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The Rise and Fall of the Dream Schools: Equity and Local Politics in the San Francisco Unified School District



The Rise and Fall of the Dream Schools: Equity and Local Politics

in the San Francisco Unified School District


Matthew Merritt Livingston

Doctor of Education

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Heinrich Mintrop, Chair

Comprehensive school reform initiatives in urban school districts frequently fail. This was no different with the San Francisco Unified School District's Dream Schools. Designed specifically to create an equitable education for San Francisco's marginalized African American and Latino communities, the district spent millions of dollars to create "private schools" in a public school setting. After just two years of implementation, the Dream School reform initiative was mired in political contestation that ended with the dissolution of the initiative and the resignation of the superintendent.

This study addresses how politics affects the adoption of policy, how policy creates a reform design, how the design influences the implementation plan, and how the process of the implementation plan is executed. Politics is an important part of the process. It is the sphere where constituents' interests can be articulated, and special interest groups can compete for scarce material resources and symbolic validations. However, politics does not always lend itself to creating and sustaining successful reform initiatives.

I applied these factors from theory and previous research to the case study of the Dream School reform initiative in the San Francisco Unified School District, in order to better understand how politicized governance and poor administrative implementation cause comprehensive reforms to fail as often as they do. In addition, conflict among coalitions, blaming adversaries, and pushing priorities to the brink are major themes derived from the oral history of the SFUSD Dream Schools, and useful for a better understanding of the action patterns that eventually led to failure.

Why did the Dream Schools implementation utterly fail? The Oral History of the Dream Schools seeks to answer this question by searching deeply into the memories of the people who were there, carefully distilling their experiences, and synthesizing their stories into an account of the reform initiative. Twenty-four participants shared their perspectives and explained their motives. Their interactions in the particular historical context of local school reform brought forth the rise and dramatic fall of the Dream Schools initiative. In the end, who owns the problem and who owns the solution in urban equity-oriented school reform?

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