By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Once the ceremony was over, teachers milled about the theater, clutching oversize bouquets of flowers and drinking cranberry punch. Standing near the podium was Katz, now a part-time middle school counselor, who described Villaraigosa as someone who was like so many other kids — without a father and floundering academically, yet with great potential.
Katz said he told Villaraigosa recently that taking over the district would be “like quicksand.” And he offered a different view on the state of the school district, saying it has great teachers and bad teachers, schools that win the national Academic Decathlon and schools burdened by “outside influences,” ones that make it hard for children to learn.
“These people all have great hearts,” Katz said, referring to the room full of high school teachers. “But we’ve gotten to the point now where all we do is test kids. Testing, testing, testing, testing, and forgetting what education is all about. It’s not about testing kids all the time. It’s about people working with kids, encouraging kids, inspiring kids. That’s what it’s all about. And I think that’s happening in L.A. Unified. I know Antonio feels very strongly that the bureaucracy is holding them down. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s not right.”
Los Angeles Unified School District is not a place where the city’s elite tend to send their children. Villaraigosa, for example, placed one daughter in a Pasadena parochial school and his son, Antonio Jr., at Loyola High School, a Catholic school that charges $8,800 annually. School-board president Marlene Canter, the woman who stands as the district’s most public defender, sent one child to the private Brentwood High School and another to Harvard-Westlake, which now charges $24,200 per year for tuition.
L.A. Unified doesn't attract much of the middle class, either. District statistics show that 86 percent of its elementary school students, or nearly nine out of 10, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Half of all elementary students, and roughly a third of the upper grades, are still learning English.
With the vast majority of upper- and middle-class parents opting out, a disproportionate share of the advocacy work in L.A. Unified has fallen to the teachers’ union, which has its own agenda and has not hesitated to spend hundreds of thousands on behalf of a single school board candidate. The only check on UTLA’s power in recent years has come from former Mayor Richard Riordan, a wealthy advocate of mayoral control who bankrolled his own slate of candidates in 1999 and unseated three union-backed board members. If L.A. Unified is turned over to the mayor, the teachers’ union will be left with a considerably smaller share of electoral power, getting in line behind other special interests that raise money for mayoral candidates — real estate developers, high-priced law firms, private contractors and other employee unions.
Then there is the district’s enormous size. For City Hall, taking over L.A. Unified would be akin to a python swallowing a pig — a slow, laborious process that would likely be unpleasant to watch. The task could distract the attentions of even the most multitasking of mayors. After all, the school district is larger geographically than the city of L.A. itself, covering 26 cities outside Los Angeles, and unincorporated communities of Los Angeles County, including Rancho Dominguez, Firestone and East Los Angeles. L.A. Unified has half a million more residents and twice as big a budget — $13.3 billion compared to City Hall’s $6.7 billion. Villaraigosa would also take responsibility for a massive school-construction program valued at nearly three times the city’s annual budget.
Initial drafts of Villaraigosa’s education plan included proposals for selling off L.A. Unified’s downtown headquarters at 333 S. Beaudry Ave. and shifting power to 70, 80, or even 100 local superintendents. Whether the mayor would expand his own staff to handle the expanded public-education duties is not yet spelled out. But given his intense focus on schools, it’s hard to envision a City Hall that would forgo its own formidable education bureaucracy, said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a foe of mayoral control.
“There’s always a schizophrenia about takeover,” she said. “The schizophrenia is, ‘I want to get the [L.A. Unified] bureaucracy reduced downtown, but I want to run everything from City Hall.’ Well, hold it. Are you for decentralized decision making? Or are you just moving the bureaucracy from one building to another?”
Politics is about stagecraft, and in that arena, Villaraigosa consistently wins. He has a beefed-up office of public-relations advisers who craft photo ops, e-mail his speeches, and schedule frequent stops at churches and schools, dinners and conferences — all potential audiences to hear his pitch for mayoral control. Partly because he is mayor, and partly because he has a wildly magnetic personality, Villaraigosa consistently draws a clutch of reporters to his media events — attention that is extremely rare at, say, a school board meeting. That disparity causes some reformers to argue that mayoral control will instantly bring a more intense public focus to L.A.’s public schools. Villaraigosa actively encourages that idea, saying school board members fly too far under the radar.