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
Last week, Monica Garcia was simply on a roll. The new president of the Board of Education was zipping through her reform motions for the Los Angeles Unified School District with almost no opposition, and the meeting showed the rare promise of an early finish. Then something curious was discovered by district employees — the draft files of Garcia's reform motions showed they had been written not by Garcia, but by the Mayor's Office.
Garcia shrugged it off, telling the Los Angeles Times she needed "support and feedback." Matt Szabo, press secretary for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said the motions were a "collaborative effort" led by the independently elected Garcia.
Yet if the new school board, dominated by allies of Villaraigosa like Garcia, is embracing reforms that could affect the city's 704,000 public school children — reforms arrived at under a so-called collaborative effort — it seems natural to ask: Who are the people behind the collaboration?
For the past year, Robin Kramer, the mayor's chief of staff, has been shaping a kitchen cabinet on school reform. Villaraigosa heavily relies upon these insiders to inform and push through his sometimes controversial agenda — and, apparently, to create policy for special friends like Garcia.
His inner circle consists of three people with ties to the same education think tank — Broad Foundation alums Ramon Cortines, Marshall Tuck and Marcus Castain — and one old Villaraigosa friend, former Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyer Thomas Saenz.
Yet when it comes to turning around a massive public school system like Los Angeles Unified, not one of them — not even former schools Superintendent Cortines — has made much of a mark. In fact, many educators say, the Mayor's Office seems to have made a conscious decision to not seek the direct advice and expertise of highly regarded school-turnaround veterans, although Villaraigosa has peddled a very different impression to the public.
On January 17, many of the city's power brokers in education and politics gathered at Hirasaki Democracy Hall in Little Tokyo. Villaraigosa brought them there, promising to unveil a "framework" report, called "The Schoolhouse," for improving public schools. A few moments into his opening remarks, the mayor said, "Over the last year and a half, my team and I have visited dozens and dozens of schools that are working for our kids. We've met with some of the most accomplished educators in the country. We've hit the books ourselves, examining — often late into the night — the lessons to be gleaned from cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, San Diego and everywhere in between."Though the report later struck some as a rehash of old ideas, the approach sounded promising. Yet when the L.A. Weekly contacted educators from the cities cited by Villaraigosa, they told an entirely different story.
"The short answer is no," Villaraigosa never gleaned ideas from him, said Carl Cohn, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District and recipient of the prestigious Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education. Cohn said no one from the Mayor's Office met or spoke with him, although he's just 120 miles down Interstate 5. Nationally renowned for rebuilding high schools in his previous job in Long Beach, the education superstar Cohn was also portrayed in the movie Freedom Writers. He's a hard one to miss.
If Villaraigosa's team had made the two-hour-plus trip to San Diego, Cohn said, he would have told them to "remove all excuses and monitor day-to-day student achievement." He would have suggested building better relationships between adult teachers and teenage students. He would also offer managerial support to help those relationships flourish. This way, Cohn said, the size of a school doesn't really matter. Standards are set, and students and teachers are relating.
In Boston, recently retired supe Thomas Payzant, who now lectures at Harvard, said he never heard from the Mayor's Office, although he believes they talked to Boston Mayor Tom Menino. Payzant is another McGraw winner, and he sits on its board of judges with Ramon Cortines. For whatever reason, Cortines has yet to hit up his esteemed colleague for advice.
Payzant would have told the mayor's crackerjack team that "continuity" in school district upper management is essential to building better schools. "If there's always change going on at the top, where there's always a new agenda," Payzant said, "it creates instability. You have to build support and allow some time for schools to improve."
Villaraigosa took a dramatically different tack when he launched his reform program, attacking LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer for months. Romer left the job as expected last fall, furious over Villaraigosa's harsh public-relations campaign. Today, many observers still talk about how Romer dramatically improved Los Angeles' elementary schools.
Payzant cited his pick of top educators whom any kitchen cabinet should consult before launching major reforms: Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall and Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet. When contacted by the Weekly, however, Duncan and Hall said, nope, they never heard from Team Villaraigosa. And Bennet's spokesman, Alex Sanchez, said he has "no record" of the Mayor's Office contacting Bennet, who's on vacation.New York Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, another superstar with a real track record in fixing urban schools, didn't respond to repeated inquiries.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city