Just 10 days before he was to assume partial authority over his city’s public schools, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was forced instead to wage a legal battle to keep alive a new state law that he believes is key to improving the nation’s second-largest school system.
Late last month, lawyers for the first-term mayor appealed a Dec. 21 ruling by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge throwing out the law that would have transferred some management powers over the 708,000-student district to the mayor on Jan. 1.
Judge Dzintra I. Janavs ruled that the law violated the California Constitution, including the school measure’s centerpiece: Mr. Villaraigosa’s bid to directly control three low-performing high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them. Los Angeles Unified School District officials, contending that the measure stripped too much power from the elected school board, filed suit over the law last fall after it was approved by the Democratic-controlled California legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.
Mr. Villaraigosa’s lawyers, who on Dec. 22 filed the appeal in the California 2nd District Court of Appeal, have said they may seek to expedite a final ruling by asking the state supreme court to take the case immediately. Now, Judge Janavs will rule by Jan. 11 whether the law is in effect during the appeals process.
In the meantime, Mr. Villaraigosa has pledged to move ahead with planning for the cluster of 36 “mayor’s schools” that he hopes to be directly overseeing by the start of the next school year. The mayor has already brought in more than $2 million in private funding to help develop improvement strategies for the effort and has hired a team of experts to run it.
“We certainly are most concerned about the impact the ruling has on those schools that were going to be pulled away from the LAUSD bureaucracy and put teachers, students, and parents directly at the table for running them,” said A.J. Duffy, a supporter of the mayor’s plan and the president of the 48,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “We want to see that kind of reform move ahead regardless of what happens in the courts.”
School board President Marlene Canter, one of the law’s most vigorous opponents, said she and Superintendent David L. Brewer III spoke with the mayor after the Dec. 21 ruling to express their willingness to work with him on districtwide reforms. Ms. Canter, who was elected to the board six years ago, said she would not rule out giving the mayor a role in seeking to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools.
“It’s not that this district is against partnerships of any sort; we have approved 103 charter schools,” Ms. Canter said in an interview last week. “But the mayor, who wants to run some of our schools, has never presented a plan to us, never told us what his clusters of schools would look like and what methodologies he would use to increase achievement.”
One expert on mayoral control of public schools said the legal standoff presents just such an opportunity.
“The district could possibly delay this thing and basically run the clock out on the mayor, making it difficult for him to do anything,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University. “But the mayor has the leverage to say he will drop the appeal if the school district agrees to give him something.
“I think both sides have a pretty strong incentive not to let this thing drag on, which would inhibit any movement on improvement in the district,” he said.
In her 20-page ruling, Judge Janavs ordered public officials “to refrain from enforcing or implementing” any part of the new law. She called the legislation “drastic” and a change that would give the mayor “a role that is unprecedented in California.” She argued that the law could open the door for legislators to turn control over public schools to any number of officials, even chiefs of police.
Lawyers for the mayor said the judge misunderstood the state legislature’s broad authority under the California Constitution to grant Mr. Villaraigosa the authority to oversee the public schools in his city.
The mayor is also planning to back candidates who support his quasi-takeover plan for what will be four open seats on the district’s seven-member school board. That election is in March.
Under the now-overturned law, Mr. Villaraigosa was to have shared authority over much of the school district—including veto power over the hiring and firing of the superintendent—with a council of mayors representing the 26 other cities and handful of unincorporated communities that lie within the boundaries of the Los Angeles Unified district.
In October, while the mayor was on a trade mission to Asia, the school board appointed Mr. Brewer to the district’s top post. He took over Nov. 14 from the previous superintendent, Roy Romer.
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2007 edition of Education Week as Mayor of L.A. Appeals Ruling Against Law on School Governance