By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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.