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Villaraigosa's Spin Cycle 

He’s gushing over his “historic” school-reform plan, and so are some in the media. Look again

Wednesday, Sep 5 2007
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HISTORIC. HISTORIC. HISTORIC.

At a news conference crammed with media members last week, the word “historic” was invoked 21 times. Was this press gathering about the Battle of Stalingrad? Maybe Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. How about Barry’s 756th home run?

Not quite.

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It was the announcement of a partnership between the city of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District, a decidedly modest plan to focus money and attention on a very small percentage of the troubled district’s worst schools.

“Historic.” (Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, at least nine times.)

“Historic.” (Schools Superintendent David L. Brewer III, at least four times.)

“Historic.” (Board of Education President Monica Garcia, three times.)

“Historic.” (Board of Education Member Marlene Cantor, just twice.)

“Historic.” (A few students thrown into the mix.)

Some in the swarm of media who attended began writing the letter “h” for each mention. Not that reporters were skeptical enough to lob many tough questions at Villaraigosa, who used the setting to put his own spin on his two years of bruising attacks on the schools. His combative demands for a role in the district’s high schools have sent teacher morale plummeting, cost LAUSD nearly $1 million to fight an unconstitutional mayoral takeover law, and created an icy schism with former Superintendent Roy Romer — viewed by many as the most activist and reform-minded schools leader in Los Angeles since the 1960s.

Now, with nine television cameras rolling and dozens of backers cheering him, a smiling Villaraigosa announced he was entering into “The Partnership” with LAUSD to “service, support and manage two families of schools” — meaning two high schools and the cluster of nearby elementary and middle schools that feed into those high schools.

“In the coming months, we will reach out and look at the 20 worst schools in the city and see if they want to join The Partnership,” said Villaraigosa, who says he expects The Partnership to be operating late this year.

Yet even as they touted their efforts, Villaraigosa and schools officials had little of substance to say about the plan. “Failure is not an option,” said LAUSD Superintendent Brewer, a retired three-star Navy vice admiral — quickly drawing ridicule from teachers who were reminded of Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush saying the same thing about Iraq. Within hours of Brewer’s comment, the L.A. Weekly received a taunting essay from a prominent high school teacher and outspoken reformer — the kind of teacher he needs to woo — slamming Brewer as “Admiral Failure Is Not an Option.”

THERE ARE, IN FACT, problems. No schools have yet agreed to be part of Villaraigosa’s small pilot project. Nor has the mayor offered any workable plan for how he’ll achieve an academic turnaround and slash the high school dropout rate.

What is known so far of his plan — parental involvement, teacher empowerment, focused spending — is very similar to a dramatic effort put into the Ten Schools Program, launched in 1987 to remake the city’s 10 worst grade schools. Now serving 15 schools, mostly in Watts and South-Central, it has had mixed results. (An LAUSD public information officer the Weekly contacted didn’t even know what the Ten Schools Program was.)

Villaraigosa’s plan also sounds like yet another splashy reform — a highly touted revamp under Superintendent Ruben Zacarias in the 1990s to identify, spend money on, and bring accountability to the 100 worst schools. That effort was historic — as a tremendous flop.

Villaraigosa insists, “We are flipping the way we think about schools on its head.” To do that, “We are pouring the foundations for a historic partnership between LAUSD and the city that will transform L.A. schools and fundamentally reconfigure what education means to students, teachers and parents in Los Angeles.”

That’s a dramatic vision. But his 30-page report, “The Schoolhouse,” a blueprint for reform, was widely criticized for offering no new ideas about how to do that.

According to Villaraigosa’s statement of intent for his pilot project, “Schools within the identified families of schools will get to choose whether or not they want to become Partnership schools.” Considering the state of affairs at some of the most challenged high schools, such as Locke, Manual Arts, Fremont, Jordan, Crenshaw and Jefferson, the schools appear to have little to lose.

Villaraigosa’s press secretary, Janelle Erickson, defended the fuss being made over The Partnership, saying, “It’s a first and a giant step in the right direction.” Yet the greatest risk might be Team Villaraigosa’s penchant for publicly overpromising things it can’t deliver.

For example, the mayor’s ally, Los Angeles Board of Education President Garcia — a longtime friend whom Villaraigosa endorsed last year for the school board — last week declared: “Only through partnerships with key stakeholders like the city, county and higher education will we make the changes necessary for the ultimate goal of 100 percent graduation.”

But a 100 percent graduation rate, in a sprawling district of more than 712,000 students, 800 schools and 77,000 employees, is in truth not going to happen. Such impossible goals could instead drive a wedge between the mayor and the roughly 35,000 rank-and-file teachers — almost none of whom showed up to support Villaraigosa’s “historic” moment last week.

The best that Steve Barr, the founder of the Green Dot charter schools, could say was that he hopes Villaraigosa is motivated enough by his desire to run for governor or other higher office to actually get something done.

“He is obviously ambitious and wants to go to higher office, so he wants to do better, and that’s good,” says Barr.

But Villaraigosa won’t have The Partnership at all unless he gets agreement from teachers at the selected schools, as well as from United Teachers Los Angeles. “I want to see details and I don’t see any details yet,” says A.J. Duffy, the president of UTLA. “We expect the mayor and his team to go to schools and explain exactly what they bring to the table. It’s not good enough to say we are gonna do this and that. We need to hear exactly what they intend to do.”

Nor is it clear that the union, long known for blocking rather than spearheading successful academic reforms, can change its pattern of placing blame on everyone but itself. Duffy, whose leadership of the fractured union is said to be tenuous, is again pointing fingers, claiming, “We need to find a way to do away with, or at least mitigate, the bureaucracy that is a roadblock to reform.”

Spin has been the order of the day: a “historic” event that drew few teachers. A mayor trying to refocus attention away from his ruined marriage and controversial affair. A union that has little track record in pushing for solid academic improvements among children, peddling itself as a reform leader.

The mayor says requiring accountability will be the key to The Partnership’s success, promising, “We want to change to a culture of accountability and responsibility.”

But in all these months, at his many public appearances calling for improving the city’s high schools, the mayor has yet to say how. If Los Angeles–area high schools actually were to improve — well, that would be historic.

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