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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: “Dollars and Cents, & Common Sense”

By Rick Hess — September 20, 2011 3 min read
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L.A.'s straight-talking mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, a former teacher union organizer, one of the nation’s most influential Hispanic officials, and very likely a future governor of California, visited AEI yesterday to discuss the challenges of urban school reform. I thought it to be exceptionally good stuff; he was vague on key particulars, but I thought he gave admirably honest answers and did a terrific job of modeling how state and local leaders can push past the ideological slogans that soak up most of the oxygen in DC. You can see his remarks here.

What most impressed me was the way Villaraigosa made the case for new school spending. He said, “Schools are starved for dollars and cents, and schools are starved for common sense.” He added, “Democrats, and I like to consider myself a progressive, with a labor background, have to be willing to challenge teachers; just as Republicans need to be open to the view that schools aren’t as well-funded as they should be.”

As we know, I’m one of the leading proponents of the cold-hearted doctrine that K-12 needs to tighten its collective belt and get serious about finding more productive ways to serve kids. That said, I’ll readily concede that I have no idea how much we should be spending. It’s very possible that the right number is more than what we spend today. But, I have zero faith that we’ll make necessary cuts or seek new efficiencies except when there’s no other path.

Now, Villaraigosa is one of the very, very few officials I’ve heard make the case for new spending in a manner that resonated with my penny-pinching heart. He sided with those calling for more school spending but bluntly said, “Taxpayers will be hesitant to show us the money until we can show them that they’ll [get good value] for their investment.” For what it’s worth, I think that’s exactly the message that advocates should be pushing--but rarely do, at least in those terms. Advocates should stop telling us it’s the right thing to do, stop citing a litany of complaints and indignities, and instead make it clear that they want to justify new dollars by delivering results and efficiencies. If that’s the deal we’re talking about, then even as mean-spirited a guy as me is willing to start considering ways to tap new dollars.

Villaraigosa said lots of other stuff that one might not expect from a prominent progressive official. He argued that tenure “shouldn’t be automatic but should be earned,” that it’s a travesty that 97 percent of LAUSD teachers get satisfactory ratings, that he’s an ardent supporter of closing lousy schools and opening more quality charters, and that seniority should not be seen as “sacrosanct.” He wryly noted that he lacks control over the L.A. schools, so his approach to reform has been “old-fashioned"--"I raised five million dollars and helped elect a progressive majority” to the LAUSD board.

Villaraigosa said his time as mayor has shaped his view of schooling, since “Nearly every issue that comes across my desk involves education.” He said, “In 2005, after I took office, my view on education started to evolve” as he confronted an LAUSD dropout rate of over 50 percent, troubling test results, and “a school bureaucracy more interested in defending a broken system than in fixing it.” He said he was determined to act, even if it meant “stepping on toes” and angering friends. A lot of his union supporters complained that his policies feel like “teacher-bashing,” something Villaraigosa doesn’t buy. When I asked whether there have there been any promising moments with the UTLA, he answered bluntly, “No.” He said that he’s been disappointed in the union and that they’ve consistently opposed him. “They can’t demonize me as anti-union...they can try...but I’m unabashedly pro-union.” And yet he continued with a common sense solution on both spending (“To get more dollars, you’ve got to show them you can do more”) and on testing (“We went from no testing...to a world where we are focusing probably a little too much...but you’ve got to be focused on results”).

Anyways, Villaraigosa had plenty more to offer during his timely remarks. Check it out, if you’re so inclined.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.