest groups acted, well, like interest groups, vigorously defending their turf. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) opposed the plan. Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the union representing all but top administrators, wasn’t keen on it either. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had tried unsuccessfully to take over the school district, supported Public School Choice, as did the school board majority he supported. Most charter school operators and community groups tied to the mayor favored the program. The L.A. Unified school board voted for it 6-1. Some of those votes reflected the members’ personal preferences; some were arm-twisted, as in “the-mayor-made-me-do-it.”
I sat in the audience as former school board member and city council member Jackie Goldberg declared, “This is the beginning of the dismembering of L.A. Unified.” But this was not to occur.
In the space of only a few weeks, wondrous things happened. Seventy-nine proposals were written: 41 from charter schools, four from the independent Partnership for Los Angeles Schools that Villaraigosa had founded, and 34 from innovative LAUSD administrators and teachers who had suddenly been given the green light to come forward with fresh ideas. Principals of some of the failing schools gained cooperation from their faculties when it was known an external takeover might be possible.
After the proposals were reviewed, the political crosscurrents began to flow. The district carefully constructed a playing field on which the internal and external proposals could compete. It created criteria, trained reviewers, collected results, and Cortines made recommendations to the school board. The board balked. Some of the members, who had supported the concept of choice, were not so keen on having outside operators take over schools in their communities. By their vote, the board tilted the playing field toward internal applicants.
In addition, the charter operators who were eager to start a new school in a shiny new building, were not lining up to take on chronically underperforming schools. In the first year of PSC, about a quarter of the schools faced no competition. Over the four years, only 18 of the 68 plans for the 40 underperforming “focus” schools came from external applicants. However, charter operators didn’t go away. Their number increased from 155 in 2009 to a roster of 248 today. Parts of LAUSD operate as little “charter districts,” groups of charters that work together. And more than a dozen existing LAUSD schools that went through Public School Choice planning process chose to have the schools they designed become governed as charters.
External competition decreased further in subsequent rounds, and most of the schools on the superintendent’s failing-schools list faced no external competition at all. Over time, a choice program built on the assumption of external competition morphed into one to train its existing teachers and administrators and give them the tools to redesign their schools.
The same teachers and administrators—all loyal union members—who opposed outside entities running their schools were enthusiastic about the opportunity to run district schools with autonomy. They liked the freedom and flexibility that Public School Choice offered. They pressured the district and the unions to create flexibility and the capacity to write and implement high-quality plans. To be successful with these internal entrepreneurs LAUSD had to create internal flexibility that rivaled the freedom offered to charter operators, and it had to create a new set of leaders capable of working outside the traditional hierarchy.
UTLA, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles and at least part of the business community coalesced to create the Los Angeles School Design Institute under the auspices of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. The institute demanded cooperation as a condition of participation. “If they’re not even willing to sit in a room, we don’t go out,” one of the Institute leaders said.
The nature of parent participation changed also. In the initial rounds of PSC, parents voted for the plan they liked. But fewer than 17 percent of them participated, and those were often mobilized by either the teachers union or a contending charter school operator. Meetings during the design process often turned rancorous. Later, as things evolved, parents joined school planning teams and became forceful advocates to bring new programs to schools.
Generally, the plans they produced were good. A research team from the University of Southern California headed by Julie Marsh and Katharine Strunk independently critiqued the plans and declared them of high quality. In my reading of the plans, I was struck with how much more concrete and focused on student achievement they were than those produced during the huge school reform effort of the 1990s.
It is too early to know for sure whether the program is producing markedly better schools, but the initial examination of student test scores from the first cohort of schools shows student gains in the second year after attending a Public School Choice school. The downward trajectory was turned around for the students whose formerly failing schools went through the school planning and selection process. But the trend continued down for a comparison group of students from “near failing” schools.
Both UTLA and the school district learned to tolerate, if not love, flexibility. A fistful of governance and management systems emerged outside the traditional LAUSD hierarchy and standard teacher labor contract. Some 23 sites became Pilot Schools, essentially in-district charters modeled after similar schools in Boston. These schools operate under a “thin” labor contract and have autonomy over budget, curriculum, governance and staffing. They are largely self-governing with flexibility to modify the labor contract and district policy. Nineteen decided to be a School Based Management organization, using an expanded version of shared decision-making and collaboration negotiated two decades ago. Fourteen become charter schools, and six created hybrid relationships with external partners.
After four years, the politics of creating capacity and collaboration proved stronger than the politics of creating and sustaining external competition. Partly, this occurred because teacher and administrator unions organized against external providers and muscled school board members. Partly, it occurred because the competition process wasn’t working to transform existing failing schools. But mostly it occurred because a political coalition formed around creating internal flexibility.
One can ask about how much of the internal unfreezing took place because of the external threat. At a rollout of the research, Matt Hill, chief strategy officer for LAUSD, responded, saying, “I disagree that competition is the driving factor. I think that reintroducing it back into the process would be a mistake. I think you get more results fostering collaboration.”
Charles Taylor Kerchner is a professor at the Claremont Graduate University. His writing on education policy and reform is supported by a grant from the Stuart Foundation. However, the opinions expressed and topics covered are at his sole discretion.