Sunday, December 23, 2007

SCHOOLING ANTONIO: The mayor learns to settle for less than a total takeover of L.A. Unified


by Ayse Arf | LA City Beat

Dec 12, 2007 - Teachers and parents of students from one Los Angeles high school and its feeder campuses voted Tuesday to join Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Excellence in L.A. Schools.

The Partnership – the latest iteration of the mayor’s push for school reform – calls for the takeover of low-performing Roosevelt high school and the web of middle and elementary schools that feed it. In beating the drum for the Partnership, both Villaraigosa and community groups stressed the idea of autonomy for parents and teachers. The vote itself made a marked statement on self-determination, allowing parents of students at the schools in question to vote alongside teachers regardless of immigration or voter-registration status.

Maria Brenes, executive director of the Boyle Heights education non-profit Inner City Struggle, agrees with the mayor’s oft-repeated claim that one of the biggest problems these schools face is L.A. Unified itself: “They feel that this partnership is a way to really cut the bureaucracy and get the most resources and funding to our local schools.”

That Villaraigosa can bring in the dollars is not in question. But details on how schools will be run under the Partnership are vague at best, and intentionally so. Under the banner of autonomy, teachers, school administrators, and parents will be responsible for any detailed plans for school governance and budgeting, the rationale being that local stakeholders can better determine what’s best for their students. With hundreds of teachers and staff and thousands of students at each of the schools in question – several thousand at Roosevelt and Santee – developing a cohesive plan could present some serious bureaucratic challenges in and of itself.

As bold as this plan may be, it was originally to be even bolder.

Honeymoon Cut Short

Villaraigosa took office July 2005 with all the fanfare of a 4th of July block party – complete with a personal theme song (inspirational chorus: “Villaraigosa!”) – and the adoration of a city ready for action. And the first priority was public schools. As a former United Teachers Los Angeles union organizer, the spouse of a public school teacher, and with his own history as an almost-led-astray L.A. Unified success story, his credibility on the issue was sterling.

Despite the campaign bluster, Villaraigosa’s first mayoral forays into education were relatively benign – he even balked at supporting an early version of legislation (introduced by state Senate ally Gloria Romero) that would have opened the door to mayoral control of L.A. Unified. The new mayor instead chose to focus on social issues closely related to student success, such as school safety and health care.

But Villaraigosa soon made good on his broader campaign promises. His initial volley in a string of escalating City Hall-School Board hostilities came shortly after his first 100 days in office, formally asking for an audit of L.A. Unified management to “root out inefficiencies.” The Board responded in-kind, sending City Controller Laura Chick a gift basket of hundreds of previous audits and studies of school district operations.

Round One

Villaraigosa pushed the issue with friends in Sacramento, particularly Sen. Romero and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez – demanding a state audit of L.A. Unified on the basis of Chick’s assertion that “millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted.”

Weeks later, another Villaraigosa-state legislature joint venture was introduced – Assembly Bill 1381. The final version of the contentious bill, passed in August 2006 and signed into law by a glowing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, gave the mayor less direct control than originally sought, but handed him a Council of Mayors in which Villaraigosa’s vote alone would count for 80 percent. Villaraigosa theoretically could have exerted significant pressure on future superintendents.

Skeptics asserted the law’s division of power would make the superintendent’s job more complicated and politicized, not less. Mike Kirst, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, has recommended mayoral takeover in Oakland, but remains unsure about L.A. “It’s not as clear cut,” Kirst says. “All of the other cities that have mayor control have contiguous boundaries between the school district and the city. Not one of them gets into even more than one school entity, let alone 26,” referring to the 27 cities served by L.A. Unified. He also notes that unlike AB 1381, the plan in Oakland required a citywide vote, and then-Mayor Jerry Brown couldn’t get the bill past City Council and onto a ballot.

Villaraigosa bypassed city-level politics for similar reasons, and eroded much of the goodwill from district educators and parents, with the notable exception of School Board member Monica Garcia, a staunch Villaraigosa ally. Even longtime friends at UTLA were faced with an embarrassing dilemma when union membership voted to repudiate AB 1381 in a blatant contradiction to statements of support from union leaders.

In his rush to push through reforms in education, which Villaraigosa calls “the civil rights issue of our time,” according to press secretary Janelle Erickson, the mayor neglected the need for local political finesse: He failed to give the School Board and outgoing Superintendent Roy Romer enough credit for improving elementary test scores and what Claremont Graduate University Education professor Charles Kerchner called a “political tour de force” by Romer in raising construction dollars for the district.

Round Two

Rumblings of a legal challenge began almost immediately. The constitutionality of the bill had been brought into question even before it was passed, and Villaraigosa’s push to assert his new authority in the search for Romer’s replacement months before the law took effect did little to placate school board members.

Days after the mayor left on a trade mission to Asia, L.A. Unified filed a challenge to the constitutionality of the bill in Superior Court. The board also took advantage of the mayor’s absence to announce the appointment of former Admiral David L. Brewer III as superintendent. Villaraigosa responded with a statement reiterating displeasure at being excluded from the superintendent search, and subtly questioned Brewer’s qualifications in a jab at a selection process he had previously insinuated was rushed and secretive.

One appeal and two hostile rulings later, Villaraigosa finally conceded defeat on AB 1381. The mayor had already turned his attention to another potential inroad for school district influence – school board elections.

Villaraigosa’s endorsements pitted him against an old ally, the teachers union, in almost all of the races, with the exception of District 1, where he shied away from endorsing Marguerite LaMotte’s opponent for fear of alienating South L.A.’s black voters, even though LaMotte was a vocal opponent of AB 1381. Of four Board seats in contention, three went to candidates endorsed by Villaraigosa after extensive stumping and fundraising by the mayor – pushing the price tag on two of the most contentious races above $1 million.

The Bell Rings

While the mayor touts his takeover of the cluster of schools as an issue of accountability, some parents have expressed skepticism about the plan, calling it little more than a political ploy and worrying that students under the plan will suffer if the mayor loses reelection in 2009 or runs for governor in 2010. Villaraigosa press secretary Janelle Erickson insists the mayor took his term limits into consideration: “That’s why the Partnership has been designed to go beyond his tenure and that’s why he stresses the importance of local control and accountability.”

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