WANT AN EASY WAY TO MAKE POLITICIANS in Los Angeles squirm? Ask them where their kids go to school. That was the lesson from this week’s love fest at the Los Angeles Central Library, where Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa welcomed, yet again, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger — the Republican who took a detour from his surging re-election campaign to sign the bill giving the mayor power over the Los Angeles Unified School District.
With the ink barely dry on the governor’s signature, Villaraigosa invited parents and business leaders to “come home” to the sprawling district of more than 700,000 students, an odd request considering that the mayor had just spent the past year calling L.A. Unified a failure. Even more unusual was the mayor telling reporters that he saw no contradiction between his own invitation to parents and his decision to keep his children in parochial school — including his only son, who attends Loyola High School, where tuition costs $8,300 annually.
“We have a long tradition in our family [of] a faith-based education,” said Villaraigosa, pointing out that he, his mother and his children have attended Catholic schools. The mayor also made clear he has no interest in pressing parents who “feel strongly about their faith” to return to L.A. Unified.
“[But] for those who don’t feel strongly, we’re saying, ‘Come home,’?” he added.
But then, Los Angeles has a rich tradition of politicians, policymakers and civic do-gooders who seek to control the fate of the public schools while keeping their own families far, far away. School board president Marlene Canter, snubbed by a mayor who opted not to invite her to the bill signing, sent two children to expensive private schools — Brentwood and Harvard-Westlake. Former mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg, who campaigned for a breakup of L.A. Unified, has two sons in private school. And Antonia Hernández, who sued L.A. Unified over bilingual education as the head of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, sent her ?kids to parochial school in ?Los Angeles.
As he introduced the governor, Villaraigosa certainly didn’t need to look far for people to lure back to the district. Standing next to him was Schwarzenegger, whose children are enrolled at Brentwood School, where tuition costs $24,800 annually for grades 7 to 12. Next to the governor was Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, whose two school-age children bypassed L.A. Unified years ago, attending public schools in the high-achieving college town of Claremont until last year, when they transferred to the Sacramento City Unified School District.
Even with two school-age children attending public schools, Núñez — whose district encompasses working-class neighborhoods near downtown Los Angeles — sounded downright testy when asked about the public/private equation. “How does that matter?” shot back Núñez. “How does that matter?” He stalked off without answering questions.
In fact, Villaraigosa’s bill-signing ceremony provided a veritable tableau of figures who one way or another have opted out of L.A. Unified. Standing behind Núñez was City Council President Eric Garcetti, who graduated in 1988 from Harvard-Westlake, where tuition for the current school year is $23,850 (parents are advised by the school to budget another $3,000 for fees). Standing next to Garcetti was Mary Najera, the lone parent invited to speak at the event, who spent the past six months tearfully describing her triumphant decision to pull her son out of L.A. Unified and put him in a charter school operated by Green Dot, a group enthusiastically supportive of Villaraigosa’s education bill.
SO IN WHICH DIRECTION are Angelenos supposed to march — toward the district, or away from it? After all, Villaraigosa urged reporters to ask Najera about her family’s move from L.A. Unified to Green Dot. But that compelling tale seemed to conflict with the mayor’s message to business leaders: “Come back to our public schools,” he told the audience. “Invest with us in the future.”
The decidedly mixed messages did little to disturb Scott Folsom, an activist with the Parent Teacher Student Association who said he understands that no parent — mayor or otherwise — wants to experiment on their child. Parents seek the best for their offspring, whether it’s public, private or parochial school, Folsom said. “If you think that’s the best opportunity for your child, you’ll do that,” he said.
Yet Folsom also argued that full-time working parents are frequently drawn to private schools as much for the after-school programs as for the academics. Even with fund-raising by Villaraigosa, less than one out of every three elementary schools in L.A. Unified are served by the city’s L.A.’s Best after-school program.
“That, I think, is something the mayor should be much more seriously engaged in than he is,” Folsom said. “We need to have these programs at every school in the district. Parents need the option of knowing their kid can be left in a place that is supervised and has programs, whether it’s educational or recreation or whatever.”
The only child featured at Villaraigosa’s bill-signing event was yet another participant in the exodus from L.A. Unified — 5-year-old Kaylyn Tullos Sylo, who is enrolled in a charter school in Watts.
Although charter schools technically qualify as public schools, their test results are not factored into district scores. If L.A. Unified’s schools show a lack of improvement, they could lose the federal funds that are earmarked for low-income children, according to the terms of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. To put it another way, every time a high-achieving child transfers from an L.A. Unified campus to an independent charter school, the campus that is left behind becomes even more financially vulnerable.
Villaraigosa pulled off an amazing hat trick by bringing together a coalition that combined Green Dot parents with United Teachers Los Angeles, the powerful union that has grown increasingly anxious over the rise in influence of the city’s charter schools — a byproduct of Villaraigosa’s yearlong education campaign. UTLA president A.J. Duffy argued that Green Dot, unlike L.A. Unified, has the luxury of weeding out children who have learning problems or uninterested parents.
“If 100 kids apply, they take 40 or so in, so they get to screen the best,” he said. “That could mean the smartest. That could be the families with two parents. They could be the middle-class parents who are going to put more time and effort into their kids’ time and education.”
Villaraigosa promoted the charters by scheduling many of his appearances at their campuses. Green Dot, in turn, aired television commercials featuring Villaraigosa delivering a passionate stump speech to a crowd of cheering charter-school students. Many of the parents sent up to Sacramento to support the mayor’s bill wore the blue T-shirts of the Los Angeles Parents Union, a group whose members come primarily from Green Dot.
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“[The charters] have seized upon the moment and are riding this horse as long and as far as this horse will carry them,” Duffy said. “They’ve gotten the imagination of people, and it’s difficult to stop the train. That’s why I think we need a moratorium.”
How Villaraigosa will reconcile the two camps — charter-school advocates on the one side, skeptical teachers on the other — is unclear. Either way, Schwarzenegger did little more than echo the mayor’s mixed message, homecoming be damned. The governor touted Villaraigosa’s bill as one that would “clone” all the things that L.A. Unified does right. And then he derided that same district as one that chokes the life out of even its most heady successes.
“We all know that there are many great, great schools here in the Los Angeles Unified School District,” Schwarzenegger told the audience gathered at the library. “There are many great teachers, great students and everything. But the system has failed all of them.”
The governor knows the score: It’s much easier to keep trashing the district when you don’t run the place.