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L.A. 'Public School Choice' Program Swaps Competition for Collaboration

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Four years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District embarked on a bold, perhaps reckless, program called Public School Choice to allow charter school operators and other community groups to compete for running many of its schools. Thursday, a team of researchers from the University of Southern California, revealed what many had already known: the "choice" aspect of the program had largely gone away.

Instead, LAUSD has focused energy around a collaborative effort to improve student achievement, which went up, and school quality. Participants in the process questioned the value of competition as a driver of school reform.

The research report provided the first in-depth look at the four-year reform project involving 131 schools. USC Professors Julie Marsh and Katharine Strunk headed the research team. They reported at an event held at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in central L.A., schools built on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel where Kennedy was assassinated.

Public School Choice was born in 2009 over what school board member Yolie Flores called, "frustration at the slow place of progress and the lack of urgency." She told the audience, "In our brand new schools where we had invested millions with impressive technology we were not doing anything new inside." The school board, she said, had watched in horror as some of the new schools marched straight from ribbon cutting to dangerously low student achievement.

Flores proposed a radical idea as described in the research report: Instead of opening a new school by shuffling existing employees and assigning an administrator schooled in the district's tradition, create a request-for-proposal project. Allow charter school operators, community organizations, and groups of teachers and administrators from within the district to write competitive plans for running the schools. Create an independent panel of judges to evaluate the plans and submit recommendations to the superintendent and the school board.

LAUSD was already becoming "a system of schools" rather than a massive hierarchy designed in the early 20th century. Of the district's 885 schools, some 155 were charter schools. In addition, 172 magnet schools are freed from some District regulation. Two prototype charter districts are under operation. The mayor's partnership operates 11 schools. Locke High School is operated by a charter management organization. The public school choice resolution raised the prospect of a rapid acceleration of this approach.

At the time, United Teachers Los Angeles and many traditionally left-leaning advocates opposed the plan. The school board passed the motion 6-1. "This is the beginning of the dismembering of L.A. Unified," former school board member Jackie Goldberg said. But that is not what happened.

Instead, the researchers found that competition to start new schools had all but disappeared, partly because the school board restricted who could apply and partly because there was never a large supply of external operators willing to take over troubled inner-city schools.

In the first year 42 schools went through the process: 28 newly constructed ones, and 14 underperforming schools, called "focus" schools by LAUSD. Ten of these schools were awarded to outside operators, and 32 to insiders. Nine of those schools faced no competition.

By the fourth year, 20 underperforming schools were placed in the program. There were only 21 proposals, meaning that the schools would largely continue to be operated by the same people who had run them before. The number of proposals per school site declined from 2.4 to 1.1 and the number of schools where there was only one proposal jumped.

Discussion group participants in Thursday's research rollout did not mourn the loss of competition, although more than one speaker suggested that the presence of external competitors may have nudged UTLA toward more flexibility in school governance models. It increased its sponsorship of semi-autonomous schools, essentially in-district charters, called Pilot schools.

Instead, they spoke about the value of cooperation and team building in creating high quality school plans and implementing them rather than fostering competition between groups of teachers and administrators at the school. "Our plan worked because we got everyone on board," said Orlando Johnson, vice principal at Dorsey High School.

At the outset, it was thought that the presence of an external competitor would spur teachers and administrators to work harder to change their schools. But participants in Thursday's event said many of them were more paralyzed by fear than creatively energized.

Matt Hill, chief strategy officer for LAUSD, said, in response to a question, "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."

In his remarks, Superintendent John Deasy was even gracious toward UTLA, which two weeks ago had tried to drive him from office with a negative evaluation. "UTLA was at the heart of taking a look at offering autonomy, with amazing leadership," he said, adding with a smile: "The relationship is not perfect."

"We found a whole new level of leaders," he said. "That would not have happened in the regular process. Teacher leadership came to the fore."

Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce vice president David Rattray also played the collaboration theme. As the reform started in 2009, he persuaded the school district to work with the teachers union (UTLA) and Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which have been highly distrustful of one another historically.

The result was the Los Angeles School Design Institute, where experienced administrators like Cathy Kibala could guide school design teams through creating a successful plan. "Schools are still competing, but competing with themselves, their own history," she said. LASDI is a relatively low cost program that participants said was having leverage. In the research report, participants ranked the program highly.

The competition to collaboration theme also played out with parents. In the initial rounds of Public School Choice, parents voted for the plan they liked. But fewer than 17 percent of them did, and those were often mobilized by either the teacher union or a contending charter school operator. Meetings during the design process turned rancorous.

Later, the vote was eliminated, and parents were asked to join the design process itself. Relatively few did, but those who participated got deeply involved. Andrea Canty, from the Public School Choice office in the district, talked of taking parents of low performing schools to other campuses, allowing them to experience the programs and resources that should be available for their own children. "They came back as forceful advocates," she said.

It is too early to know for sure whether the Public School Choice initiative is producing markedly better schools, but the initial examination of student test scores from the first cohort of schools was encouraging.

Because new schools were being created and old ones were being reconstituted, the USC researchers had to be clever in creating a valid comparison group. In order to compare the learning trajectories of students attending the newly opened schools, they compared their achievement trends with those of students whose attendance areas were similar. For the low performing "focus" schools, the researchers used student results from schools that were just slightly higher performing.

In both the new schools and the low performing ones, student achievement dipped in the first year of the new program, a typical pattern, that researchers call the "implementation dip" that is attributed to getting used to new ways of working. But in the second year, scores went up in English and Math in both sets of schools. Significantly, the scores of the comparison groups continued their downward trend.

Will these trends continue? As assistant principal Johnson noted, there are "a lot of good plans on paper, but what about reality? We won't know that at least for another couple years."

Charles Taylor Kerchner is a research professor at Claremont Graduate University. More on this topic can be found at