Antonio Villaraigosa Led The Way On Education Reform, But His Potential Successors Are Reluctant To Pick Up The Torch

For the last eight years, education reformers have had a staunch ally in the L.A. mayor's office. From the start of his administration, Antonio Villaraigosa showed he was willing to fight the teachers' unions, and to pay a political price for it.

But in a few months, Villaraigosa will be gone. And at the moment, it appears that his successor will not be as strong an advocate for bringing private sector principles into the public schools.

Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, the top two contenders, talk often about improving education. But neither has campaigned on the more controversial elements of the education reform agenda.

Of the two, Garcetti would be the bigger departure from Villaraigosa on education. At last night's debate at UCLA, Garcetti pushed back a bit against the reform movement, arguing that teachers have been maligned.

"I'm sick of us bullying our teachers," he said. "We're so obsessed with firing the bad teachers, we forgot to lift up the good ones."

Garcetti also said he was against relying too heavily on quantitative measurements -- like test scores -- in evaluating teacher performance. 

In an earlier debate, at the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, he was asked how he felt about a range of education reform items, including using test scores in teacher evaluations and the parent trigger law, which allows parents to take over a school by petition. (Disclosure: I was the moderator.)

Garcetti said his top priority would be increasing per-pupil funding. He framed the rest of his answer by reminding the audience that he is a former teacher -- he taught public policy at Occidental College.

"I think that teacher evaluations are critical, and that we should be looking at doing that collaboratively with the teachers," he said, "because as a former teacher, the best thing I got was feedback from my students, and actually then I could sit down with my department head, and we could work together on how to be better."

Garcetti did not express support for the parent-trigger law, but he did say that he backs charter schools.

When Greuel talks about education, she always reminds her audience that she is the mother of a child in L.A. Unified. (Her son, Thomas, attends Colfax Elementary.) She often speaks about the need for greater parent involvement and local control of schools, but she tends to shy away from the more aggressive education reform measures.

Asked recently by the L.A. Weekly about the parent trigger, she said she has "supported the concepts of it" -- without explicitly endorsing it. She said she opposed a proposal to put a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools. She also spoke favorably of Superintendent John Deasy, who is seen as an ally of education reformers.

But most often, she avoids taking firm stands, instead slipping into platitudes. "The decisions that are made, whether by the superintendent or the school board, need to be made by what's best for the kids," she told the Weekly.

Two other candidates -- Councilwoman Jan Perry and radio host Kevin James -- have been much more forthright about their support for education reform. Perry speaks about streamlining the charter-approval process and pushing to elect pro-reform candidates to the L.A. Unified school board. James supports the parent trigger law and reforming the teacher evaluation process. But Perry and James have trailed in fundraising and in the polls.

The mayor does not have formal authority over L.A. Unified -- despite Villaraigosa's best efforts. But since the tenure of Mayor Richard Riordan, the mayor has had substantial influence over school board races, and therefore, over the district.

United Teachers of Los Angeles has not endorsed in the mayor's race, but is believed by several campaigns to be leaning toward Garcetti. UTLA officials declined to comment.

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