Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mayor Villaraigosa's Excellent School Adventure(poltics)

Antonio Villaraigosa is the current mayor of Los Angeles. He is frequently mentioned as a very likely candidate to succeed Arnold as the governor of California in 2010 and he is widely thought to be the rising Hispanic star in the Democratic party. As part of his campaign for mayor, Villaraigosa promised to fix the Los Angeles schools. Shortly after his election, the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial that challenged the mayor to make good on his education campaign promise.

In national politics, it’s common to either blame or praise the President for whatever happens with the economy. While its widely assumed in the rhetoric, the President actually has very little power over the state of the economy. Mostly, he or she proposes a budget each year that congress either then passes, rejects, or changes dramatically. While the budget, tariffs, and the actions of the Federal Reserve certainly do affect the economy over time, whatever the President does in a given year has little immediate impact.

In urban politics, schools and crime play a similar role in the rhetoric. Mayors routinely make pledges like Villaraigosa’s, but as a practical matter the school board and the superintendent make the real decisions. School boards themselves are fascinating democratic institutions. In many ways they are the smallest unit of democracy. Very small towns have them. Many cities contain multiple districts. Bottom line though, your vote for school board is likely the most-concentrated vote you make in that it takes the lowest number of votes to get someone elected.

Los Angeles is a little unusual in this respect. It’s one of the few big city school districts in the United States that’s actually bigger than the city itself. LA Unified covers territory that includes some 32 different incorporated cities. Not all of the district is contiguous and the logistical nightmares can be legendary. In traffic, it’s impossible to get from one end of the District to the other in a single day. Within the District, the cultures and needs of the communities are wildly different.

Several years ago, I dealt with LA Unified in a variety of capacities. I met with African-American parents about a Westside high school that had once been mostly white and very high-achieving. I met with individuals trying to work with schools in South Central where the administrators wouldn’t let outsiders visit the campuses. I worked with Belmont High School, an almost entirely Hispanic school downtown. I also dealt briefly with people from a gifted and talented program at Hollywood High which had multiple students who took and passed six and seven advanced placement exams. In addition, I visited after school programs in the San Fernando Valley.

While there are pockets of excellence in most cities, there are few ambitious parents who would really want to send their own children to what would be an “average” public school in any of our major cities. It may sound like damnation with faint praise, but LA Unified schools certainly weren’t the worst on the big city spectrum. Washington D.C., Detroit, and Philadelphia were places where you would visit high schools or hear stories from members of the community and you’d want to start crying. In Los Angeles, I consistently met people of good will and some talent who were dealing with logistical nightmares. At that time, the high schools there were so crowded in places that students attended in a morning and an afternoon track. The facility was essentially a factory on a double shift. Administrators were turning over so fast that it wasn’t uncommon to hear about individuals who were literally being assigned to principalships without ever having met any of the staff or even having visited the school.

Mayor Villaraigosa, nonetheless, had gotten into office with a pledge to turn around LA Unified. So if the mayor doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with public education, what do you do? In the last fifteen years, one popular answer has been to stage a coup. You take authority away from the school board and move it either to the state department of education or to the mayor’s office. Something most people don’t realize is that District Takeovers don’t have an especially good history either. Nonetheless, New York and Chicago have both experienced Mayoral educational coups.

When I started working urban school reform many years ago, one of the running themes for big city districts was that schools needed to be fixed by non-educators. Experience and expertise in education were considered less critical than success in some other field. At that time, two former military men John Stanford in Seattle and Julius Becton in D.C. became superintendents. There was a lawyer in San Diego. While Paul Valas in Chicago came from inside the District, he was on the accounting side and decided to treat test scores like ledger sheets. While Stanford enjoyed some success, the vogue of non-school people running school systems met with mixed results. One thing about education though, actual results have surprisingly little to do with perception.

If you want to seem like an action mayor, you take over the schools. Villaraigosa, by the way, went to law school but failed the bar four times (it’s quite common for politicians who happen to be lawyers to fail the bar, Pete Wilson and Jerry Brown also failed the California Bar at least once). During his attempts to pass the bar, Villaraigosa worked as a field representative for the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Unlike, other mayors who have carried out educational coups, Villaragosa has this fascinating background of not being very good with the law, but also knowing schools.

