Mayor Talks Tough to Push School Takeover
Villaraigosa accuses officials of obstructing reform. Some are taken aback by the rhetoric.
By Joel Rubin and Richard Fausset
Times Staff Writers
November 21, 2005
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has begun selling his plan to seize control of the ailing Los Angeles Unified School District with strident language that is worrying and confusing the city's education leaders.
In three speeches and an interview last week, he accused the teachers union and the school board of standing in the way of crucial reform.
"I have been an absolute supporter of L.A. public schools, but I have come to the conclusion that there is no way to reform these schools without taking on the status quo," Villaraigosa told The Times. "I am not looking to alienate anyone, but I am going to make the case for public accountability … right now, no one's accountable."
Villaraigosa has set an ambitious agenda as mayor, but the school takeover may be his most daring gambit, throwing him into the treacherous thicket of education politics.
His strong rhetoric has electrified some audiences. But it has also left school board members and district officials in a tricky position. On the one hand, they are frustrated by what they say are the mayor's unfair and untruthful characterizations of the district; on the other, they don't want to appear defensive or antagonistic toward him.
"I think the mayor's entire conversation is based on an assumption that the district is moving in the wrong direction," said school board President Marlene Canter. "And that is flat-out wrong."
Recently, Villaraigosa's team has begun developing a takeover strategy for the nation's second-largest school district. They are studying how other big-city mayors, including Richard Daley in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York, took control. But so far mayoral aides have offered few, if any, specifics on a takeover plan.
The mayor has been unapologetic about his ramped-up rhetoric yet he continues to insist that "consensus" is key to success. Those apparently mixed messages are leaving some of his supporters confused.
Many acknowledge that Villaraigosa — a former organizer for the city teachers union and speaker of the state Assembly — is a master negotiator. But they also wonder if he should be risking a fight fraught with deep political implications.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suffered a costly loss this month when he took on the powerful California Teachers Assn. and others in labor with his special election propositions.
"The teachers union is an incredible force to be reckoned with," said Darry Sragow, a political strategist who recently ran the district's successful $4-billion school bond campaign. "To a significant degree, teachers at a statewide level are responsible for bringing down a popular governor. Now, the difference with our mayor is he was one of them … so maybe he's decided they'll cut him more slack."
Former Mayor Richard Riordan, a longtime proponent of a takeover, said he hoped Villaraigosa could keep everyone at the table.
"I'm an optimist," Riordan said. "Antonio is a great lover of the unions and loved by the union members. And I think he could make some sort of compromise."
During his election campaign, when many voters were citing education reform as a top priority, Villaraigosa said he would support mayoral control of Los Angeles Unified. But the issue has been a persistent frustration for the new mayor.
He has never wavered in his support of the idea, but he has been criticized for moving too slowly. Soon after his swearing-in, the mayor refused to back a state Senate bill that would have given him the power to hire the superintendent and replace the seven elected board members.
Villaraigosa argued that the bill was unconstitutional, but he also said he needed time to do what he does best — that is, subtly cajole and persuade his opponents until they relent.
In the meantime, Villaraigosa convened his own panel of education experts. In public, the mayor praised the group's recommendations, which addressed such issues as safe routes to school. But Villaraigosa found them underwhelming, said sources close to the mayor.
Carolyn Webb de Macias, the mayor's senior advisor, is refining those ideas. Mayoral counsel Thomas Saenz is heading the effort to draft a takeover plan. Among the proposals: that the mayor appoint only some of the board members.
Any plan would probably require the approval of the state Legislature, local voters and possibly the City Council, Saenz said.
The takeovers in Chicago and New York have yielded mixed results. The Illinois Legislature gave Daley control of public schools in 1995, a few years after then-Education Secretary William Bennett had called them the worst in the nation.
Daley won authority to appoint the school board and hire the superintendent and other top officials. He helped raise money for schools and eased labor unrest. Although the schools posted academic gains, their largely impoverished students still remain below national norms.
Bloomberg persuaded the state Legislature to give him broader powers over the nation's largest school system in 2002. That included authority to abolish the school board in favor of an advisory panel and to turn the school system into a city department.
Education experts have said it is too soon to tell whether New York City's schools will fare better in the long term. Reading scores have remained generally flat, while math scores are rising, a trend that began before Bloomberg took over.
Villaraigosa said in an interview that he isn't trying to pick a fight with the unions or the school board, but he acknowledged that a fight could be inevitable. He anticipates a costly local ballot campaign to persuade voters to give him control.
He said he wants to enact a plan before the end of his first term. But the opposition appears formidable.
In a poll of 700 L.A. voters conducted in July for the California Teachers Assn. — an opponent of the idea — 55% opposed mayoral control of schools. And 70% said school board members should be elected.
In Sacramento, Villaraigosa has a strong ally in Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), who said he would help pass a takeover bill.
"If the mayor says, 'This is important to me,' I'm going to roll up my sleeves and I'm going to deliver it for him,' " he said.
It's questionable, however, whether even the Democratic-controlled Legislature would approve such a bill. Lawmakers would risk the wrath of the state teachers union. The local union, United Teachers Los Angeles, also remains adamantly against a takeover.
"A school board elected by the people is vitally important," said UTLA President A.J. Duffy. "It's important for the teachers union to support candidates for the school board that we feel will be good for public education."
Neither Duffy nor Barbara Kerr, president of the CTA, would comment on the mayor's recent remarks.
Schools Supt. Roy Romer, typically outspoken on district issues, has remained neutral. Taking a position, he said, would undermine his ability to work with the school board.
Romer and Canter said that in order to counter the mayor's attacks, the district needs to devise a public relations strategy to tout its successes.
They are quick to point out that the district has raised test scores at a faster rate than the state. And an ambitious construction program has opened nearly 50 campuses, with more than 100 others planned.
The district continues to struggle, however, to raise graduation rates and boost performance at many of its crowded middle and high schools.
A number of skeptics, including Canter and Duffy, say Villaraigosa hasn't recently met with them to discuss his plans. The mayor's office said those meetings could still happen.
Veteran board member Julie Korenstein, who stormed out of one of the mayor's speeches, said Villaraigosa's "offensive" language risks alienating all seven members of the panel.
"He's going about this in a way that is making him a lot of enemies along the way," she said.