Education is a theme woven tightly into the mayor’s personal history, a biography that is used, in turn, by Villaraigosa to advance his plan for taking over public schools. In speeches and interviews, Villaraigosa has told and retold stories of his mother, a single parent living in the working-class neighborhood of City Terrace, seeking to inspire her children by reading them poetry. He tells how he was kicked out of Cathedral High School, a Catholic campus near downtown Los Angeles. And he describes how he got a second chance at Roosevelt High School, a public school where he found an advocate in Herman Katz, a teacher and counselor who pushed him to take the SAT and attend college.
The mayor’s wife is an educator in the Montebello Unified School District, which faces some of the same problems as L.A. Unified and is also governed by a school board. And his springboard to public office was United Teachers Los Angeles, the powerful union that represents nearly 40,000 instructors at L.A. Unified.
UTLA is not like the other special interests that have backed Villaraigosa over the years, like environmental groups, health-care workers and affordable-housing advocates. Villaraigosa spent eight years as an organizer with UTLA, developing his networking and consensus-building skills just as the union waged some of its historic battles. Villaraigosa represented teachers on the city’s Eastside in an era when the union’s membership, hoping to focus attention on stalled salary talks, threatened to withhold the report cards of its own students. The stunt sparked outrage among kids, who feared they would lack the paperwork to graduate and apply to college. It also drew fire from the late Frank del Olmo, the influential Los Angeles Times columnist, who noticed the outrage it caused at Villaraigosa’s alma mater.
“When kids start walking out of schools, parents start paying attention, too. And all indications are that, especially in the minority communities whose kids make up the majority of students in Los Angeles public schools, parents are angry with the union,” del Olmo wrote in 1989. “The hostility has become so great, for example, that several hundred parents stalked out of a meeting last week at Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights rather than listen to a UTLA representative defend the union’s position in the labor negotiations.”
Villaraigosa helped lead a nine-day UTLA strike later that year, persuading teachers not to cross picket lines in a job action that seriously disrupted the instruction of the district’s students. By the end of the strike, teachers had won a three-year, 24 percent pay hike, a package that had a devastating financial effect on L.A. Unified. Faced with a $400 million deficit three years later, the school board voted to slash teacher salaries by 10 percent. Then–Assembly Speaker Willie Brown — whose seat would be occupied by Villaraigosa only three years later — stepped in to broker the agreement, getting teachers to accept the pay cuts by giving them more power to dictate their schedules and select what classes they teach. Years later, that agreement still draws complaints from would-be reformers, who say mayoral control would finally wrest some of that power back from teachers.
As his takeover campaign has grown increasingly aggressive, Villaraigosa’s descriptions of L.A. Unified have grown more strident. The settings have changed, too, with the mayor staging more of his appearances at charter schools, campuses that — while technically serving as public schools — are removed from the bureaucracy and freed from many of the requirements imposed by the state education code. Some union activists dislike charter schools, saying they receive a disproportionate share of private philanthropic donations and siphon the brightest, most ambitious students away from regular public schools.
Appearing last week at the Kipp Academy of Opportunity, a charter school just north of Inglewood, Villaraigosa repeated his call for a state audit of the school district’s budget. With the city controller by his side, the mayor casually portrayed L.A. Unified as a system approaching meltdown. What he didn’t say is that many of the statistics he used to condemn the district come from President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, an education initiative that he used to criticize. No Child Left Behind designates schools as failing when they don’t achieve a specific level of improvement on standardized tests and other criteria, an event that serves as the first step toward stripping away their federal funding.
“When you have a failing school district, a bloated bureaucracy, 50 percent of the kids dropping out, 81 percent of the kids in [middle] schools that the state and the federal government have described as failing, there’s something wrong, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it,” he said.
Two days later, Villaraigosa traveled to the opposite end of the city, stopping off at the West Valley Playhouse to honor Herman Katz, the retired high school teacher and counselor whom the mayor portrayed as a pivotal influence. The ceremony could have been a chamber-of-commerce mixer anywhere in the Midwest, with an MC delivering corny one-liners and a man at a piano playing an instrumental version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Yet on another level, it provided a much-needed service in Los Angeles — honoring quality teachers. The eight teachers who walked across the stage will soon see their names engraved in the Walk of Hearts, a stretch of sidewalk in Canoga Park that honors excellent educators.
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Facing a theater full of teachers, Villaraigosa imparted a message that was decidedly different from the one he delivered two days earlier. He didn’t say the school district is failing. He didn’t bring up takeover at all. Instead, he described how Katz repeatedly pushed him to enroll in college, offering to pay the cost of his SAT exam and even drive him personally to take the test. Villaraigosa also revealed that when he was reunited with Katz in 1994, during his first campaign for political office, his onetime teacher had no memory of him. “He was a much bigger influence than he understood in my life,” Villaraigosa said.
Once the ceremony is over, teachers milled about the theater, clutching oversize bouquets of flowers and drinking cranberry punch. Standing near the podium was Katz, now a part-time middle school counselor, who described Villaraigosa as someone who was like so many other kids — without a father and floundering academically, yet with great potential.
Katz said he told Villaraigosa recently that taking over the district would be “like quicksand.” And he offered a different view on the state of the school district, saying it has great teachers and bad teachers, schools that win the national Academic Decathlon and schools burdened by “outside influences,” ones that make it hard for children to learn.
“These people all have great hearts,” Katz said, referring to the room full of high school teachers. “But we’ve gotten to the point now where all we do is test kids. Testing, testing, testing, testing, and forgetting what education is all about. It’s not about testing kids all the time. It’s about people working with kids, encouraging kids, inspiring kids. That’s what it’s all about. And I think that’s happening in L.A. Unified. I know Antonio feels very strongly that the bureaucracy is holding them down. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s not right.”