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Antonio's Kitchen Cabinet 

A team advises the mayor how to fix troubled high schools. Most haven’t fixed any.

Wednesday, Jul 18 2007
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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?

click to enlarge Channeling Antonio: School board president Monica Garcia, right, with colleague Marguerite LaMotte, left a trail back to City Hall. (Photo by Orly Olivier)
  • Channeling Antonio: School board president Monica Garcia, right, with colleague Marguerite LaMotte, left a trail back to City Hall. (Photo by Orly Olivier)

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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.

So who are the wizards over at the Mayor's Office seeking out for schools-reform advice? Press Secretary Matt Szabo, who failed to return phone calls, isn't talking. But the mostly vague "Schoolhouse" report offers some clues on its final page, acknowledging people and entities for "sharing your time, passion, ideas and critical feedback."The list shows that, as the mayor's advisers sought information over the past several months, they didn't venture too far outside of Los Angeles city limits. And many of the organizations Villaraigosa listed — labor unions such as SEIU 1877 and the California Teachers Association, along with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Urban League, and the LAUSD itself — are far more closely associated with waging adult political battles than achieving any measurable academic improvements for high school or middle school students.

In the end, critics suggest that what the mayor's team has learned so far, two years into his widely publicized effort, is more of the same old, same old.

"If you always reform what you've always reformed," says former Board of Education member David Tokofsky, "you'll always get the reform that you've already reformed the last time you reformed." The best he can say about Villaraigosa's team is that they are "well-intentioned."

Another group acknowledged by Villaraigosa in his Schoolhouse plan is the Parent Collaborative, a volunteer organization created by the LAUSD in 1994 to give parents a stronger voice. Until March, Bill Ring was its chairperson, serving during the year the mayor's team was supposedly chatting with everyone. Did anyone talk to him?"We were slighted," Ring says plainly.

Ring, in fact, had to go to Marcus Castain and ask him to be a speaker at a Parent Collaborative meeting in 2006, and even then, he says, Castain never asked parents' advice.

Nine months later, Ring offers, "The district has to pay attention to the middle class, and the middle class comes in all colors. The middle class is just as afraid of the schools as everyone else... In my circles, people genuinely believe [Villaraigosa's] heart is in the right place, but the challenge to take this on is bigger than the mayor and his team."Of course, Villaraigosa isn't attempting to reform the system entirely on his own. The mayor is now hitching his star to Green Dot Schools and Steve Barr, who founded the nonprofit company in 1999 to improve secondary education by creating so-called charter high schools using public money. Charter schools are freed from many rules placed on public schools, and thus seen as a potential way to quickly innovate and, maybe, address the horrific high school dropout rates. Green Dot has achieved some success, but Barr's schools have a special advantage: They attract motivated students with proactive parents.

The people in the Mayor's Office writing reform motions behind closed doors for Monica Garcia are driving his education strategy: Cortines, a likable former superintendent with a reputation as a caretaker, rather than a rebuilder, of schools in San Francisco, San Jose, New York and, briefly, Los Angeles; Tuck, a 33-year-old Young Turk with a Harvard Business School degree who has worked with Green Dot; Castain, a onetime talent recruiter for the Broad Foundation; and Saenz, a controversial lawyer who was an architect of Villaraigosa's overturned, unconstitutional law to grab some control of LAUSD. (Saenz is a curious choice, as he sits on the financially troubled L.A. County Board of Education — an obscure school board that shows little ability to improve its own high school results.)

Well-intentioned or not, students, teachers and parents are stuck with this surprisingly isolated crew. And Cohn and Payzant are still waiting for that phone call.

Reach the writer at pmcdonald@laweekly.com

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