School & District Management

Power Shift on L.A. Schools Called Complex

By Lesli A. Maxwell — September 19, 2006 4 min read

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has won his hard-fought political battle to gain partial control over Los Angeles’ public schools, but securing meaningful reforms in classrooms is likely to prove far more difficult for the charismatic politician, experts say.

Because the mayor will not have complete control—unlike his counterparts in Boston, Chicago, and New York City—he will have to negotiate with the elected school board, the teachers’ union, and a new council of mayors to embrace his plans for raising student achievement and lowering the high school dropout rate.

“It’s not clear how this arrangement can serve to improve teaching and learning, which is obviously the most central challenge,” said Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, located at Brown University. “Of course, a change in governance is an opportunity to change teaching and learning, but it’s no guarantee.”

Mr. Villaraigosa will share authority with a council of mayors representing the 26 other cities that lie within the boundaries of the Los Angeles Unified district, though he will dominate the panel. His plan, which required the approval of the California legislature, empowers the superintendent to manage most of the contracting, budgeting, and hiring in the 727,000-student district, while keeping the elected school board responsible for setting policy and handling collective bargaining—a concession the mayor made to win support from teachers’ unions.

The arrangement also leaves open the possibility that teachers will have an increased role in making curriculum decisions.

“There is no power for the mayor to impose here,” said Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who has studied mayoral control of urban school systems. “What he’s got to work with is a fragmented, unprecedented system that has a high degree of risk. It seems to me that there are going to be ample opportunities for him to be obstructed.”

‘Not Out of the Game’

For one, said Mr. Kirst, school board members—six out of seven of whom vehemently opposed the mayor’s plan—will play a part in selecting the superintendent and retain some say over the district’s budget. Last week, the school board voted to file suit over the plan, challenging, in particular, the direct control the mayor will have over a cluster of low-performing schools.

“They are not out of the game by any means,” Mr. Kirst said of the school board.

Details of the mayor’s proposals for improving schools remained under wraps last week, although Mr. Villaraigosa promised to roll out the specifics soon. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who supports the Democratic mayor on the governance plan, was expected to sign the quasi-takeover legislation this week.

During a visit last week to Washington, where he met with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and several members of Congress, the mayor said the superintendent is the key to his reform agenda.

When asked how he will implement his ideas under the complex management structure, Mayor Villaraigosa said his plan gives the most critical decisionmaking powers to the superintendent. The Los Angeles mayor and the council of mayors have the authority to veto or ratify the selection and termination of the superintendent. That, he insists, is critical for his agenda.

“From the beginning, this proposal was all about ensuring that the superintendent had the powers of a [chief executive officer] to implement the reforms that are necessary to turn around the school district,” he said. “We’ve got that with our plan, and to the extent that I have the power of the veto over who is hired, we will have a superintendent who is responsible for instruction and accountability.”

That may be, said Mr. Simmons of the Annenberg Institute, but the Los Angeles superintendent won’t have the same independence that Joel I. Klein, the mayorally appointed chancellor of the New York City schools, has.

“In this case, the superintendent won’t just answer to the mayor, so that increases the likelihood of political turmoil,” Mr. Simmons said.

Coy about specifics, Mr. Villaraigosa said he would push immediately to address the dropout problem, and would start by finding a way to calculate exactly how many students leave the district without graduating. He has, time and again, cited a series of independent studies that put the district’s graduation rate at no better than 50 percent. District officials, led by Superintendent Roy Romer, have hotly disputed that figure.

More Charters, Tutoring

Mr. Villaraigosa said he would use his influence to make Los Angeles more hospitable to charter schools. And, he said, he will push the district to do a better job of providing free tutoring to children enrolled in schools that have failed to meet testing benchmarks required under the No Child Left Behind Act, a matter the mayor discussed with Ms. Spellings.

What happens to instruction will be at the heart of the mayor’s success, said Russlyn Ali, the executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland, Calif.-based advocacy group that supports increased rigor in high schools for all students.

Ms. Ali, an advocate of the Los Angeles board’s decision last year to change the district’s graduation requirements to match the courses that are required for admission to the University of California and California State University systems, supports the mayor’s new role in schools.

“The graduation requirements will remain in the board’s control, but how the high school curriculum is delivered is a big, big question,” Ms. Ali said.

Most promising, said Ms. Ali, is the mayor’s plan to directly control three of the city’s worst-performing high schools and schools that feed into them.

“This is the opportunity to bring all of his resources to bear in these very high-need schools and the communities they are in,” she said. “That is very exciting.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Power Shift on L.A. Schools Called Complex

Events

School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: What Did We Learn About Schooling Models This Year?
After a year of living with the pandemic, what schooling models might we turn to as we look ahead to improve the student learning experience? Could year-round schooling be one of them? What about online
School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My 'Tribe'
A Black school leader reflects on the hardest year of her professional life.
Reba Y. Hodge
4 min read
new growth on a bare tree
Vanessa Solis/Education Week & Getty Images
School & District Management From Our Research Center How the Pandemic Is Shaping K-12 Education (in Charts)
Surveys by the EdWeek Research Center show how schools have changed during the pandemic and what adjustments are likely to stick.
Eric DiVito gives breathing instructions as he teaches a remote music class at the Osborn School on Oct. 6, 2020, in Rye, N.Y.
Eric DiVito gives breathing instructions as he teaches a remote music class at the Osborn School in Rye, N.Y., last fall.
Mary Altaffer/AP
School & District Management Opinion Ed. Leaders: Discuss Race, Call Out White Supremacy
Downplaying the realities of racism leads to misunderstanding school problems and developing inadequate solutions.
John B. Diamond & Jennifer Cheatham
5 min read
Hand writing the word racism on blackboard. Stop hate. Against prejudice and violence. Lecture about discrimination in school.
Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty
School & District Management 'You Can’t Follow CDC Guidelines': What Schools Really Look Like During COVID-19
All year, some teachers have said that enforcing precautions to slow the spread of the virus in classrooms can be nearly impossible.
13 min read
Guntown Middle School eighth graders walk the halls to their next class as others wait in their assigned spots against the wall before moving into their next class during the first day back to school for the Lee County District in Guntown, Miss on Aug. 6, 2020.
Eight graders walk the halls on the first day back to school in Guntown, Miss., on Aug. 6, 2020. Teachers in several states told Education Week that since the beginning of the school year, enforcing precautions such as social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus has been nearly impossible.<br/>
Adam Robison/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal via AP