L.A.'s mayor is latest to tackle school reform

Some see a power grab, but others cite a need for more accountability.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Joining a coterie of big-city mayors, Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles's new chief executive, is moving to assert more control over troubled city schools.

Citing perennially low test scores and high dropout rates, Mayor Villaraigosa has repeated calls for a stronger mayoral role in school reform, including the idea of ending school-board elections in favor of appointing board members himself.

His bid follows mayor-driven shake-ups of public schools in recent years in Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Detroit.

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In challenging the status quo at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), now led by an elected seven-member board, Villaraigosa takes on one of the thorniest issues of urban America - and one that is likely to pit his new administration against some of its natural allies, such as teachers unions.

"I intend to lead the case for reform of public education," the mayor said at a recent gathering of business leaders and parents. He cited three goals that he says will make public schools more accountable: push down dropout rates, raise test scores to meet federal and state standards, and ease parents' frustrations with the LAUSD.

"Look at us, how could we do worse?" Villaraigosa said, pointing to a recent Harvard University study that shows roughly half of black and Latino boys in the LAUSD drop out before graduating. At 27 high schools, fewer than 25 percent of all students showed proficiency in recent state English exams. Both are unacceptable for a city that wants to be world-class, said the mayor. "We need to make a governance change," he said. "I will not be deterred in this."

His comments echo a sentiment in other cities that autonomous school systems could benefit from restructuring and more accountable, top-down governance.

"What you are seeing in Los Angeles might be the wave of the future, because city school districts everywhere are desperate for new answers, new governance," says Russlyn Ali of The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit group dedicated to closing the achievement gap separating poor and minority students from other young Californians. "It is becoming ... obvious that fixing education is not something that can be done within the existing structure but needs to come from outside. L.A. is pushing that conversation forward."

Each city's concerns are unique, experts say, and problems in Los Angeles are more complicated than most. In addition to a $5.7 billion budget (roughly equal to the city's own), LAUSD educates 727,000 students spread out across 29 municipalities. (Some of these communities are part of Los Angeles, and others have contracts with the district.) The district has far higher percentages of poor and non-English-speaking students than the state average.

The mayor currently has no power over the school system - and obtaining it would require a change in the city charter and possibly additional state legislation.

"L.A. has a messy size and geographical problem that will not be easily solved," says Michael Kirst, director of Policy Analysis for California Education.

One challenge, say Mr. Kirst and others, is determining the kind of power change up for consideration. Villaraigosa has put forward no specific plan. Instead, he wants a dialogue to hammer out details, which might include dividing the LAUSD into smaller units and examining teacher standards, tenure, hiring, and facilities. An advisory board is already looking at how other city services - from buses to personal safety to healthcare - can support better school attendance.

"This is an extraordinarily complicated pathway to get governance change," says Tom Saenz, the mayor's legal and education adviser. On the table, he says, is everything between the two basic models - centralized control in the mayor's office versus more diffuse accountability via board elections within subdistricts. "We want to involve the critical stakeholders," he says.

Mayors in Detroit, the District of Columbia, Harrisburg, Pa., and Oakland, Calif., have split the difference - appointing about half of school board members and bowing to direct election for the other half, Kirst says. Results, he says, have been ineffectiveness and inaction.

In Chicago, Cleveland, and New York, where mayors now exert greater power, results are better, as measured by student achievement tests. Today, for the first time since 1990, more than half of New York's elementary and middle school students are performing at or above grade level, and a record number of fourth-graders there are meeting state reading and writing standards.

Superintendents and teachers unions, not surprisingly, often resist what they see as a mayoral power grab. Indeed, teachers unions and school board members in L.A. are mounting a campaign to challenge Villaraigosa.

"This is a bad idea. I am opposed to mayoral takeover," says A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. "I fail to see where replacing one kind of bureaucracy with another is going to help the classroom teacher on the site."

Mr. Duffy and others say Villaraigosa is overstating his case for a takeover. The LAUSD has made strides in the past five years - though primarily among elementary school students - and more changes are coming, they say.

Others worry the debate is focused too much on who controls the LAUSD and not enough on new teaching methods that would improve scores. They are also concerned about changing the charter to hand power to the current mayor, and then being buffeted later by a change of administrations.

"I am not so concerned about Antonio but who comes after him, and whether that person will use the appointment of school board members as a means of political largess," says Duffy. This has already happened in New York, he says, where people in key positions have "no background in education and have created a rift between the city bureaucracy and the classroom teachers."

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