In the most ingenious television commercial of the 2005 Los Angeles mayoral campaign, a man in a suit runs away from the camera, at night, through a darkened forest. “Been looking for Mayor Hahn? So have the 740,000 students in our Los Angeles schools,” intones the voice-over, as a flashlight shines on the fleeing, faceless pol. “In four years as mayor, he’s only been to two school board meetings, and one was a staged campaign event.”
Bankrolled by the California Teachers Association, the $500,000 ad had “Blair Witch Project” written all over it, featuring shaky camerawork, grainy black-and-white footage and a devastating message: Not only was Mayor James Hahn out of touch on public education, but he was actually afraid to engage the issue.
Unleashed two weeks before the May 17 election, the ad focused on the earnest face of a teacher from 10th Avenue Elementary School, then zoomed in on mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, standing tall in a classroom surrounded by elementary school children. With a background of delicate piano music, the kind that accompanies a happy ending in a Lifetime network television movie, the 30-second spot concluded with a simple slogan: “Villaraigosa. He’ll be there.”
One year has passed since the state’s largest teachers’ organization threw its money, clout and media savvy behind Villaraigosa. As it turned out, the attack ad was prescient: Villaraigosa did make education his top priority. The mayor is there, and everywhere, on the issue of public schools, campaigning as though the election had never finished. But his policy agenda did not turn out quite the way the CTA planned.
Villaraigosa made a mayoral takeover of the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s second-largest school system — his No. 1 policy initiative. And the opponent in the campaign is no longer Hahn, but L.A. Unified and the powerful teachers’ unions — which strongly oppose mayoral control. City Controller and Villaraigosa aide-de-camp Laura Chick, so effective in her blowtorching of Hahn during the last campaign, has already spent months turning the flame on L.A. Unified administrators, priming them for Villaraigosa’s attack. The sharp criticism has already caused Superintendent Roy Romer to accuse Villaraigosa of “trashing the district” to further his political agenda.
Asked recently to respond, the mayor paused for nearly half a minute, just as he used to do on the campaign trail, as though he were leafing through an invisible mental Rolodex, searching for the appropriate soundbite. Back when Hahn used to attack him, Villaraigosa relied on the same biting response: “Those are the words of a desperate and failed mayor.” As he walked briskly with his security detail in tow, Villaraigosa finally settled on a response to Romer, one that rang oddly familiar: “Those are the words” — Villaraigosa’s voice was now drained of emotion — “of frustration and desperation.”
Villaraigosa’s bid to take over L.A. Unified has become the defining issue of his new administration, the first major test of whether he can defeat a special interest that has been a lifelong ally. Mayoral takeover is deeply intertwined with Villaraigosa’s past, allowing him to tap his own painful memories as a onetime high school dropout inspired by an influential public school teacher. But it is just as closely linked with his future — namely, his ambitions for the governor’s mansion and beyond.
If Villaraigosa fails to seize control of the district, a sprawling bureaucracy that covers Los Angeles and 26 other cities, he will experience his most public defeat since his loss to Hahn in 2001. If he wins, he just may create a wedge issue large enough to divide, or at least distract, the Democrats and the powerful CTA — political allies for a generation — just as they are supposed to be uniting to defeat Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Villaraigosa came to the issue of municipal takeover almost by accident, embracing the concept late in the mayoral campaign as he and Hahn were competing to see who could be tougher on education. Yet as a former teachers’-union organizer, he seems almost uniquely qualified to lead such a campaign, the type who could pull a Nixon in China — a phrase he has used to describe himself. Bewildered teachers’ union leaders have offered no angry challenges to his plan, voicing instead a mixture of confusion and disappointment in the man they consider an ally. That response has stunned some at City Hall, who argue that the unions would not have been so sanguine if mayoral takeover had been initiated by Schwarzenegger. “If they wanted to take him out at the knees, they could do so,” said one council aide. “How long are they going to wait?”
