Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gets major credit for two seldom-seen qualities tonight in his 2011 State of the City address: 1) He's got an attention span, focused on LAUSD's awful schools — which constitute the single biggest cultural and economic drag on the region, and could, in the next two decades, cause L.A. to devolve into a post-millennial Detroit. 2) He's displaying heroics against teachers unions — the AFT, CTA and UTLA — who view as inevitable the classroom dumbing-down of young people by teachers, and who strongly oppose the needed reforms.

What pushed Villaraigosa down a road so abhorred by his friends who run California's education unions? He's calling for shredding — to bits — the United Teachers Los Angeles union contract, which was long sacrosanct.

He told the boisterous, happy crowd at Jefferson High School tonight in South Los Angeles that before the “School Choice” reformers took over at Jefferson, he visited the school and saw that “kids roamed unsupervised, graffiti was everywhere, police in riot gear controlled the corridors .. the campus was a powder keg.”

Now Jefferson High School is dominated by “a curriculum aimed at college readiness,” a good principal and “students who raise their sights and raised their [California standardized test] scores by 33 points last year.”

That's why tonight Villaraigosa called for “pilot reforms that can be taken to scale throughout the district,” not just at charter schools, the 10 schools overseen by his Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, and at a handful of other reform-oriented LAUSD schools.

He called the incoming LAUSD Superintendent, John Deasy, “Bill Bratton with a ruler.” We'll see, this year, if that is so.

But he finally got around to his key, and controversial message:

He called for turning LAUSD into a network of local, independently controlled campuses, allowing “open enrollment beyond traditional neighborhood boundaries” to create parental choice, and for “protecting and expanding the use of the parent trigger” to give parents the power to convert failing schools.

Finally, he issued the hottest news:

“The teacher contract expires in June,” Villaraigosa said. “With the stars aligned, we have to seize the opportunity. Let's (devise) a new contract … Let's stop dictating at the district level and let local schools make the decisions” on such things as staffing, funding and curriculum.

“Let's compensate teachers for demonstrated effectiveness — not just [for their] years of service and course credits …. and do away with the last-hired, first-fired seniority system.”

He said to loud applause: “When more than 99% of district teachers receive the same 'satisfactory' evaluation, it serves nobody.”

Finally, he added: “I know that these proposals will raise some concern and spark controversy. I could hear some of the people [protesting] outside. As a former union organizer, I understand your fear. I stood with you then, and I'll stand with you now. Change is hard.”

But he added: “Our time is now. The nation is watching. L.A. must take the lead.”

Villaraigosa almost assuredly shares the fears originally espoused by Mayor Richard Riordan during his campaign in 1992: That the viability of L.A. as a city is not guaranteed for the long-term, and that the more than 600 schools run by Los Angeles Unified School District have the single greatest ability to seal the deal for L.A.'s viability — or wipe it out.

Fact: LAUSD educates 1 in every 10 children in California. LAUSD drags the majority of students back further and further for each year they remain in the school district.

That scares Villaraigosa and all rational Californians.

Fixing LAUSD has been the single biggest L.A. mayoral duty since 1993 even though City Hall has no direct power over the school board and schools.

Villaraigosa has had a terrible attention span on almost every big job he has tackled as mayor, a flaw that has contributed to his failed mayoralty.

But political failure is not a permanent state, and Antonio Villaraigosa could still leave office as a success. Amidst all his wasted time grinning at the cameras, Villaraigosa has never given up on the schools or forgotten about their central role in L.A.'s demise — or rise.

Antonio gets kudos for that.

Villaraigosa had to be scared — cold-sweat scared — when he saw the new 2010 U.S. Census numbers showing the first, unmistakable signs of mass rejection of Los Angeles as a place where people clamor to live.

L.A. has had anemic, tiny growth over ten years. Yet several other U.S. cities grew at a healthy clip between 2000 and 2010.

The most interesting data, which the mayor has no doubt seen, was published by blogdowntown, complete with fascinating maps.

The data shows that hipster City Council District 13 (including Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Atwater Village), saw a loss of roughly 18,000 people.

That's a strong rejection of the luxury condo/Dwell magazine/live-work vertical development ethos relentlessly pushed by that area's elected representative, City Councilman Eric Garcetti.

L.A. City Hall poured some $5 billion in direct and indirect Community Redevelopment Agency spending into “Hollywood Redevelopment” — and got a fun district of bars and restaurants with flashy billboards, unaffordable — yet noisy — apartments and the W Hotel. And crappy schools.

Inhabitants in and around Hollywood? They're gradually migrating away.

While Hollywood and environs lost people, the only real growth in Los Angeles was in three distinct geographic areas:

1) The West San Fernando Valley and some north-central parts of the Valley, which together grew by 16,000 or so people. Angelenos with kids opted for yards and the Valley's consistently better LAUSD-run suburban schools, rejecting “elegant density” and the crappier city-side LAUSD-run schools;

2) Downtown also grew, as more upscale and largely childless households embraced elegant density, not yards. Of course, they didn't have nearly as many worries about the crappy LAUSD-run schools around Downtown, since only a modest number of the new Downtown households consist of families with children. And you can't save a city by wooing childless upper-earners.

3) South Los Angeles, where mostly Mexican illegal immigrants with significantly higher birth rates than Americans fueled moderate population growth — and at the same time embraced entrepreneurism that has helped the area's long-devastated business districts.

The Westside barely grew over the decade — all that additional traffic and rudeness is thanks to other factors.

And population losses, though not as bad as in City Council District 13, were seen in the highly urbanized Council Districts represented by Council Members Herb Wesson, Ed Reyes, Jose Huizar and Tom LaBonge.

Villaraigosa was a young father and now has several grandchildren. He'd probably love it if they could stay here, in Los Angeles, instead of leaving.

Villaraigosa wants to be able to tell his grandkids that he stared down some very foolish adults in the education system and teachers unions, who insisted on doing the same things over and over again in hopes of getting different results — the definition of insane.

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