Examining the Public School Choice Initiative

What to do with chronically lowperforming schools? This question is being asked by educators, policymakers, researchers and parents across the country. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) decided to do something no other school district in the United States had done before – allow teams of educators to compete to turn around underperforming schools and operate newly built schools throughout the district. This initiative, entitled the Public School Choice Initiative (PSCI), is being watched by policymakers and educators across the nation.

To further the work of the PSCI, LAUSD joined with researchers from the USC Rossier School of Education, Unite-LA/Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, and several other partners to bid on a grant from the federal Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), part of the historic $5 billion investment in school reform in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The proposal, entitled Los Angeles’ Bold Competition: Turning Around and Operating Its Low- Performing Schools, was rewarded this summer with a highly competitive $6-million, three-year i3 grant. Of the nearly 1,700 applicants for i3 grants, only 49 were awarded to organizations attempting innovative education reform.

The Public School Choice Initiative will allow competition among teams of internal and external stakeholders, such as local educators, administrators, community members and organizations, charter school operators, non-profit organizations, and labor partners. Winning applicant teams for each site accept the opportunity to manage a designated “focus” school (the bottom one percent of low-performing LAUSD public schools) or newly established “relief” school (designated to ease overcrowding in schools that have been operating on year-round calendars and have been identified by a bond initiative for new campuses). Over time, the PSCI expects to include up to 200 focus schools and 50 relief schools.

Applicant teams for the Initiative select from a variety of governance models, all of which are currently used in LAUSD schools. For example, a team may propose to operate a pilot school, charter school, extended sitebased management model, or a traditional school. These models vary in the levels of autonomy the school will have from district and union policies, and in flexibility over resource use. Teams explain their proposed governance model and provide a detailed description of their proposed educational plan. All applications go through an extensive review process that includes a community advisory vote where the teams present plans to parents and citizens, review by expert panels and the superintendent, and a school board vote. The long-term goal of the Initiative is to create a rich portfolio of high-performing schools that are tailored to – and supported by – the local community.

The i3 research project funds will support LAUSD and its partners as they work to enhance LAUSD’s Public School Choice Initiative, and will support the implementation of accountability and continuous improvement measures. The Rossier research team, led by Center on Educational Governance researchers Drs. Dominic Brewer, Julie Marsh and Katharine Strunk, is tasked with evaluating the effects of the Initiative on student and other important outcomes and with providing feedback to LAUSD and its partners to help them refine their processes.

The Rossier team will first examine implementation and intermediate outcomes. Researchers will seek to understand and document: 1) the support provided to applicant teams for developing plans and to selected teams for implementing their educational programs; 2) the ways in which LAUSD holds schools accountable for achieving stated goals; and 3) the efforts to engage parents and community in the process. The team will also track the numbers and types of applicants, new policies developed to support the initiative, the quality of plans and the program implemented, and the quality of accountability and monitoring structures over time. Ultimately, the study will also examine the effects of the initiative on school personnel and student outcomes.

The overall evaluation will utilize both qualitative and quantitative methods. Researchers will interview leaders in the Initiative; survey applicant teams and principals; observe public meetings; conduct case studies of select schools as they progress through all phases of the Initiative, from application to implementation; analyze proposal documents; analyze student outcome data; and compare PSCI schools to non- Initiative schools.

The research project is particularly significant because the PSCI model may provide important data to inform similar reforms across the country. With the Initiative, LAUSD joins a growing number of districts that are implementing Portfolio District Reform and school turnaround models. The LAUSD Initiative is innovative in its commitment to ensure that the newly implemented schools – whether focus or relief schools – meet the contextualized needs of their communities. The Initiative provides a distinct opportunity to study the portfolio-turnaround hybrid model of reform and obtain reliable outcomes estimates, made possible by LAUSD’s commitment to transparency and the administration’s desire to partner with the Rossier research team.

This article was featured in the January, 2011 Issue of Rossier Reach