With Villaraigosa briefing state lawmakers this week on mayoral takeover, the CTA and United Teachers Los Angeles — the 48,000-member union that represents L.A. Unified — now face the prospect of mobilizing yet again, this time to thwart Villaraigosa’s will in Sacramento. The CTA may in fact be the last line of defense for the institution known as the L.A. Unified’s Board of Education — a seven-member elected body that would become a political eunuch under Villaraigosa’s plan. As a result, the CTA’s message on the mayor — from top administrators to rank-and-file teachers — has grown considerably more complicated in the year since its withering commercial.
As the mayor’s campaign has progressed, L.A. Unified teachers like Mary Rose Ortega have found themselves fielding the same question from educators up and down the state: What’s with Antonio? Ortega should know. A resident of Highland Park who taught in low-income neighborhoods for 30 years, Ortega has been a loyal foot soldier for Villaraigosa through six different elections. She telephoned voters on his behalf, walked door-to-door for his campaign, and even became his representative on a 30-member advisory panel that is developing ways of improving the district. Yet Ortega, now a member of the CTA board, has no answer for colleagues who fear that if Los Angeles loses its school board, Fresno, Sacramento and other districts will be next to fall.
“They’re not happy, because they feel he’s doing an Arnold to us, basically,” said Ortega, referring to the governor who tangled with the CTA last year and lost big. “There has been this trust that teachers have held for Antonio for a long time, and he’s losing it. It’s the same with Arnold. We tried to trust him, and he stabbed us in the back. Now they don’t trust him. If Antonio does this, he will lose all trust with teachers.”
To achieve victory, Villaraigosa has embarked on a complex and potentially risky strategy that seeks to avoid an ugly fight at the ballot box with the CTA and United Teachers Los Angeles, which together spent nearly $1 million on his behalf in his last campaign. Steering clear of an electoral battle, however, means placing the entire question of mayoral control in the hands of the state Legislature — a group whose members have their own reasons for keeping the CTA happy.
Villaraigosa laid out his takeover strategy last month in a 35-minute State of the City address that, instead of offering the usual numbing statistics on the accomplishments of the past year, put forth a vision for how a school district would operate under the supervision of City Hall. The superintendent would be chosen by a council of 28 mayors, with Villaraigosa controlling 83 percent of the vote, and the school board would be handed a radically reduced portfolio — disciplinary issues, school transfers and parent surveys.
Villaraigosa had been promising an election for months, one involving every voter within L.A. Unified. By shifting the action to Sacramento, Villaraigosa lobbed a grenade into the halls of the Capitol — forcing lawmakers to scramble on an issue that, under the mayor’s original plan, was never supposed to be up to them.
Lawmakers almost immediately ran for cover. Assemblywoman Karen Bass, a West Los Angeles progressive who had stood with Villaraigosa only days before at a movie screening on the union movement in Los Angeles, said through a spokeswoman that she needed to research the issue. Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, a Long Beach Democrat whose home page contains a large picture of her with Villaraigosa, would not issue a statement. State Senator Alan Lowenthal, whose district takes in southeast Los Angeles County, was flat-out uncomfortable coming to the phone. “He wants to sit down and get his head around it,” said Lowenthal spokesman John Casey.
None of the responses was surprising. After all, the mayor was asking state lawmakers to choose between him, a growing force in the Democratic Party who just might waltz into the governor’s mansion in 2010, and the CTA, the group that spent $50 million to defeat Schwarzenegger’s four reform-oriented ballot measures in November. Furthermore, a third of the state Assembly is now up for grabs, since term limits are forcing out the bumper crop of 2000. Termed-out lawmakers are trying to jump from one house to the other. And each candidate who wants to prevail in the June primary will be seeking the endorsement of Villaraigosa, who in turn just might need them to support his mayoral takeover, particularly if a takeover bill takes two years to pass.
Keenly aware of the delicate balancing act needed to engineer such a takeover, Villaraigosa offered an olive branch to the education lobby in his State of the City address, largely avoiding the denunciations of L.A. Unified that marked his earlier speeches, and referring to his own background as a UTLA organizer. Standing in the gymnasium of the Accelerated School, a charter school in South Los Angeles, a visibly nervous Villaraigosa tried to put a less-threatening face on his plan by appealing directly to teachers.
