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School Takedown

Laura Chick probably wasn’t trying to sound like Don Vito Corleone when she “suggested” that she audit the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“I’ve made them an offer that’s too good for them to turn down,” Chick said last week, announcing her proposal to do a complete top-to-bottom management probe of the school district. See? Not “an offer they can’t refuse.” That would have been aggressive. Just an offer that’s “too good for them to turn down.”

Chick is the elected controller for the city of Los Angeles, a $6 billion behemoth that looks like a scrawny pipsqueak next to the $13.2 billion school district that she wants to peer into. The two governments are completely separate, and Chick has no authority to turn her attention to the LAUSD from the city, which is hardly a model of thrift and careful governance. But she may be running for state controller, as early as June, and in making her “offer” she has jumped on the popular school-takeover express that is being driven by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The mayor, too, has his hands full with the city. Do we have those 1,000 more cops yet? I don’t think so. Is our budget problem solved? Nope. Housing issues addressed? Not even close. Traffic resolved? Please.

Look at the mayor’s own budget priorities for 2006 on his Web site. First item: “Improving public safety.” Second item: “Improving our public safety.” Just to clarify whose public safety we were talking about in item one, I guess. Third item: “Reducing gang violence.” In the name, one would suppose, of public safety.

Items three, four and five branch out a bit: reducing traffic congestion, protecting air and water quality, and making Los Angeles the world’s leading economic and cultural center.

But Villaraigosa is gathering momentum in his drive to insert himself, at least, into school governance, and perhaps to take outright control over it.

Now here’s the important thing about Villaraigosa’s and Chick’s efforts to step outside their elected duties in the city of Los Angeles and turn their attention to the school district:

They are doing exactly the right thing. Three cheers.

What, after all, is a mayor for, if not to be a spokesman, an advocate, for the people of the city — especially those people who lack the social or economic power to speak up for themselves?

That’s true even if the school district covers only part of Los Angeles, as it does, while enveloping eight other cities and portions of 19 others. Let’s be real here. The mayor of Los Angeles is the mayor of L.A., that vast region and state of mind that covers pretty much everything that sits between Leo Carillo State Beach and the OC. In actual authority, his control is limited to a civic entity shaped something like a pork chop. In real power, though — as distinguished from authority — this particular mayor’s reach is limited only by his popularity, his imagination and his ambition. And in this case, at least, he is putting those three things to work for the good of the school district’s 727,000 students, many of whom — most of whom, perhaps — are there only because their parents can’t afford to send their kids to private or parochial schools.

It didn’t used to be that way here. The young wartime workers who moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s, and the discharged military personnel who followed them at the war’s end, built Southern California with their industry and tax dollars, and for their baby boom children they helped construct and maintain a school system that was the world’s envy. Yes, it was rife with inequity and racial injustice. But most children who were educated in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s received the best education available regardless of race or class. If you went to private school before, say, 1980, it was probably because you were something of a problem child, or a kid with special needs.

When the postwar generation of students graduated from their public high schools, though, their parents — okay, our parents — considered the job done and turned their attention to other things. The new kids in town came increasingly from immigrant families, with faces, names and languages unfamiliar to the previous generation. The people of Los Angeles stopped supporting schools, and LAUSD stopped building them. The newest, best-appointed school building was 30 years old.

Now, people with kids to educate and the means to avoid public schools face an additional tax — the $20,000 or so it costs each year to pay for a mid-level private school. That’s on the front end, of course. On the back end, even if you could buy your kids a good education, you still will pay for the dropouts and semiliterate young adults who populate our prison system instead of adding to our economic and social creativity, not to mention the tax base.

In recent years, we’ve started again to fund schools, and with four bond measures the LAUSD is building again. The elected board and the administrators of the district have made steady improvement over the last several years in updating decrepit schools and raising test scores. Maybe they’ve even done as well as anyone could, under the circumstances. But it’s not good enough, and it’s time to change the circumstances.

So should the mayor run the school district? I didn’t say that. Villaraigosa is in the midst of making a good case for reform in school governance, but he’s not there yet. And he definitely has yet to explain why he, of all people, should be in charge. Making that leap — “the school district needs more accountability” to “the mayor is the one who must take accountability” — is kind of like jumping from “I saw a light in the sky and couldn’t identify it” to “I saw a craft from the planet Zircon.”

But the mayor has pushed the issue to the point that everyone has to deal with it — the teachers union, the school board, business, voters.

“The mayor is the one person everybody in the city knows,” said school reform advocate Steve Barr, CEO of Green Dot Schools. “He is the perfect person to lead this thing. Let’s see what his plan is. We’ll all follow if it’s something logical and tangible for us.”

So what’s the plan? Put the mayor in charge, and vote him out if things don’t get better? Not good enough. With term limits, you get only one chance to vote someone out of office. Besides, by next year, we may have forgotten about public schools and be back on public safety, or perhaps traffic. Are we ready to keep a mayor who flubs public schools if he fixes our traffic mess? Maybe. Shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

A.J. Duffy, leader of United Teachers Los Angeles, has problems with the whole notion of mayoral takeover. “I don’t see where replacing one bureaucracy with another helps the classroom teacher,” he said.

It could be that Villaraigosa, who once worked for the teachers union and has strong labor ties, can push Duffy in a way others could not. Just as only Nixon, as the saying goes, could go to China, maybe only Villaraigosa can extract concessions from labor. Duffy wants to sit down with the?mayor and discuss alternatives. But remember, if it weren’t for the mayoral takeover threat, there would be no compromises to discuss.

This bid for power may look like a crass, no-lose gambit for Villaraigosa. It’s not. He’s taken flak for moving too fast, and for moving too slow — sometimes from the very same critics. He was criticized and cornered by one of his allies, state Senator Gloria Romero, who introduced a bill to force his hand after the mayor decided to spend some time studying the issue and building consensus. Villaraigosa has now unleashed himself, and Romero is pleased.

“I’m very happy he’s found his voice again,” Romero said.

The mayor has taken his lead, and should take warning too, from the example of Bob Hertzberg. It was Hertzberg who put the schools back in the discussion just about a year ago, when he was running for mayor.

In one sense, he failed. Voters saw Mayor Richard Riordan take over the district by virtually buying half the board with campaign funding, only to see his candidates voted out once he left office. They were cool, at first, to Hertzberg’s plan to put the mayor back in the schools debate.

But in a larger sense, he succeeded. Hertzberg restarted the debate. Villaraigosa is running with it.

“Is mayoral control the endgame in itself?” Hertzberg posed. “No. Is it a step in the right direction? Yes. People don’t care about which government there is. They just want government to work.”

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