Published Online: September 19, 2006
Published in Print: September 20, 2006, as Power Shift on L.A. Schools Called Complex

Power Shift on L.A. Schools Called Complex

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has won his hard-fought political battle to gain partial control over Los Angeles’ public schools, but securing meaningful reforms in classrooms is likely to prove far more difficult for the charismatic politician, experts say.

Because the mayor will not have complete control—unlike his counterparts in Boston, Chicago, and New York City—he will have to negotiate with the elected school board, the teachers’ union, and a new council of mayors to embrace his plans for raising student achievement and lowering the high school dropout rate.

“It’s not clear how this arrangement can serve to improve teaching and learning, which is obviously the most central challenge,” said Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, located at Brown University. “Of course, a change in governance is an opportunity to change teaching and learning, but it’s no guarantee.”

Mr. Villaraigosa will share authority with a council of mayors representing the 26 other cities that lie within the boundaries of the Los Angeles Unified district, though he will dominate the panel. His plan, which required the approval of the California legislature, empowers the superintendent to manage most of the contracting, budgeting, and hiring in the 727,000-student district, while keeping the elected school board responsible for setting policy and handling collective bargaining—a concession the mayor made to win support from teachers’ unions.

The arrangement also leaves open the possibility that teachers will have an increased role in making curriculum decisions.

“There is no power for the mayor to impose here,” said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who has studied mayoral control of urban school systems. “What he’s got to work with is a fragmented, unprecedented system that has a high degree of risk. It seems to me that there are going to be ample opportunities for him to be obstructed.”

‘Not Out of the Game’

For one, said Mr. Kirst, school board members—six out of seven of whom vehemently opposed the mayor’s plan—will play a part in selecting the superintendent and retain some say over the district’s budget. Last week, the school board voted to file suit over the plan, challenging, in particular, the direct control the mayor will have over a cluster of low-performing schools.

“They are not out of the game by any means,” Mr. Kirst said of the school board.

Details of the mayor’s proposals for improving schools remained under wraps last week, although Mr. Villaraigosa promised to roll out the specifics soon. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who supports the Democratic mayor on the governance plan, was expected to sign the quasi-takeover legislation this week.

During a visit last week to Washington, where he met with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and several members of Congress, the mayor said the superintendent is the key to his reform agenda.

When asked how he will implement his ideas under the complex management structure, Mayor Villaraigosa said his plan gives the most critical decisionmaking powers to the superintendent. The Los Angeles mayor and the council of mayors have the authority to veto or ratify the selection and termination of the superintendent. That, he insists, is critical for his agenda.

“From the beginning, this proposal was all about ensuring that the superintendent had the powers of a [chief executive officer] to implement the reforms that are necessary to turn around the school district,” he said. “We’ve got that with our plan, and to the extent that I have the power of the veto over who is hired, we will have a superintendent who is responsible for instruction and accountability.”

That may be, said Mr. Simmons of the Annenberg Institute, but the Los Angeles superintendent won’t have the same independence that Joel I. Klein, the mayorally appointed chancellor of the New York City schools, has.

“In this case, the superintendent won’t just answer to the mayor, so that increases the likelihood of political turmoil,” Mr. Simmons said.

Coy about specifics, Mr. Villaraigosa said he would push immediately to address the dropout problem, and would start by finding a way to calculate exactly how many students leave the district without graduating. He has, time and again, cited a series of independent studies that put the district’s graduation rate at no better than 50 percent. District officials, led by Superintendent Roy Romer, have hotly disputed that figure.

More Charters, Tutoring

Mr. Villaraigosa said he would use his influence to make Los Angeles more hospitable to charter schools. And, he said, he will push the district to do a better job of providing free tutoring to children enrolled in schools that have failed to meet testing benchmarks required under the No Child Left Behind Act, a matter the mayor discussed with Ms. Spellings.

What happens to instruction will be at the heart of the mayor’s success, said Russlyn Ali, the executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy group that supports increased rigor in high schools for all students.

Ms. Ali, an advocate of the Los Angeles board’s decision last year to change the district’s graduation requirements to match the courses that are required for admission to the University of California and California State University systems, supports the mayor’s new role in schools.

“The graduation requirements will remain in the board’s control, but how the high school curriculum is delivered is a big, big question,” Ms. Ali said.

Most promising, said Ms. Ali, is the mayor’s plan to directly control three of the city’s worst-performing high schools and schools that feed into them.

“This is the opportunity to bring all of his resources to bear in these very high-need schools and the communities they are in,” she said. “That is very exciting.”

Vol. 26, Issue 04, Pages 5,16

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