“Change is never comfortable. I understand your fear,” said the mayor, as his speech was broadcast live during the dinner hour. “It’s hard to risk what you’ve got, when you’ve never had what you deserve.”
Two weeks later, Ortega — the woman who held a campaign party for Villaraigosa in her Highland Park home — sounded unconvinced. “You see, we trusted him. And you know, sometimes you can trust people too much.”
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 Montebello, 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 38,000 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 walkouts 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 the San Fernando Valley that recognizes excellence in education.
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 was 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.”
Los Angeles Unified School District is not a place where the city’s elite tend to send their children. Villaraigosa, for example, placed one daughter in a Pasadena parochial school and his son, Antonio Jr., at Loyola High School, a Catholic school that charges $8,800 annually. School-board president Marlene Canter, the woman who stands as the district’s most public defender, sent one child to the private Brentwood High School and another to Harvard-Westlake, which now charges $24,200 per year for tuition.
L.A. Unified doesn't attract much of the middle class, either. District statistics show that 86 percent of its elementary school students, or nearly nine out of 10, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Half of all elementary students, and roughly a third of the upper grades, are still learning English.
With the vast majority of upper- and middle-class parents opting out, a disproportionate share of the advocacy work in L.A. Unified has fallen to the teachers’ union, which has its own agenda and has not hesitated to spend hundreds of thousands on behalf of a single school board candidate. The only check on UTLA’s power in recent years has come from former Mayor Richard Riordan, a wealthy advocate of mayoral control who bankrolled his own slate of candidates in 1999 and unseated three union-backed board members. If L.A. Unified is turned over to the mayor, the teachers’ union will be left with a considerably smaller share of electoral power, getting in line behind other special interests that raise money for mayoral candidates — real estate developers, high-priced law firms, private contractors and other employee unions.
Then there is the district’s enormous size. For City Hall, taking over L.A. Unified would be akin to a python swallowing a pig — a slow, laborious process that would likely be unpleasant to watch. The task could distract the attentions of even the most multitasking of mayors. After all, the school district is larger geographically than the city of L.A. itself, covering 26 cities outside Los Angeles, and unincorporated communities of Los Angeles County, including Rancho Dominguez, Firestone and East Los Angeles. L.A. Unified has half a million more residents and twice as big a budget — $13.3 billion compared to City Hall’s $6.7 billion. Villaraigosa would also take responsibility for a massive school-construction program valued at nearly three times the city’s annual budget.
Initial drafts of Villaraigosa’s education plan included proposals for selling off L.A. Unified’s downtown headquarters at 333 S. Beaudry Ave. and shifting power to 70, 80, or even 100 local superintendents. Whether the mayor would expand his own staff to handle the expanded public-education duties is not yet spelled out. But given his intense focus on schools, it’s hard to envision a City Hall that would forgo its own formidable education bureaucracy, said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a foe of mayoral control.
“There’s always a schizophrenia about takeover,” she said. “The schizophrenia is, ‘I want to get the [L.A. Unified] bureaucracy reduced downtown, but I want to run everything from City Hall.’ Well, hold it. Are you for decentralized decision making? Or are you just moving the bureaucracy from one building to another?”
Politics is about stagecraft, and in that arena, Villaraigosa consistently wins. He has a beefed-up office of public-relations advisers who craft photo ops, e-mail his speeches, and schedule frequent stops at churches and schools, dinners and conferences — all potential audiences to hear his pitch for mayoral control. Partly because he is mayor, and partly because he has a wildly magnetic personality, Villaraigosa consistently draws a clutch of reporters to his media events — attention that is extremely rare at, say, a school board meeting. That disparity causes some reformers to argue that mayoral control will instantly bring a more intense public focus to L.A.’s public schools. Villaraigosa actively encourages that idea, saying school board members fly too far under the radar.
