By proposing to run the Los Angeles schools, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is facing what experts say could be the most difficult takeover of schools yet to be tried by a mayor. In fact, his bid is raising the political and educational stakes enough to spark concern among many in the sprawling district.
The mayor, who has been in office six months, wants the legal authority to do what’s necessary to improve learning in the nation’s second-largest school system. He hasn’t yet detailed how he would do so, because he is still seeking advice from many people active on the issue. But he sees a powerful role for the mayor as crucial to better results.
“We need one person who can ensure greater accountability at the Los Angeles Unified School District, one person who has the wherewithal to change the culture there and bring in a group of change agents who are going to go beyond small incremental changes to fundamental reform,” he told Education Week in a phone interview last month. “I’m determined to move ahead on this issue.”
Mayors in Boston, Chicago, and New York, among other cities, have taken on varying levels of additional authority over their cities’ schools, with varying degrees of success. But doing so in Los Angeles requires grappling with unique and complicating factors.
“Compared to all the other cities that have tried it, Los Angeles is the most difficult to pull it off in,” said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who is considered an authority on mayoral control of schools.
Mr. Kirst said that Mr. Villaraigosa faces an uphill battle because the Los Angeles Unified district—unlike any of the other systems where mayors control schools—encompasses other cities within its boundaries. About 20 percent of the district’s 747,000 students live in 26 cities that are outside Los Angeles’ city limits or in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County.
If the elected Los Angeles mayor controls the schools, families who live outside the city but send their children to LAUSD schools would have no say in whether Mr. Villaraigosa should remain in office. It’s a disenfranchisement argument that’s been raised repeatedly by the mayor’s opponents.
The alternative—making the district coterminous with the city, and making other school arrangements for the regions now outside city lines—would be a massive undertaking, both practically and politically, said Todd M. Ziebarth, a Colorado policy analyst who has long studied the changing mayoral role in schools.
If Los Angeles’ mayor does take charge of the school system, however, it could be seen as a potential model, Mr. Kirst said, for other districts in the West that, like Los Angeles, encompass multiple cities in their boundaries and have large Latino populations, such as San Antonio or San Jose.
Mr. Villaraigosa, a Democrat, has the support of political forces such as California Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero and the philanthropist Eli Broad, who has taken an active interest in urban education. But some observers ask whether there are enough votes in the Democratic-controlled legislature to give the mayor the power he wants. A state Senate bill designed to give him control was tabled in August. Mr. Villaraigosa himself opposed it, saying its design could slow the pace of change.
The mayor will need broad-based support on the municipal level as well, since mayoral control would require changing the city charter. And Mr. Villaraigosa, a former teachers’ union organizer, faces potent opposition from state and city teachers’ unions, as well as leaders of the seven-member LAUSD school board.
Superintendent Roy Romer’s spokeswoman said he wishes to remain neutral on the issue.
Mayor Villaraigosa and his aides are careful to avoid using the term “control” when discussing his school goals, depicting them instead as boosting the mayor’s “accountability” to city residents.
But A.J. Duffy, the president of the 48,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, takes issue with that logic. A mayor’s accountability to voters is blurred by his responsibility for many issues, in contrast to the role of school board members, who are retained or booted based only on how they handle education, Mr. Duffy said.
School board President Marlene Canter said the mayor—who has repeatedly complained about the district’s dropout rate and test scores—is basing his bid on ill-founded criticisms.
Scores on the Rise
The district’s test scores need improving, but they are increasing faster than those on average in California, she said. She noted other signs of progress, such as the district’s move to full-day kindergarten, its adoption of a required college-preparatory curriculum, and its program to reduce crowding by building 180 new schools.
“There is a risk, when you change anything, of losing what you’ve gained,” Ms. Canter said. “I do not want to mess with a success.”
A recent review of the district’s operations by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools noted “remarkable” progress, especially in raising test scores and building schools. But it also suggested making many improvements in the district’s organization, accountability system, and business operations.
Mr. Villaraigosa says he recognizes the risk in assuming responsibility for schools, admitting that even some of his own aides have advised him against it. But he insists it’s necessary to the quality of life in Los Angeles. “An effective leader can’t preoccupy himself” with fear of failure, he said. “I don’t have the luxury to do that. Too many kids are failing.”
His public determination not withstanding, Mr. Villaraigosa is said to be reluctant to pursue school control without sufficient community support. And the extent of that support is still in question.
Several mayors of the cities within the district’s boundaries, for example, are strongly opposed.
Some observers see purely political motives behind Mr. Villaraigosa’s bid, noting that he is backed by powerful players who advocate a stronger mayoral role in schools, and that many consider it likely that the mayor—a former state Assembly speaker—will seek higher office.
Others see a combination of political smarts and heartfelt conviction in the effort by the 52-year-old mayor, a former high school dropout who went on to earn undergraduate and law degrees.
“He’s picked an issue that resonates with almost everybody, but it’s extremely complex, and full of land mines,” said Jaime A. Regalado, the director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University-Los Angeles.
“Expectations are going to be huge, and if he falls on his face,” Mr. Regalado said, “he’s going to have a lot of hard explaining to do.”