By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“I love California because I’m an agriculturalist. You don’t get that great-quality grape the first time. You’ve got to nurture them, tend to them over a number of years,” Romer said. “It’s the same thing with students. You’ve got to raise that performance, nurture them, so that when they get to high school, they’ve got the capacity to succeed there.”
Romer’s arguments have done little to convince David Abel, founder of a nonprofit group that tries to link new school construction with other civic amenities, such as health clinics, parks and libraries. Abel, an influential thinker in Los Angeles on planning and public schools, sent his only child to public school until the third grade. Once his son entered private school, he informed his father that he could finally hear himself think.
Where Romer is boastful about his massive school-construction program, Abel is aghast, saying that the military model for school construction will turn out to be a disaster — leaving children lost inside oversize, impersonal behemoths.
Abel compared Romer’s school-construction program to another historic public-works initiative — the building of a flood-control channel in the Los Angeles River. County supervisors relied on the Army Corps of Engineers, another military entity, to carry out that job in the wake of the 1938 floods.
“They gave them the simplest of job challenges: Stop the flooding,” Abel said. “And they did. They paved the river. Now we’re coming back many, many years later and spending a fortune to make that river livable. We’re doing the same thing with our $19 billion building program. We’re building seats, we’re not building them as learning centers. It’s ‘Stop the Flooding.’ ”
Even Romer’s attempt to lift school test scores drew fire from Abel, who said that the superintendent marshaled all of the district’s energy into improving the scores of the bottom quarter of the population. Curriculum is so regimented — with every teacher in every school following the same script — that it is driving away families with higher-performing children. “If you’re a middle-class family in L.A., this school system is not designed for you.”
Abel enthusiastically backs mayoral control, saying it will finally bring a citywide focus to public schools. That, in turn, will address an imbalance of power that has given school-employee unions disproportionate control over textbooks, school calendars, bathroom cleanup, maintenance, and the use of campuses and playgrounds, he said.
Yet the very threat of mayoral takeover has already diminished the political voice of the teachers’ union, which has offered lukewarm responses to Villaraigosa’s challenge. UTLA president A.J. Duffy, for example, has been an outspoken critic of No Child Left Behind, saying it allows the federal government to label a school as failing when a single student subgroup — for example, African-Americans or Asians or Spanish-speakers — shows a lack of improvement. When he is asked about Villaraigosa’s decision to use that same law as a tool in his takeover campaign, Duffy stammers and struggles to be diplomatic.
“My guys want me to be very cautious at this point, because we’re hopeful that we can come to some middle ground. And as you know, I’ve been very mindful of how I respond to these things, and I want to keep this debate civil,” Duffy explained. Pressed for comment, Duffy grew slightly more candid about the mayor. “He’s drawing conclusions that the district is failing, based upon data that he doesn’t even believe himself.”
The path to mayoral takeover did not start with Villaraigosa. Nor did it begin with Hahn, who made crime reduction the hallmark of his first four years, only to find that schools were the hot electoral ticket during last year’s mayoral campaign. The very concept of an L.A. Unified takeover was born during that rough-and-tumble campaign, pushed to the forefront by a third candidate for mayor, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg — a man who was once Villaraigosa’s roommate, and who regularly listens to the views of David Abel.
Like Abel, Hertzberg was relentless on the need to address the dropout rate. And like Abel, he regularly compared the sprawling school district to East Germany during the Cold War. Hertzberg promised to break up L.A. Unified, a message that wowed voters on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, allowing him to come within spitting distance of a runoff against Villaraigosa.
“Certainly that wasn’t an issue [Villaraigosa] talked about in the beginning,” Hertzberg recalled. “He and Jim didn’t think schools were something the mayor should deal with.”
Hertzberg’s campaign left its mark, with Hahn and Villaraigosa scrambling to show a greater level of engagement on education issues. Both jumped at the chance to testify before the school board, and both signed a pledge issued by the Small Schools Alliance, which promised to shrink every campus in L.A. Unified to no more than 500 students by 2015 — even though neither candidate would be mayor by then because of term limits.
As the runoff campaign progressed, the education arms race intensified. Hahn, keenly aware that the positioning over the Small Schools pledge had been a draw, went out on a limb, telling voters that the Los Angeles mayor should have the power to appoint three school board members.
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