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Julie Marsh on why local power is essential to democracy

USC Rossier Professor of Education Policy discusses strategies for engaging local stakeholders, her experience as a researcher and how COVID-19 will impact funding for education.

By Kianoosh Hashemzadeh - Interview Published on

Julie Marsh is a professor of education policy at the USC Rossier School of Education. Her work focuses on K-12 policy and governance. She is also co-director of the USC Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance and the faculty director at Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent nonprofit research center. Prior to joining USC Rossier in 2010, she worked at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, global policy think tank.

You study educational governance, particularly ways power and decision making can be decentralized and democratized. Why is decentralizing and shifting decision making to local communities important? How does this shift support democracy?
In theory, local engagement can amplify voices of people who are often disenfranchised or marginalized, so the decisions will be more equitable and they’ll lead to better outcomes for kids. If you are more involved at a local level, the public will be better informed and more engaged. They’ll put more pressure on local leaders to do what they had said they were going to do. It strengthens democracy, in theory.

Folks like [John] Dewey would argue that representative democracy at a higher level might not be enough for our society, that [those representatives] might be too removed from local needs and interests, and we might get decisions that are reflecting private interests. A lot of theorists argue that if you involve people at a local level, you’re developing their civic skills. You’re having people learn how to embrace matters that are beyond their self-interest, and then it might make it easier for them to accept collective decisions that aren’t necessarily benefiting them personally.

You’ve extensively researched the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) that was enacted in California in 2013. How do you explain the Local Control Funding Formula to a parent? Why was it enacted in California?
The LCFF changed the way we fund public schools in California. It provides additional funds for students who are considered to be high needs: English learners, low-income students and foster youth. Every student, regardless of need, gets a base amount and then districts get additional dollars for students who fall into those other categories. And it gives districts more flexibility on how they spend their funds.

Before, the state had more categorical funding, meaning that money was tied to particular purposes. You had this pot of money that could only be used for this purpose, and then you have this other pot of money that was only used for this function. Now districts have more say over how they use their money. In exchange, they have to involve their local community in their decisions. They have to create these plans—called Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPS)—to define how they’re going to spend the money, how it will achieve their goals with particular attention to improving the academic achievement for those high-needs students.

There’s an equity intent in there. State leaders, particularly Governor [Jerry] Brown at the time, really believed it would lead to better outcomes, particularly for high-needs students. He said over and over, students with greater needs deserve greater resources. When he signed it, the governor said things like, we’re bringing the government closer to the people, where real decisions are made.

A lot of theorists argue that if you involve people at a local level, you’re developing their civic skills. You’re having people learn how to embrace matters that are beyond their self-interest, and then it might make it easier for them to accept collective decisions that aren’t necessarily benefiting them personally.

What are some of the barriers that prevent engagement in LCFF and how might we surmount them?
We’re seeing what I call “alignment to the letter of the law,” but not necessarily the spirit of democratic engagement. Districts support the idea of LCCF. They’re trying to comply, but we're seeing low levels of engagement, particularly from the non-parents and from the parents and guardians of those high-needs kids. But we do have some outliers, districts that are doing a really good job.

Some leaders have engaged in practices that exclude the values and opinions, particularly of racially minoritized community members. They’re being engaged in very shallow ways. There’re limitations on what's being asked of people. It’s a one-way communication of the district giving information or the community being asked to give input on goals.

Superintendents, when we poll them, often say that, “Well, people aren’t interested.” We actually find from our survey data over the years that the voters and parents are actually interested, but there might be things getting in the way of their participation. Also, a lot of people aren’t even aware of LCFF or the opportunity to play a part. The district could be providing the information that community members need to participate, but it’s not happening. Though there may also be some issues of limited capacity.

There’s also a lack of trust. A lot of people don’t necessarily think it’s worth their time to participate. There’s a history, maybe, of conflict among various community groups and individuals and the district or government writ large. There are some issues of power that are coming up and underlying racial issues.

We need leadership. In the places that we’ve seen deeper, broader engagement, we have culturally responsive leaders who are aware of and reflect the racial identities of the community or their cultural practices. They’re very explicit about the way they’re trying to engage and acknowledge issues of power and race. I think our EdD program is well positioned to train those leaders who are aware of these issues and policies.

Where you found that districts were having success engaging the community, did you find that there was a sort of pre-existing environment that allowed for that, or were these districts creating this environment in response to the LCFF?
Some of the places where we saw deeper engagement and [brought] in all sorts of stakeholder groups, had a history of doing strategic planning or had been partnered with some community-based organization for years. There certainly were preconditions that helped. But this policy has been in place for some time now, and I think we do have examples of places that have been able to build up to a deeper, broader form of engagement, but it’s often with partners. And it's often done in places where there has been some goodwill built up over time.

