School & District Management

Mayor-Elect of Los Angeles Pledges Focus on Education

By Catherine Gewertz — May 18, 2005 3 min read
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Antonio Villaraigosa was elected mayor of Los Angeles on May 17, besting incumbent James K. Hahn in a race that often saw the two men competing over who could better lead the city’s schools.

Mr. Villaraigosa, a City Council member, took 59 percent of the vote in the runoff election, which saw him matched once again with Mr. Hahn, who beat him to the mayor’s office in 2001. This time around, Mr. Hahn lost big, garnering 41 percent of the vote. Both men are Democrats.

Dover, Pa., School Board Race Marked by Debate Over Science

In another closely watched election, the May primary race for the school board in Dover, Pa., was dominated by a furor over a policy that mandates that students be introduced to “intelligent design” in science classes.

A crowd of 18 candidates in the primary competed to run for seven seats on the Dover Area School District’s nine-member school board. In the end, the results appeared to produce a standoff: Seven candidates, all of whom oppose mandating the teaching ofintelligent design in science classes, earned enough votes to win spots on the ballot in the Nov. 8 general election. Those candidates will face seven incumbent board members, all of whom were also victorious in the primary, and all of whom are believed to support the 3,600-student district’s current policy on intelligent design. All of those results are unofficial, and most likely will not be made final for a few weeks, the York County elections office said.

The Dover school board last fall voted to revise the science curriculum to require that students be made aware of “gaps/ problems in Darwin’s theory” and of “other theories of evolution, including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”

That decision, approved by a 6-3 vote, quickly emerged as a charged issue in the primary. The policy has drawn scorn from the mainstream scientific community, which regards intelligent design as a religious belief, not a legitimate scientific theory. It has also sparked a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is seeking to reverse the policy.

Advocates of intelligent design believe that the natural world’s complexity, including the development of human life, is simply too great to have resulted solely from evolution, and that an unnamed architect or creator must have played a role.

The Dover school board’s decision prompted the creation of Dover CARES (for Citizens Actively Reviewing Educational Strategies), a group that opposes inclusion of intelligent design in science classes. The organization, seven of whose members earned places on the November ballot, supports allowing intelligent design in classes other than science, such as social studies, said Warren M. Eshbach, a former pastor and the spokesman for the organization. He said he was encouraged by the May 17 results.

“These candidates are novices. None of us have ever been involved politically before,” he said. “We want to represent [the community] and bring good governance to the school board.”

The two men began devoting more attention to education in mid-March, shortly after a March 8 election gave no candidate the majority, and set Mr. Hahn and Mr. Villaraigosa up for a runoff. The city charter gives the mayor no direct control over the 720,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, but the The Los Angeles Times had urged the next city leader to “be a visionary advocate, willing to press for radical change and engage a cynical populace on behalf of the struggling school system.”

Within a few weeks, both men had expressed support for a small-schools approach to improving achievement in the sprawling district, and had begun calling for a stronger mayoral role in education.

Mr. Hahn proposed that the mayor be allowed to appoint at least three additional members to the school board, whose seven members are now elected. Mr. Villaraigosa called for giving the mayor “ultimate control and oversight” of schools, but provided no specifics.

Less than three weeks before the election, the City Council voted unanimously to create a 30-member commission to explore such issues as whether the school board should be elected or appointed, and what its role should be. Shortly afterward, the district’s board of education voted to create its own panel, which will look into similar issues.

While Mr. Hahn now can be known as the first Los Angeles mayor to be voted out of office in three decades, Mr. Villaraigosa becomes the first Latino in more than a century to lead Los Angeles, where nearly half the residents are of Hispanic origin.

Addressing a crowd of cheering supporters in downtown Los Angeles late on election night, Mr. Villaraigosa reiterated his campaign theme of unifying an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse city.

“Let’s declare our purpose here and now,” he said, according to the Times. “Our purpose is to bring this great city together. Our purpose is to draw fully and equally on the rich diversity of all our communities and neighborhoods.”

Turnaround for a Dropout

Mr. Villaraigosa, 52, a high school dropout who got his life back on track to eventually become the speaker of the California Assembly, pledged during his campaign to work for smaller class sizes, more parental involvement in schools, and expanded preschool programs. He criticized Mr. Hahn for doing too little for schools as mayor.

Mr. Hahn, 54, the son of a longtime, well-liked county supervisor, reminded voters that he had overseen the expansion of city-sponsored after-school programs and worked with the school district to improve students’ safety as they went to and from school. He accused Mr. Villaraigosa of mishandling a $9 billion bond issue he authored when he was a state legislator, because suburban districts received a disproportionate share. Mr. Hahn also said he would work to attract strong teachers to struggling schools, and create more early-intervention programs for the youngest students.

Mr. Villaraigosa, a former teachers’ union organizer who is married to a teacher, won the endorsements of the state and city teachers’ unions. His 18-point lead in a Times poll in April had narrowed to 11 points by mid-May. Those polled said they saw him as a stronger leader than Mr. Hahn, and said the city needed a change of direction.

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