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Flunking Campaigns

Photos by Ted SoquiBob Hertzberg told us he ran for mayor to break up the school district, and the other candidates scoffed. “Schools!” they whispered to each other at debates, giggling and elbowing each other in the ribs and blowing spitballs at Hertzberg (figuratively, of course) whenever the former Assembly speaker gave his breakup speech. “Where’d they find this guy? The mayor has nothing to do with schools. Hey, Bob! Read the charter!” Hertzberg’s safely out of the way now, having come up about 6,000 votes short of a spot in the May 17 runoff. So Mayor James Hahn and his challenger, Antonio Villaraigosa, opened up the first full week of the runoff campaign with a discussion of what’s really important. Schools. Hahn called a news conference to put Villaraigosa on the spot, challenging him to sign a pledge being pushed by a group called the Small Schools Alliance. It was a no-win for Antonio. See, if he signs the pledge, he’s just following in the mayor’s footsteps and seems like a copycat. And if he doesn’t sign the pledge, well, obviously he cares nothing about education or our children. Score one for Jim! But wait. Villaraigosa called a news conference almost immediately, and he — gasp — signed the pledge, and was planning to do it all along, before the mayor even said anything about it. Take that, Jim. Point: Antonio. Oh yeah? Well, Jim signed it first, a month ago, before Antonio ever even thought about it. And besides, Jim is on his way to a school-board meeting! Is that so? Well, Antonio’s wife is a public school teacher. We know this because of his TV commercials that featured her in a classroom. Top that! Well, Jim’s children actually attend public school! We know that because the mayor trots out his son at campaign appearances and reminds everyone how much of a regular dad he is, with kids in public schools. Okay, well, Antonio was an organizer for United Teachers Los Angeles! Enough. Why don’t you two guys meet in the vacant lot behind the gym after school and settle this like junior high kids? Just leave us out of it. For now. There are two months between last week’s mayoral primary, in which less than a quarter of the voters went to the polls, and the runoff, in which a (I hope) larger handful of people will select the person who will run the nation’s second largest city for the next four years. We in the news media spent much of the last campaign predicting that “It’s going to get nasty!” and the first few days after the March 8 election asking the candidates, “How nasty is it going to get?” And soon, very soon, we will tell you that “It’s getting nasty!” But could we all first have a couple of weeks off? No. It’s apparently crucial that we launch the runoff campaign with arguments about which candidate is best for schools, an institution over which the mayor has no formal control. The Los Angeles Unified School District is a separate government, not run by the city or the county, with an elected board of full-time supervisors earning part-time pay. The district is so huge, and its problems so intractable, that the board hired the governor of a whole state (Colorado) to run it. But even Roy Romer is having trouble making things work. Our last mayor, Richard Riordan, correctly pointed out that education is the most important job of local government and decided that, lack of his formal authority be damned, he would do something about our lousy public education system. So he got together with some of his rich friends and funded campaigns to dump half the school board. And he succeeded. As soon as he left office, pretty much all of the new board members he got elected were dumped by the voters after campaigns funded by the teachers union. Now Riordan is the governor’s top education official, doing, I suppose, everything for education on the state level that he did for it on the city level. It’s true that the separation between city government and the school system raises all kinds of problems for taxpaying parents who try to navigate the multiple bureaucracies in search of the best results for their children and themselves. Some reformers have called for cities to take control of school districts. It’s a popular idea, until you start to imagine the City Council being put in charge of education. Hahn’s contribution to education has been to expand the afterschool program started by Mayor Tom Bradley and grown by Riordan. The L.A.’s BEST program gives kids things to do after school to keep them from falling prey to gang recruiters. Other city programs are intended to keep children safe as they walk to and from school. The City Council, meanwhile, added a committee that supposedly oversees education; the mayor’s sister, Janice Hahn, heads the panel, and Villaraigosa is on it. But all they really seem to do is argue about where the school district is constructing new buildings. A little more attention to education is a good thing. A lot more attention is even better. But not this way. Not candidates trying to outdo each other in expressing the image of education reformers, while ignoring the nuts and bolts. If either candidate is ready to unroll a program for educating the city’s children, keeping them in school and keeping them safe — a program that a mayor of Los Angeles can lead, right now — let’s hear it. If they just want someone else, like the state or the school board, to do something, like shrink classroom size or break up the school district, that’s great. Lead the effort when you get elected, or lead the public discussion. But don’t brag now about simply wanting something to change and calling it education reform. Otherwise, the discussion is bound to be as substantive as the one four years ago, when union backers of Villaraigosa sent voters a campaign mailer featuring a quote from the president of the teachers union, a ruler — and a bullet shell. This, a few weeks after a deadly school shooting. This time, please give us a couple of weeks of respite from mailers and campaign ads. Take a cue from the City Council, which just had half of its members re-elected to their last terms with little (or no) serious opposition and then promptly engaged in their best subject. Recess.


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