“I mean, can you name — let’s be honest — can you name the ones from 10 years ago?” Villaraigosa recently asked an audience of educators. “You can name the last four mayors. You know, Bradley, Riordan and Hahn. It’s much more difficult for the school board members.”
Villaraigosa already has a standard stump speech on mayoral control. He describes failing schools as a civil rights issue, a message used heavily with African-American religious and civic groups. He derides L.A. Unified as a “culture of low expectations,” a winning message for more conservative voters. He says the school board has not taken responsibility for failing schools. Then he hammers home his argument on governance, saying a mayor will finally provide a single line of accountability in a district.
But the trump card, played at every press conference and rubber-chicken dinner, is dropout rates. Villaraigosa relies heavily on a report by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, which last year found that only 46 percent of L.A. Unified’s high school freshmen graduate four years later, a figure greeted with outrage by every audience. District officials dispute the numbers, saying the dropout rate actually hovers between one-fourth and one-third of the student body, a response that draws greater scorn from Villaraigosa.
What Villaraigosa rarely mentions is that low graduation rates are not a problem limited to Los Angeles, and are, in fact, plaguing most of urban America. More significantly, graduation rates have remained uniformly awful even in school districts where big-city mayors have taken over.
Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley took over the schools in 1995, is in the throes of a policy debate very similar to the one taking place in California. In February, the Consortium on Chicago School Research tracked public school students who entered the system at age 13 in 1998, and found that only 54 percent of them had graduated from Chicago’s high schools in 2004. The number stood in marked contrast to data produced by the Illinois Department of Education, which had insisted that Chicago’s graduation rate is significantly higher, at 70 percent — not far from similar figures espoused by L.A. Unified. Other Chicago statistics also mirrored Los Angeles, with only 51 percent of Latino males, and 39 percent of African-American males, graduating from Chicago’s high schools.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been in charge of the public schools for only five years. As in Los Angeles, his city’s attentions have focused on achievement in the lower grades. As in L.A., his success in the upper grades has drawn scrutiny.
Attorney Daniel Losen, who handles education law and policy for the Harvard Civil Rights Project, pointed to a January memo to New York’s State Board of Regents that recounted how 45.3 percent of entering freshmen in 2001 received a diploma in 2005. Another 5 percent of students received a GED, or equivalency degree, which left students in New York with a 50-50 chance of graduating in four years. That means New York and Los Angeles — regardless of their governing structure — face a crisis when it comes to dropouts, Losen said.
“The graduation rates are both pretty dismal,” he said. “It’s hard to say that one is much better than the other.”
The man most responsible for educating students is Roy Romer, a 77-year-old former governor of Colorado who likes to speak in agricultural metaphors. Romer, like Villaraigosa, has been a major figure in the Democratic Party, and was raising money in Los Angeles for the 2000 Democratic National Convention when billionaire Eli Broad — the man who helped Riordan unseat half the school board only a year before — asked him to run L.A. Unified.
Romer got the job and quickly embarked on the most ambitious initiative to reduce school overcrowding in U.S. history. With billions of dollars in construction-bond funds at his disposal, Romer brought in half a dozen officials from the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps to impose a military-style approach to school construction. While Romer has drawn widespread praise for his rapid construction of dozens of new schools, the debate over mayoral control has largely ignored his equally relentless focus on what are known as API scores. API, which stands for Academic Performance Index, is based on standardized tests, dropout rates and other data. Relying on the reading program known as Open Court, Romer saw API scores surge by nearly 200 points — from 523 out of 1,000 to 719 — in the elementary grades between 1999 and 2005.
“That’s a magnificent piece of growth,” Romer said. “There are no other urban districts in California that have done that. None. On its face, you can’t call that a failing district. On its face, you have to call that progress. But we have more work to do, because we are still below the state average.”
Romer freely distributes charts and bar graphs to anyone who will listen to a pitch about the district’s steady climb. Yet his bravado sounds slightly less impressive when he discusses the upper grades. Middle school API scores increased by 129 points over six years, while high schools saw an even softer, 94-point jump.
