By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
“I mean, can you name — let’s be honest — can you name the ones from 10 years ago?” Villaraigosa recently asked an audience of educators. “You can name the last four mayors. You know, Bradley, Riordan and Hahn. It’s much more difficult for the school board members.”
Villaraigosa already has a standard stump speech on mayoral control. He describes failing schools as a civil rights issue, a message used heavily with African-American religious and civic groups. He derides L.A. Unified as a “culture of low expectations,” a winning message for more conservative voters. He says the school board has not taken responsibility for failing schools. Then he hammers home his argument on governance, saying a mayor will finally provide a single line of accountability in a district.
But the trump card, played at every press conference and rubber-chicken dinner, is dropout rates. Villaraigosa relies heavily on a report by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, which last year found that only 46 percent of L.A. Unified’s high school freshmen graduate four years later, a figure greeted with outrage by every audience. District officials dispute the numbers, saying the dropout rate actually hovers between one-fourth and one-third of the student body, a response that draws greater scorn from Villaraigosa.
What Villaraigosa rarely mentions is that low graduation rates are not a problem limited to Los Angeles, and are, in fact, plaguing most of urban America. More significantly, graduation rates have remained uniformly awful even in school districts where big-city mayors have taken over.
Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley took over the schools in 1995, is in the throes of a policy debate very similar to the one taking place in California. In February, the Consortium on Chicago School Research tracked public school students who entered the system at age 13 in 1998, and found that only 54 percent of them had graduated from Chicago’s high schools in 2004. The number stood in marked contrast to data produced by the Illinois Department of Education, which had insisted that Chicago’s graduation rate is significantly higher, at 70 percent — not far from similar figures espoused by L.A. Unified. Other Chicago statistics also mirrored Los Angeles, with only 51 percent of Latino males, and 39 percent of African-American males, graduating from Chicago’s high schools.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been in charge of the public schools for only five years. As in Los Angeles, his city’s attentions have focused on achievement in the lower grades. As in L.A., his success in the upper grades has drawn scrutiny.
Attorney Daniel Losen, who handles education law and policy for the Harvard Civil Rights Project, pointed to a January memo to New York’s State Board of Regents that recounted how 45.3 percent of entering freshmen in 2001 received a diploma in 2005. Another 5 percent of students received a GED, or equivalency degree, which left students in New York with a 50-50 chance of graduating in four years. That means New York and Los Angeles — regardless of their governing structure — face a crisis when it comes to dropouts, Losen said.
“The graduation rates are both pretty dismal,” he said. “It’s hard to say that one is much better than the other.”
The man most responsible for educating students is Roy Romer, a 77-year-old former governor of Colorado who likes to speak in agricultural metaphors. Romer, like Villaraigosa, has been a major figure in the Democratic Party, and was raising money in Los Angeles for the 2000 Democratic National Convention when billionaire Eli Broad — the man who helped Riordan unseat half the school board only a year before — asked him to run L.A. Unified.
Romer got the job and quickly embarked on the most ambitious initiative to reduce school overcrowding in U.S. history. With billions of dollars in construction-bond funds at his disposal, Romer brought in half a dozen officials from the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps to impose a military-style approach to school construction. While Romer has drawn widespread praise for his rapid construction of dozens of new schools, the debate over mayoral control has largely ignored his equally relentless focus on what are known as API scores. API, which stands for Academic Performance Index, is based on standardized tests, dropout rates and other data. Relying on the reading program known as Open Court, Romer saw API scores surge by nearly 200 points — from 523 out of 1,000 to 719 — in the elementary grades between 1999 and 2005.
“That’s a magnificent piece of growth,” Romer said. “There are no other urban districts in California that have done that. None. On its face, you can’t call that a failing district. On its face, you have to call that progress. But we have more work to do, because we are still below the state average.”
Romer freely distributes charts and bar graphs to anyone who will listen to a pitch about the district’s steady climb. Yet his bravado sounds slightly less impressive when he discusses the upper grades. Middle school API scores increased by 129 points over six years, while high schools saw an even softer, 94-point jump.
Asked whether the district focused on younger children at the expense of high school students, Romer vehemently disagreed. Yet almost in the same breath, he said the district is finally making a dent in the upper-level grades as elementary school students who relied on Open Court and other changes move through the system.