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The Takeover King 

Is Mayor V betraying his old-time union allies? Or rescuing L.A.’s troubled public school system? Whatever the answer, he faces the biggest risks of his political career.

Wednesday, May 17 2006
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“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.

click to flip through (4) Photo by Gregory Bojorquez
  • Photo by Gregory Bojorquez
     
 

“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.

“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.”

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