Asked whether the district focused on younger children at the expense of high school students, Romer vehemently disagreed. Yet almost in the same breath, he said the district is finally making a dent in the upper-level grades as elementary school students who relied on Open Court and other changes move through the system.
“I love California because I’m an agriculturalist. You don’t get that great-quality grape the first time. You’ve got to nurture them, tend to them over a number of years,” Romer said. “It’s the same thing with students. You’ve got to raise that performance, nurture them, so that when they get to high school, they’ve got the capacity to succeed there.”
Romer’s arguments have done little to convince David Abel, founder of a nonprofit group that tries to link new school construction with other civic amenities, such as health clinics, parks and libraries. Abel, an influential thinker in Los Angeles on planning and public schools, sent his only child to public school until the third grade. Once his son entered private school, he informed his father that he could finally hear himself think.
Where Romer is boastful about his massive school-construction program, Abel is aghast, saying that the military model for school construction will turn out to be a disaster — leaving children lost inside oversize, impersonal behemoths.
Abel compared Romer’s school-construction program to another historic public-works initiative — the building of a flood-control channel in the Los Angeles River. County supervisors relied on the Army Corps of Engineers, another military entity, to carry out that job in the wake of the 1938 floods.
“They gave them the simplest of job challenges: Stop the flooding,” Abel said. “And they did. They paved the river. Now we’re coming back many, many years later and spending a fortune to make that river livable. We’re doing the same thing with our $19 billion building program. We’re building seats, we’re not building them as learning centers. It’s ‘Stop the Flooding.’ ”
Even Romer’s attempt to lift school test scores drew fire from Abel, who said that the superintendent marshaled all of the district’s energy into improving the scores of the bottom quarter of the population. Curriculum is so regimented — with every teacher in every school following the same script — that it is driving away families with higher-performing children. “If you’re a middle-class family in L.A., this school system is not designed for you.”
Abel enthusiastically backs mayoral control, saying it will finally bring a citywide focus to public schools. That, in turn, will address an imbalance of power that has given school-employee unions disproportionate control over textbooks, school calendars, bathroom cleanup, maintenance, and the use of campuses and playgrounds, he said.
Yet the very threat of mayoral takeover has already diminished the political voice of the teachers’ union, which has offered lukewarm responses to Villaraigosa’s challenge. UTLA president A.J. Duffy, for example, has been an outspoken critic of No Child Left Behind, saying it allows the federal government to label a school as failing when a single student subgroup — for example, African-Americans or Asians or Spanish-speakers — shows a lack of improvement. When he is asked about Villaraigosa’s decision to use that same law as a tool in his takeover campaign, Duffy stammers and struggles to be diplomatic.
“My guys want me to be very cautious at this point, because we’re hopeful that we can come to some middle ground. And as you know, I’ve been very mindful of how I respond to these things, and I want to keep this debate civil,” Duffy explained. Pressed for comment, Duffy grew slightly more candid about the mayor. “He’s drawing conclusions that the district is failing, based upon data that he doesn’t even believe himself.”
The path to mayoral takeover did not start with Villaraigosa. Nor did it begin with Hahn, who made crime reduction the hallmark of his first four years, only to find that schools were the hot electoral ticket during last year’s mayoral campaign. The very concept of an L.A. Unified takeover was born during that rough-and-tumble campaign, pushed to the forefront by a third candidate for mayor, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg — a man who was once Villaraigosa’s roommate, and who regularly listens to the views of David Abel.
Like Abel, Hertzberg was relentless on the need to address the dropout rate. And like Abel, he regularly compared the sprawling school district to East Germany during the Cold War. Hertzberg promised to break up L.A. Unified, a message that wowed voters on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, allowing him to come within spitting distance of a runoff against Villaraigosa.
“Certainly that wasn’t an issue [Villaraigosa] talked about in the beginning,” Hertzberg recalled. “He and Jim didn’t think schools were something the mayor should deal with.”