In your years as a researcher, has there been a discovery or finding that you’ve found surprising?
I like interesting puzzles. I studied the New York City school-wide bonus program—this idea that you would give monetary incentives to schools based primarily on their performance, on the students’ test results. Some of the designers of the program had hoped that schools would give out the money differentially, so that teachers and staff who did an outstanding job or who devoted a lot of time to this, might get more money. But what we found was that the overwhelming majority of schools gave out the bonuses equally to everyone in the school. And yet when we surveyed administrators, more than half thought that staff with exceptional performance should receive a larger share of the bonus. So, that was an interesting puzzle. Why is it that even though the majority of administrators probably [think] you should give it out differentially, they gave it out equally? What we found was that there’s a kind of egalitarianism. There was no way that they were going to consider anything but giving it out equally because they were worried that that would negatively affect the climate of the school and how professionals in schools operate.

COVID-19 is a global pandemic yet we’ve already seen that its effects are being felt unevenly. How has the virus exacerbated inequities, especially when it comes to education?
The limited access to internet and technology among low-income students and students in rural areas, is an obvious way inequities are being exacerbated, but it’s not just about academic learning, it’s about social-emotional learning and supports for kids and basic services. Those kinds of caring relationships that occur—among staff, teachers, administrators and kids—that are being lost. A lot of these kids are getting their only reliable meal each day from schools. These are places where kids are receiving special education or mental health services, and there are huge losses occurring. With this pandemic, inequities are going to be felt not just on an academic level but also on a psychological, emotional level.

We’ve been fighting for years to increase funding in our public schools, and now this came into play. We’re going to see a decrease in state revenue, and it’s going to affect lower-income communities and districts, districts with fewer reserves, districts with less access to community partners and investment.

I’m hoping it’s an opportunity—people talk about crises as being an opportunity to kind of reimagine. You can either re-entrench, or you can reimagine and collectively bring about new ways of approaching old problems.

PACE is working on ways to facilitate recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Could you tell us about some of these efforts?
At PACE, we’re [always] trying to bridge that gap between research, policy and practice. We’re trying to broker quick turnaround research to inform some of these decisions that are being made right now or that need to be made pretty quickly. Another focus is on recovery and the future.

Dave Quinn, who’s on our faculty, just did a piece for PACE that looked at our annual polling data to look at the public commitment to ending racial inequality, and how we need to keep that front and center while we’re thinking about the pandemic. We're working with Morgan Polikoff, who’s also a colleague, and his Answer Lab. PACE is helping to elevate some of the work he’s done on a couple of new briefs, looking at summer school and different schedules.

I'm leading [studies] that I’ve pivoted to focus on COVID. I'm looking at how districts and communities are responding and what are the conditions that contribute to greater resilience in the face of a crisis. We’re taking as an underlying assumption that districts that have stronger civic ties, community organizations, maybe stronger engagement in LCFF, and local governance structures—so better relationships between labor partners and district leaders or involve school board members—that those kinds of places might have greater resilience in the face of this kind of crisis.

These are places where kids are receiving special education or mental health services, and there are huge losses occurring. With this pandemic, inequities are going to be felt not just on an academic level but also on a psychological, emotional level.

A lot of us are attempting—and struggling—to find a silver lining to the pandemic. Have you found any?
Appreciations for the things that we take for granted. My younger son summed it up well. At the very beginning, I heard him in the back of the house, say, “School, I never appreciated you so much until you were taken away from me.”

[There’s also] an opportunity for personal growth. It’s helped me, and I’m sure many others, to be very flexible. We had all these great plans that we have thrown out the door. For my kids, in particular, tolerating the uncertainty and figuring out how to battle the anxiety that comes with that and figuring out ways to stay in the moment, to find meaning in our small day-to-day accomplishments, or in helping out other people—those are the tools and the things that I hope will help my kids later in life.

How has your daily life changed since mid-March when California’s stay-at-home order came into effect?
I’ve gotten to know some of my students in deeper ways, both with their struggles and with the ways that they’re thriving. Our first class [post stay-at-home order], I took a strategy from my son’s elementary school teacher where in homeroom that morning she had asked them to share a rose, a thorn and bud, and I used it with the doctoral students and learned a lot about them and how they were doing.

I’m also getting to spend so much time with [my dog] Tater, and loving it. He comes to a lot of my Zooms. He’s probably the best thing that we have going. My kids fight to get him in the morning. Everyone wants to have him on their lap.

The class of 2020 is entering the workforce amidst a lot of uncertainly. What advice would you give to those graduates who aspire to work in education?
I'm hoping that we’re finally seeing as a society how much education and schools and all those individuals in those buildings mean to us. For people graduating, know that we will recover, and we will be stronger as a result of this crisis and we really need you. We need you to come in and take part.

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