By Earl Ofari Hutchinson | Daily News Op-Ed
12/03/2008 Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent David L. Brewer may well have mucked up things with the schools. And maybe he should go.
I have repeatedly said that Brewer, at times, seemed clueless about how to tackle the complex problems of the hyper-bureaucratic, sprawling and chronically underperforming LAUSD. I've also said that if the board of education deemed that he's not up to the job, it should dump him. That's its decision to make - not that of the mayor, City Hall or a handful of high-profile, fat-cat civic leaders who may be urging the board to let the former Navy admiral go.
The hard truth is that when politicians and outsiders meddle in the running of the schools their prime motivation is power, ego and control. Yet, mayors and politicians still flatter themselves that they can and do make a difference in the administration, effectiveness and performance of the district and the students.
They point to New York City and Chicago as proof that when mayors take over a miserably failing school system they can turn things around. The examples of these two districts are as flawed as they are self-serving. In the mayor-run school districts in New York and Chicago, the test scores have marginally inched up, while nearly half of fourth-graders have fallen below basic reading levels.
In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley doesn't rule the schools with an iron fist. Local school councils make many of the key school policy decisions. They include parents and community members, principals and teachers. Under state law, each council can hire and evaluate the principals and have the final say over a school's discretionary budget and improvement plan.
The school district they don't talk about is in Cleveland - and with good reason. The schools there had sky-high debts and dropout rates, and wallowed at the bottom in achievement scores. There was absolutely nowhere for them to go but up when the city took over. Though the debt is down and student achievement has slightly improved since, the results from the assessment survey show that the majority of students in Cleveland still test on a par with or below those in L.A. schools.
As glacially slow as the LAUSD has been in ramping up test scores and achievement levels on Brewer's watch, L.A. is hardly unique. According to a recent report by the National Assessment of Education Progress, students in nine of the nation's 11 big-city school districts fell below national achievement levels. That includes students in Chicago, New York and Cleveland - all cities where mayors call the shots.
The school districts bomb in part because there are too many lousy teachers and wasteful and inefficient administrators and moribund school boards. But they bomb in bigger part because of poverty, immigration, language difficulties and gross underfunding.
Whether Brewer stays or goes, the challenges he faces and is blamed for exacerbating won't go away. Whoever runs the district will still have to step up the pace of school construction, decentralize operations, encourage more parent involvement and, most importantly, continue to figure out ways to bump up math and reading test scores for fourth- and eighth-graders.
That person will also have to figure out how to ensure that the schools turn out trained, educated and skilled professionals. They are crucial to the economic growth and well being and quality of life in Los Angeles.
The board has a decision to make, a very tough decision regarding Brewer. Let's hope it's their decision, and theirs alone.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and frequent contributor to the Daily News. His new book is "How Obama Won: A Comprehensive Dissect of Obama's White House Win."