Hertzberg’s campaign left its mark, with Hahn and Villaraigosa scrambling to show a greater level of engagement on education issues. Both jumped at the chance to testify before the school board, and both signed a pledge issued by the Small Schools Alliance, which promised to shrink every campus in L.A. Unified to no more than 500 students by 2015 — even though neither candidate would be mayor by then because of term limits.
As the runoff campaign progressed, the education arms race intensified. Hahn, keenly aware that the positioning over the Small Schools pledge had been a draw, went out on a limb, telling voters that the Los Angeles mayor should have the power to appoint three school board members.
Villaraigosa took the bait. Within days, he outflanked Hahn, saying he wanted “ultimate control” of L.A. Unified. Those words would have deep ramifications for Villaraigosa’s first term in office, tethering him to a promise that voters would never forget.
Villaraigosa’s statement immediately sparked divisions within his camp of supporters. On the day of the announcement, one Villaraigosa operative privately described the campaign’s top strategists as “idiots” for letting their candidate go so far out on a limb. Yet surprisingly, the promise of mayoral takeover did little to ruffle the feathers of core supporters like UTLA and the CTA. In the months after his election victory, Villaraigosa tossed out hints that he might not need to pursue a mayoral takeover right away. The editorial board of the L.A. Times — headed by a transplant from New York City who had seen mayoral control there — quickly nailed the mayor for deviating from his campaign promise. Chastened by the city’s largest newspaper, Villaraigosa restated his interest in mayoral control and then went dormant for a few months, just as he was pushing for Measure Y, the $4 billion school-construction bond that passed on November 8 with nearly two-thirds of the vote — and for the man he chose to replace him on the City Council, school board president Jose Huizar.
For four years, Huizar served on a school board whose structure has gone largely unchanged for more than a century. In the late 1800s, when Los Angeles was but a small fraction of its current size, the school board operated out of City Hall and hovered between five and 11 members. In 1902, voters decided to reduce the size of the school board from nine to seven members, eliminating the system that allowed board members to be chosen from individual districts. Voters then avoided any other significant changes until 1978, when — seeking to bring minority representation to L.A. Unified — they abandoned the at-large system and went back to electing board members from districts.
The woman who replaced Huizar as board president is perhaps the unlikeliest figure at L.A. Unified to defend the current system. In 2001, former schoolteacher Marlene Canter unseated an incumbent school board member who had been backed by UTLA, which vigorously opposes mayoral control. During the runoff campaign, Canter picked up the backing of Riordan — a fan of both mayoral control and breakup. And her message was honed by John Shallman, who helped Hertzberg craft his successful school-based mayoral campaign.
A resident of Westwood, Canter got her start in education as a teacher at Alta Loma Elementary School in 1971. Those first years were rocky ones, as Canter discovered that she lacked the skills to bring order to her classroom. After learning that other teachers had similar frustrations, Canter and her then-husband devised and then drafted a list of strategies for helping teachers impose discipline. The couple soon had a consulting company in Santa Monica, staffed with experts who could train teachers to manage their classrooms and solve the problem of bad behavior. Canter sold the company in 1998, but stayed on as an adviser until 2000, when she decided to run for the school board.
Where Villaraigosa is calm and reassuring, Canter can be brittle and nervous. Yet she has slowly found her footing, working the room at Villaraigosa’s State of the City address and reciting carefully crafted soundbites for the print, radio and television reporters who had been cordoned off for much of the event. Since the mayor’s speech, she has been talking nonstop about L.A. Unified’s accomplishments, including its roster of California Distinguished Schools — the most in district history — and its winning Academic Decathlon Team. As she has grown more comfortable in the spotlight, Canter has begun portraying Villaraigosa’s initiative as a politically driven bid for power.
“My focus is the kids of L.A., as it is with the rest of the board and the superintendent, and every day [Villaraigosa] doesn’t work with us is a day he’s cheating the kids,” she said. “He’s been to New York and Chicago more than he’s been to our offices. He hasn’t met with the board members. I don’t think he really knows what our mission or vision is. . . . If he did, he’d find that there’s nothing that he’s saying that hasn’t been talked about or done.”
