Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa plans to act on his campaign promise to improve the city’s embattled school district by accepting authority over and accountability for the condition of Los Angeles Unified School District institutions.
Prompted in part by general prodding and a bill introduced by State Senator Gloria Romero, D–Los Angeles, Villaraigosa has made it clear that although he will have the final say in such things as the appointment of LAUSD board members, he plans to address reforms as the member of a grass-roots team.
The mayor appointed the Education Advisors Council, which is made up of teachers, principals, and education experts that will help determine ways to improve the district.
Martin Saiz, political science professor, said Villaraigosa is simply taking responsibility for something he will be held accountable for, regardless of whether he has control or not, and that former mayors of Los Angeles had been blamed for the state of the LAUSD while they have had no real ability to change it.
“The mayor is held responsible for the overall health of the community, but has had no control over the school district, and much of the health of the city is directly related to the quality of its schools,” he said.
Saiz also said there is an immediate relationship between education, the strength of the local economy, and the quality of life in any given area.
“Education is related to such things as starting businesses, the level of crime in a city, (and) the overall income of a community,” he said.
David Abel, chair of New Schools/Better Neighborhoods, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping urban communities invest in and build around their local schools, said he believes Villaraigosa’s move toward more control is a positive one.
“I don’t think any mayor can stand aside when the numbers are what they are,” Abel said, in reference to the district’s high dropout rates and low test scores.
Some organizations do not agree with Villaraigosa’s new role.
United Teachers Los Angeles opposes any legislation allowing mayoral control of the district. The group successfully fought to postpone Romero’s bill in the Legislature.
“I am opposed to this or any mayor taking over the school district, because it will mean doing away with the elective process,” said A.J. Duffy, UTLA president. Duffy said he likes Villaraigosa and trusts his judgment, but is more concerned about who the next mayor might be.
“At the least it’s very dangerous, as far as what the future may bring,” he said.
Duffy expressed concerns over the power the mayor’s office will have in choosing LAUSD board members.
“It is critically important to maintain the democratic process,” he said. “Often, what politicians have on their agendas is not necessarily what’s good for the community.”
Saiz said he believes that putting the mayor in control of the LAUSD will enhance the democratic process, not hinder it.
“Holding the mayor responsible is actually more democratic, because more people vote for the mayor,” he said. “Very few people actually participate in school board elections.”
Abel said he agrees on this point, citing the fact that the LAUSD touches 26 cities, and seven board members are elected by about seven to eight percent of voters.
“Because these are public schools, they have to find a way of bringing the public back into the schools,” he said.
Abel said he believes that allowing Los Angeles residents to vote for and hold the mayor of the city accountable is a step in that direction.
Similar legislation that gives mayors final say in their school districts was introduced in cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago.
“We’ve looked at this around the country, and when it’s done well in large metro areas, it allows the kind of prioritization necessary to deal with the challenges faced by big cities,” Abel said.
“Mayor (Richard) Daley in Chicago and his (school) superintendent have prioritized using school complexes as vital centers of revitalizing neighborhoods,” Abel said.
Saiz points out that the LAUSD has been progressively making improvements over the past several years on its own.
“Inner city schools have been improving and continue to improve,” he said.
Saiz said that the district’s students’ performances have been reasonable compared to the rest of the nation, even with the hundreds of cultures and languages prevalent on LA campuses.
“The schools are doing better, not worse,” he said.
Some note that the task of reforming LAUSD will not be an easy one.
“Being the mayor of a big city is tough,” Saiz said. It’s a difficult job and a daunting challenge.”
He said the LAUSD is the second largest school district in the nation, and improving schools here means facing the special challenges particular to any large, diverse metropolis. There are around 120 different languages spoken (in the LAUSD), Saiz said.
However, Villaraigosa has the special opportunity to show improvement.
“It takes a lot of effort,” Saiz said, “but it does pay off.”
Bethania Palma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.