Thursday, June 22, 2006

Reform in Los Angeles? A sign of the apocalypse?

This is a seismic event in the city of Los Angeles. The Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, seems to have brokered a deal with the teacher unions in the Los Angeles Unified school district not to oppose his attempt to take control of the School District away from the school board and give it to a board of mayors, on which the mayor of Los Angeles will have the largest share of voting power.

For those not familiar with unique division of jurisdictions in LAUSD, it's important to know that the region that we regard as Los Angeles is comprised of the City and dozens of smaller municipalities within Los Angeles County. LAUSD's district lines encompass several of these cities, so the control of the district could not be awarded soley to the Mayor of Los Angeles, but had to be partly shared by the mayors of these other cities.

This is a big deal for a few reasons. First, this completes a process that has been going for several years in Los Angeles strenthening the power of the mayor that began with the revision of the City Charter under Richard Riordan. In virtually every city near the size of Los Angeles, the election of a mayor consumes the city and engergizes the electorate in a way most elections don't. Mayoral races in Los Angeles, while dirty and bitterly fought, usually are regarded with apathy by LA voters, in part because the mayor doesn't seem like a very important figure. By taking control of the District, he will made every future election about education, a primary concern for city voters.

This trend of giving mayors control over school districts is a recent trend with disputed success. The most famous is Mayor Bloomberg's assumption of control over the New York School district, and his appointee Chancellor Joel Kleins epic battles with virtually everybody, not just the teachers and the educrats, but with parent groups as well. Test scores appear to be going up, but it's a complex problem and it's hard to measure success. By pursuing this, Mayor Villaraigosa is taking a gamble that he can avoid the pitfalls of Bloomberg and other mayors with simliar authority and make real progress without turning the school system into a battleground. Well, more of a battleground, the recent history of LAUSD is a depressing tale of political gridlock.

One of the fasicinaing elements is that the Mayor is a former employee of the teacher unions, and they were instrumental in getting him elected. To accomplish this takeover, he dared their political wrath, and ultimately was compelled to forge a compromise with them. To wrest control from the board he went to the California legislature, of which he was a former speaker, and asked them to pass legislation to move power over the district to him and the other mayors, thereby avoiding the electoral bloodbath that ensued when Mayor Riordan tried to wrest control of the board by running political allies in Schoolboard elections. The committee that is preparing to move this legislaton was heavily lobbied by the teachers unions, and the mayor ultimately had to fly to Sacremento and cut a deal with them to allow the bill to move out of committee. It's unclear exactly how this enormous shift in power will be executed, and what the details are of the compromise he struck.

There is little doubt however, of the desperate need for change and reform in LAUSD. LAUSD'S Graduation rates are abysmal, around 50%, it's average API scores at 649 (out of 1000, anything under 700 is awful) and the competency exams measuring basic proficeny in math and reading for 2005 showed only 27% were proficient in math and 33% in English. Progress has been made in the district in recent years, and the current Superintendent, Roy Roemer, has done a good job in bringing about substantive change in the district, including an ambitious plan to build dozens of new schools to relieve dreadful overcrowding in the district. But obviously it's not enough. Drastic change needs to happen.

I am not discouraged, as many might be, by the compromise forced on Villaraigosa. By cutting a deal with the teacher unions, he has, at least for now, cleared the deck of the worst of potential debilitating political conflicts. To allow the mayor control at all is a significant movement on the part of the Unions, who normally fight these measures bitterly, particularly after what has transpired in the New York district. An opportunity exists for real changes and experimentaion to begin. The Unions in particular have an opportunity to particpate more closely in the reform process, rather than assuming the role of defender of the status quo as they usually end up doing, for better or worse. A glimmer of hope might be starting to grow in this very troubled district.

This process is going to be perhaps the mostly closely watched political reform attempt in American education today. I've got my fingers crossed...


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