In the first months after Villaraigosa took office, Canter and the mayor had achieved a sort of détente, working in tandem for the passage of Measure Y. On election night — just as Villaraigosa, Canter and a wide-ranging union coalition celebrated passage of Measure Y and the defeat of Schwarzenegger’s ballot measures — the mayor lowered the boom. Standing in the Biltmore Hotel, he turned to Canter and told her that he planned to launch the next phase of his education campaign, making L.A. Unified his target.
Said Canter: “The way I felt was, it was like we had just finished this political fight, and now we’re on to the next one. And that’s why I say it’s all about politics.”
A day later, Villaraigosa returned to the Biltmore to address a group of business leaders, where he promptly blasted L.A. Unified’s troubled schools and told the audience he planned to wage a “battle royal” for control of the district. The radical change in message seemed suspect to some on the school board, who questioned whether Villaraigosa had refrained from criticizing L.A. Unified for months just to avoid harming the election chances of Huizar, the council candidate who had served for the previous four years on the school board.
As his campaign has progressed, Villaraigosa has worked a storyline into many of his education-related events: L.A. Unified fails low-income and Spanish-speaking students — indeed, does not even believe they can be taught. One such event occurred on the roof of a charter school in downtown Los Angeles, as it accepted a $6 million contribution from entertainment mogul Casey Wasserman. The celebration resembled a revival meeting, with one parent weeping onstage as she described her battle to move her son out of L.A. Unified’s regular high school system and onto a Green Dot campus.
“I was scared. I was a single parent, and I thought I was losing my son to the system,” said Mary Najera, the mother of an 11th-grader now attending Oscar De La Hoya Animo Charter School. As she described her son’s transformation from F student to engaged pupil, Najera choked her way through angry sobs. “Like hell I was going to give up on my son,” she told the crowd of 500 parents and students.
That moment was not lost on the mayor, or on the man who had invited him, Green Dot founder and CEO Steve Barr.
“The only way the game’s gonna change is if you create a parent revolt,” said Barr a few days later. “This issue is just brutal. You’re losing 30,000 to 40,000 kids a year from dropout rates, and you’ve got a work force that’s pretty much illiterate. Try to attract business to this city. Not only is real estate through the moon, but you’ve got to pay double or triple tax, depending on how many kids you’ve got, to send them to private school.”
Green Dot has focused exclusively on students in low-income neighborhoods in Lennox, Inglewood and Los Angeles, promising parents schools with no more than 500 students, individualized attention, and minimal overhead costs. So far, Barr’s organization operates five schools with a total of 2,200 students.
In his spare time, Barr has provided Villaraigosa behind-the-scenes advice on mayoral takeover, working to make sure the mayor sticks with a plan for smaller schools and a decentralization of L.A. Unified. Barr has also been waging his own exhausting battle for control — attempting to rally parents in South Los Angeles to convert troubled Jefferson High School into a Green Dot campus.
That battle is far from over, with UTLA promising to fight Barr’s effort to organize parents around Jefferson. Yet Barr is already talking about Green Dot transformations of other major high schools within L.A. Unified. Now that he lives in Silver Lake and has an 8-month-old baby girl, Barr suggests that one future target might be the 4,400-seat Marshall High School in nearby Franklin Hills, where his daughter will one day go to school.
“It’d be interesting to take this fight that we’re doing at Jefferson, and do it in a middle-class neighborhood,” said Barr. “Because I think the traction would be unbelievable.”
One day after he delivered his State of the City address and accompanying plan for L.A. Unified, Villaraigosa made his way to Chinatown, where he revealed many of the details of his 2006-'07 budget, his first as mayor. The conceit was simple: Villaraigosa will invest more in children’s programs — park space, library books and library hours, and so on. Not only are such programs winners with the public, but they conveniently insulate the mayor against criticism that the man who wants to run the public schools does too little to help schoolchildren.
