Monday, October 23, 2006


by Michael Martinez, Chicago Tribune national correspondent | The Tribune is the parent of the Los Angeles Times

October 23, 2006 - LOS ANGELES - Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa put his reputation on the line this spring at The Accelerated School in south-central Los Angeles, promising to take over and fix the city's troubled public schools

Working off a template inspired by Mayor Richard Daley in Chicago, Villaraigosa said his city's schools, which serve more than 720,000 students, needed reforms like those instituted by The Accelerated School co-founder Kevin Sved.

As it turns out, Los Angeles, so often a trendsetter, is struggling as a trend follower. Its efforts to follow Chicago's model have been troubled from the start.

Though Villaraigosa wanted ultimate authority over the nation's second-largest school system, a new California law last month gave him what his aides describe as "substantial authority" or "a hybrid" model in which the mayor must share power with the board and others.

Critics use another word. As one adversarial board official put it, Villaraigosa's initiative is a "mess."

The school board sued Oct. 10 to overturn Villaraigosa's control, saying it violates a 1946 amendment to the state constitution separating school systems from municipal control.

Days later, the board selected a new superintendent with no experience running schools - and without input from the mayor, who happened to be on a trade mission an ocean away, in Asia. Villaraigosa had asked for a say in the matter because on Jan. 1, his new authority begins, which will give him veto power over choice of a superintendent.

Apparently stuck with the new schools chief, Villaraigosa said he was "disappointed."

Despite the setbacks, mayoral aides insist the reforms can work in Los Angeles, though the mayor must exercise "a partnership" with the school board, the superintendent, and a newly created council of local mayors whose schools are part of the Los Angeles district.

While mayoral takeovers are viewed by some experts as a positive way to restore accountability if not boost achievement in big-city districts, Los Angeles' struggle arises partly from its sprawl. The council of mayors also overseeing reform measures includes representatives of 27 cities, including Los Angeles, and all five county supervisors.

"In Los Angeles, you don't have concentrated political power as you do in Chicago," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based advocacy organization for public education. "It's easier to cut a deal in Chicago than it is in Los Angeles. You have a strong mayor in Chicago, whereas in Los Angeles, you have power in flux."

Others say Villaraigosa could have secured more authority if he had offered more of a grand plan.

"I think he should have spent his first year in office selling a vision of what the system could be - small autonomous schools, organize parents, give a lot of money and better work conditions to teachers, high expectations for kids," said mayoral ally Steve Barr, CEO and founder of Green Dot charter schools, a network of 10 college prep schools.

The new law, which the Los Angeles teachers union endorsed, turns over three high schools and their feeder schools directly to the mayor for reform; those three clusters could amount to between 50,000 and 80,000 students, officials said.

Across the country, Jennings said, mayors are pushing to fix their woeful schools as the middle class is returning to the urban center and weighing whether public schools are good enough for their kids. Chicago's reform efforts were cited as a model by President Bill Clinton.

While Los Angeles' state test scores have been rising, only 31 percent of students are proficient or better in math and only 30 percent are at such levels in English. Those figures compare with statewide averages of 40 percent for math and 42 percent for English.

While the new law doesn't directly make Villaraigosa the sole, explicit person to credit or blame for reform, "in a practical sense, yes, the mayor has assumed the mantle of responsibility and the people will expect him to deliver," said Thomas Saenz, counsel to the mayor. "We have a lot of work to do, but we've got a good start."

Not so, responded Kevin Reed, general counsel for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The district, the principals union, the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, and the California School Boards Association are suing Villaraigosa, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the state board of education to stop the new law.

"What the mayor got in this bill is not the system in Chicago or Boston or Cleveland or New York. It's a truncated, bifurcated mess, particularly when it comes to lines of accountability," Reed said.

Some of Los Angeles' ongoing problems will sound familiar to Chicagoans who have seen almost two decades of reform, including the 1995 Illinois law giving Daley outright control.

"A culture of passive resistance" exists among faculty and central office officials who believe that "if you didn't like the reform agenda, all you had to do was lie low for two years and the agenda would change," Saenz said.

"There are some employees of the district who probably should have left the district a long time ago and will probably be driven out by this change," he added.

Mayoral ally Barr said that many employees in board headquarters hold patronage jobs and the central office suffers what Barr called a "bunker mentality" with attitudes such as "How dare someone say we need to change?"

But school board officials aren't convinced that data show more mayoral control equates to better achievement, board general counsel Reed said. What matters is "a strong, cooperative relationship" between the board and the superintendent, he said.

When asked about the board's relationship with the mayor, Reed hesitated and laughed: "Hmmm, how would I describe the relationship? Sensitive.

"I'm just trying to find a word that I wouldn't mind seeing in print," he said.


There are some big differences between the new California law giving the Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa greater authority over his public schools and the 1995 Illinois law that gave Mayor Richard Daley explicit, direct control of Chicago Public Schools.

SUPERINTENDENT: The Los Angeles mayor, a school board majority and the mayors of surrounding cities whose students attend L.A. public schools must reach a consensus on a new superintendent. The L.A. mayor has veto power. In Chicago, the mayor has complete control over the selection of the system's top executive.

SCHOOL CONTROL: Hands down, Daley and his schools team yield enormous power in holding every school accountable, with a range of sanctions at their disposal including closing schools. In Los Angeles, the mayor was given direct control over only three high schools and their feeder schools, which at most would affect only 80,000 of the system's 720,000 students, though some say 50,000 is the likely figure.

TEACHERS UNION: The Los Angeles mayor worked closely with his city's teachers union in crafting new legislation. In Chicago, the teachers union was essentially put on notice when the state law stripped it of the power to strike for the first 18 months of Daley's takeover starting in 1995.

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