Leaders in L.A. District at Odds Over School Reforms

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When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa revealed plans last April to take over the sprawling school district that serves his city, the charismatic Democrat had an abundance of political capital to push for the changes he believed necessary to raise student achievement and boost the dismal graduation rates that have dogged the city for years.

Now, after a bruising, yearlong battle with Los Angeles Unified School District leaders that has yet to be resolved, a big question remains: Will the mayor’s aggressive campaign to reshape the public schools end up being a catalyst for dramatic change, or a high-profile failed effort to reform the nation’s second-largest district?

A state appellate court is now weighing whether the law that was passed last year to give the mayor partial authority over the schools violates the California Constitution. A ruling is likely later this month.

Who, or What?

In the seven months that have passed since Mayor Villaraigosa won state legislative approval to intervene in the city’s schools, debate has stirred anew over who, or what, can best raise achievement in the 708,000-student district, especially in its high schools.

That debate turned even more heated late last month, when a divided school board voted 3-3, with one member recusing himself, to turn down the expansion plans of one of the city’s most promising charter school operators, Green Dot Public Schools. Green Dot currently operates 10 small high schools in some of Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods.

Will the prime force for reform be Mayor Villaraigosa, whose law—known as AB 1381—was to have taken effect on Jan. 1 until the school district sued him and a superior-court judge ruled it unconstitutional?

Could leadership come from the seven-member school board once a May 15 runoff election determines whether the mayor will have enough allies to push through his strategies—especially his bid to run three low-performing high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them?

David L. Brewer III, Los Angeles Unified’s still-new superintendent, has pledged to work with the mayor and to forge ahead on his own priorities, including improving middle schools.

A.J. Duffy, the fiery president of United Teachers Los Angeles, insists that the teachers’ union wants “homegrown reform,” as well as collaboration with outside groups—so long as they are not charter school operators.

And then there are the outsiders like Steve Barr, the founder and chief executive officer of Green Dot, who has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to persuade education leaders in Los Angeles to let him run one or more of the city’s failing high schools. ("Charter School Activist Gains New Influence in L.A.," Nov. 8, 2006.)

“Our best hope for reform is still the mayor, but it’s probably not going to be with 1381,” said David Abel, the chairman of New Schools/Better Neighborhoods, a Los Angeles-based civic-advocacy organization. “A lot of the experts seem to think he can’t win this one in court, but his backup position has always been the school board elections and getting a majority of people on there who will support what he wants to do.”

‘All Kinds of Initiatives’

Among his peers in other major cities who have sought control over public schools, Mr. Villaraigosa has had the toughest fight. The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

In the nation’s capital, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who was elected in November, this week easily cleared the first hurdle to win authority to run his city’s 58,000-student system, when the District of Columbia Council approved a takeover proposal he unveiled just three months ago. A second council vote and congressional approval are expected later this spring. ("New D.C. Leader Explains School-Control Plan," Jan. 10, 2007.)

Mr. Brewer, the retired U.S. Navy admiral hired last October to lead the Los Angeles Unified system, said change in his district ultimately won’t hinge on who prevails in court.

“We have been talking to the mayor about how we can move ahead regardless of what happens with 1381,” Mr. Brewer said in an interview late last month. “We have all kinds of initiatives to push.”

Among them, he said, is setting up an “office of innovation” in the district to devise reform strategies and import those that are showing results elsewhere. The innovation division also would seek outside collaborators to work with on improving student achievement, he said.

Middle schools, he said, are at the top of his list. He suggested that the district could borrow strategies from the city’s two high-performing Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charter schools to see how they are producing strong achievement in the middle grades. Mr. Brewer said he also will focus on the low performance of many African-American male students, and said he may want to create single-gender programs, or even a special boarding school to serve black boys deemed at risk of academic failure.

Marlene Canter, the Los Angeles school board president and one of the mayor’s fiercest opponents on the takeover, said she is now optimistic that the district and Mr. Villaraigosa can forge a partnership. She and the mayor have recently begun talking about ways to collaborate, she said.

“I support his involvement in the district outside of 1381 and always have,” she said.

The board president also favors using an innovation division to “find the best practices wherever we can and bring them to the district.” For weeks, she and Mr. Brewer tried to negotiate a joint reform plan for troubled Locke High School in the Watts neighborhood with Mr. Barr, the Green Dot chief.

The teachers’ union balked, she said, pushing Green Dot to seek charters instead. Though Green Dot teachers are unionized—unusual in charter schools—they are not affiliated with UTLA. Many of Green Dot’s teachers left their jobs at district schools to work for the charter organization.

“I’m disappointed,” Ms. Canter said. “If we couldn’t all agree on a partnership, I wanted Green Dot to get the charters because I believe it’s what is best for kids.”

The three school board members who voted against the charters have had strong political backing from the union. Mr. Duffy, the UTLA president, makes no apologies for the Green Dot vote.

“Look, we have shown that we want reforms and we are willing to negotiate with the district on a variety of things,” said Mr. Duffy, whose union is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “But we are not going to budge on these charters. Positive changes in public education does not necessarily mean charters.”

Mr. Duffy points to a recent deal forged by the union, the district, and community groups to create 10 “pilot schools” in the city’s Belmont attendance area that will have autonomy in hiring, spending, curriculum, and scheduling.

An angry Mr. Barr, who said he will still open two new campuses in Watts next fall with charters that were approved last year, has appealed the school board’s decision to the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

“It’s not like we are some first-year, unknown charter they turned down,” he said. “We’ve got a substantial track record, with community support and money raised. You can’t just turn somebody down because you don’t like them, but that’s what they’ve done.”

PHOTO: Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa speaks to reporters during a March 27 visit to Washington.
— Chris Greenberg/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 32, Pages 1, 16-17

Published in Print: April 6, 2007, as Leaders in L.A. District at Odds Over School Reforms
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