Villaraigosa then pushed forward AB1381, a measure that gave the Mayor of Los Angeles, technically it was a council of mayors, the power to hire and fire the superintendent of LA Unified, a function that has always belonged to the school board. The measure got muscled through the assembly and senate in unusually efficient fashion. There are even stories that prominent politicians endorsed the measure without actually having read it then engaged in some serious arm-twisting to make sure it passed. The governor backed the measure. All this happened despite the fact that the legislative analysts had already given their considered opinion that AB 1381 was unconstitutional. You see, there was this small matter. Many residents of LA Unified don’t get to vote for the mayor of Los Angeles because they don’t live in LA.

After much acclaim and considerable press for Villaraigosa that he was an action mayor who is both committed and prepared to “fix” L.A. unified, AB 1381 bogged down in the courts. I don’t know how much city money went into paying the firm of Munger and Toles to defend the measure, but Villaraigosa recently indicated that he would not take the most recent appeal to the State Supreme Court.

Think about this. You have an ambitious big city mayor who needs to show that he wants to fix the schools. He goes so far as to get a law enacted to give himself the power to do something about it. It then just happens that the mayor, who went to law school himself, doesn’t pick up on the fact that the bill was likely to be found unconstitutional.
At a legal level, the move is a disaster. At a political level, it’s brilliant.

1) I told the city I was serious about school reform.
2) I happen to know first hand how difficult that task really is. (btw my take on big city school reform is that it has less to do with leadership than it does with the culture of cities. For example middle class and upper middle class families in most cities have pulled out of the public secondary system almost completely in cities like Los Angeles)
3) I tried to get a law passed to give me the power to do something about it.
4) The courts stopped me. You know how judges interfere with the will of the people and how all those educational bureaucrats will fight you tooth and nail.
5) If only I had a better platform to fix these problems.
6) I also get national and statewide publicity for the effort.

It strikes me that Mayor Villaraigosa or his strategists expected and even wanted to lose the law suit the whole time. As an education reformer, the guy just bought himself a free ride. Whatever happens to LA Unified in the next couple years, it’s not his fault. Best of all, he's not in the position of taking responsibility for the state of LA schools.

Villaraigosa was quoted as saying “He just didn’t understand the court of appeal’s decision legally.” Because the guy failed the bar so many time, the attorneys like to joke about the statement, but I’m reminded that he’s the mayor and the attorneys aren’t. Where Phil Angelides was quite able, bright, and technically proficient, Villaraigosa may have proven through his most recent adventure in LA Unified School reform that he’s the far more formidable political candidate.

My problem is that I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. If I remember, there was a certain Texas governor who staked his bid for national office on his accomplishments in school reform. I'm not saying that the Mayor of LA is anything like W. Their politics are in fact very different, but I suspect both have strategists who run some of the same plays.

KCET life and times blog article on the issue.



At 5/21/2007 12:48:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating article, cl. When I was a Vermont English teacher in '67+ ish, I hated the local school boards because they had zero clue about what really happened in the class room -- it was a faith-based decision process for them (& the even worse parents) rather than a reality-based understanding. Ideologies were rampant.

Begin with small classes period. I had seven kids in my graduating class in high school. Trust me, the teachers knew exactly what we were and weren't doing at all times. We did college work in freshman year of high school, joyously.

Seven in a class is perhaps a wan hope, but 15 in a class should be a law. I don't care whether you're Jesus, Socrates, or Buddha -- if you have 30-40 kids in a class, you aren't teaching, you're managing.

I would love to hear more about your school forays and what you experienced. I think I recall that you came across Mrs Darth at one point?

At 5/21/2007 01:26:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
If you mean, did I meet Lynne Cheney? the answer is "yes". I saw her speak at the Heritage Foundation then spoke to her for a couple minutes afterwards. She was polite, but definitely very closed-minded.

At 6/11/2007 12:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am emailing you on behalf of KCET’s Life & Times Blog (a Los Angeles area PBS station). We have launched this site to foster a venue where people can express their views and engage in a dynamic and educated discussion about provocative issues of the day going on in Southern California. We have posted a link to your website ( as a link to our “L.A. Schoolboard: Reform At Last?” story (viewable here: We are in the process now of generating more traffic to our blog and creating more buzz in Southern California and were hoping that you could post a link to our blog on your site so that both of us can give our readers more resources on the web. Please let me know what KCET needs to do to have our Life & Times Blog posted as a link on your site. Thanks for your time.

Brianna Riggio
Publications Intern
KCET, PBS Station

At 6/14/2007 09:41:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for linking me at KCET's site. I've reciprocated the link.


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