Standing before dozens of elementary school students, Villaraigosa and his closest allies on the City Council — Wendy Greuel, Eric Garcetti, Bernard Parks — congratulated each other for finding an extra $1 million in this year’s budget to pay for library hours, a move that would allow 24 branch libraries to expand from 52 to 60 hours a week.
On its face, the announcement sounded like the kind of incrementalism that critics of L.A. Unified say they hate. If the city really wanted to help kids, why wouldn’t it dig a little deeper into its pockets and find another $3.9 million, a sum that represents one-half of 1 percent of the budget and would instantly allow each of the city’s 71 branch libraries to open every Sunday? Hours before Villaraigosa appeared in Chinatown, the City Council voted to spend $40 million to expand its elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo — a move the mayor agreed to let stand.
District officials repeatedly argue that Los Angeles should model itself after San Francisco, by providing a greater level of city funds to pay for children’s programs, arts activities and school safety. In Los Angeles, the school board held a special hearing to receive testimony from San Francisco city officials, who recently beefed up funding for children, but no one from the media covered the event. By comparison, Villaraigosa’s Chinatown press conference drew more than a dozen reporters, including several television-news cameras.
Goldberg, one of the few elected officials in Los Angeles to have served on both the school board and the City Council, said the biggest issue for L.A. Unified is the lack of sufficient funding — an issue the mayor could easily take up in Sacramento if he used his political capital. Now in the state Assembly, Goldberg also questioned whether Villaraigosa has the city bureaucracy running so smoothly that he can take on a new, huge assignment.
“I have worked in both institutions, and I don’t think the city runs better than the school district,” she went on. “They’re about the same. They have some departments that are more efficient than others. But our mayor made great promises about transportation, and I was driving last night, so I hope he keeps those promises. Because there’s hardly a rush hour anymore. It’s all rush hour.”
To get his mayoral takeover through the state Assembly, Villaraigosa will have to get past Goldberg, a former high school teacher who is now chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee. An outspoken foe of mayoral control, Goldberg argued that the high school dropout rate is at a crisis level because students are bored; many of the classes that make the day interesting have been replaced by the intense drilling for testing in math and reading, she argued.
Still, Goldberg’s influence has diminished since she arrived in Sacramento, as centrist Democrats and a Republican governor pushed her and her agenda aside. She will be termed out in December after just six years representing the 45th Assembly District. If Villaraigosa fails this time around, he will have a new group of lawmakers — including Goldberg’s replacement — to persuade in the next legislative session.
Five candidates are seeking Goldberg’s seat, representing the most left-leaning neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The front-runner is union organizer Kevin de León, who is running with the blessing of Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, a close Villaraigosa ally who will be needed to usher the mayoral-takeover bill through the Legislature.
De León holds the kind of résumé that would make him a natural foe of mayoral control. He is on leave from the CTA, having worked last year with the Alliance for a Better California, the union coalition that defeated Schwarzenegger’s four ballot measures last year. Yet asked this week about the issue, de León said he still has no position.
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Like dozens of Democrats, de León finds himself navigating between his loyalty to Núñez and the mayor and his fealty to the CTA. His ambivalence, five months after a decisive victory over a Republican governor, shows Villaraigosa's power. And his candidacy offers other lessons about the battle for mayoral control.
Duffy, the UTLA president, recently offered to back de León’s state Assembly bid, only to see his own membership block the endorsement. The turnabout served as a subtle warning to Duffy about any efforts to reach a behind-the-scenes deal with Villaraigosa over mayoral control, said Rowan Elementary School teacher Paul Huebner, who serves on the union’s endorsement board.
Huebner marched with Villaraigosa during the 1989 teachers’ strike. Yet Huebner said he will have no qualms about flying up to Sacramento this summer to tell state legislators that they need to keep the seven-member school board in charge of L.A. Unified — and defeat Villaraigosa’s plan.
“We do have a sitting policy at UTLA that’s in opposition to [mayoral control],” Huebner said. “And there are a large, large number of people in the leadership of the union who would fight to the death for that.”