NOTHING MAKES A POLITICAL OPERATIVE ?in Los Angeles wince quite like U2, the arena rock band whose music is used shamelessly for Election Night parties and campaign rallies. With Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” finally exhausted as a campaign soundtrack, politicians gravitate to the easy-access optimism of “Beautiful Day” and the grandiosity of “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

So when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa swept out of last week’s rally for charter-school funding to the bombastic strains of vintage U2, it was clear that the battle for control of Los Angeles Unified School District had decisively shifted into the realm of a political campaign — one complete with the stirring speeches, private polling and the ugly back-and-forth exchanges that were the hallmark of last year’s mayoral election.

The increasingly bitter battle for control of L.A. Unified enters its next phase on Tuesday with Villaraigosa’s State of the City speech, an address normally used to unveil a brand-new municipal budget, but this year one that will serve as a high-profile vehicle for Villaraigosa’s much-promised mayoral authority. The speech is expected to feature the outlines not only of the school-district takeover plan, but also the mayor’s strategy for improving L.A. Unified.

When the mayor formed a campaign fund-raising committee to push school reform, mayoral takeover looked like it would resemble the 2002 San Fernando Valley secession, an election that saw another mayor raise unlimited funds to achieve a citywide goal. Now, with United Teachers Los Angeles writing the radio ads to promote its competing vision of reform — one that relies heavily on a full-time school board and a devolution of power to individual campuses — the union is instantly drawing comparisons with last year’s preemptive strike against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his failed slate of initiatives.

Villaraigosa has already dropped a few hints of his own on how he will overhaul the district, promising to establish parent centers on every campus, shift decision-making into classrooms and force the district to undergo a state audit of classroom spending. But his political message has come into even sharper focus, painting L.A. Unified as a district that simply does not believe that low-income, Spanish-speaking students can succeed.

“I’m tired,” Villaraigosa screamed, his voice booming at the crowd of charter-school students, “of those who would say, ‘Oh pobrecito .?.?. they can’t learn English. They can’t learn algebra. They can’t graduate from high school, they can’t go on to college, they can’t go on to City Hall and be the mayor.’ That’s what they said to me and people like me a generation ago, and I’m here to say, ya basta!

Villaraigosa’s speech capped a frenzied week of posturing over mayoral control, one whose tit-for-tat exchanges certainly felt like the jabs of a campaign. While the mayor rallied the giddy charter-school students of Green Dot Public Schools, school-board member David Tokofsky was in Chicago convincing the National School Boards Association to vote unanimously against mayoral takeovers of any district. One day earlier, school-board president Marlene Canter spent an hour before a 30-member panel on education reform rebutting statements made about the district by Villaraigosa’s in-house lawyer, Thomas Saenz.

Then there was the slugfest between Villaraigosa and Superintendent Roy Romer. Choreographed for a conference of educators, the two leaders of the Democratic Party — one from a previous generation, one from the current — sparred over the school district’s successes and failures. Appearing at the opening session, Villaraigosa repeatedly used the phrase “culture of complacency” to sum up L.A. Unified, saying four-fifths of the district’s middle-school students are trapped in failing schools. He also promised to emulate New York City’s schools chancellor, Joel Klein, who is pursuing a series of experimental initiatives under the supervision of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“When you’re a leader, you’ve got to take risks,” Villaraigosa told the audience at the Omni Hotel. “Guess what happens when you take risks? Sometimes you fall on your face. I know. I’ve fallen on my face more times than most have, and I’ve fallen in public. But I’ve gotten up every time, and I think what we need are those kinds of risk-takers. We need those people who are willing to challenge [the bureaucracy], and I don’t think we have that right now.”

ROMER ISSUED AN ANGRY RESPONSE the following day, showing up at the Education Trust–West conference with a series of oversize charts showing that L.A. Unified test scores have gone up not just in the elementary schools, which surged over a six-year period, but also in the middle and high schools. “The mayor has a political agenda,” Romer said in his opening remarks. “And he’s chosen to trash the district as part of that agenda.”

Romer argued that the district had established a base of improvement in the lower grades, which in the last three years has made its way into the middle and high school levels. Acknowledging that he has only four months left as superintendent, the 77-year-old Romer subtly portrayed Villaraigosa’s planned takeover — and his embrace of risk-taking — as one that could undermine his hard-fought gains.

“The one thing I don’t want us to do, I don’t want us to cause this district to slide back into the theory of the month,” Romer said. “We need to stay the course. This management structure works, and rigor in the curriculum works. But you can only get there if you demand it on every level.”

With his easels and bar graphs, Romer’s political presence proved nearly as formidable as Villaraigosa’s. But with the superintendent eyeing the door, none of the foes of mayoral control seem to know who will deliver a message to counter the mayor. Canter, while passionate, has an occasionally whiny tone to her advocacy. And the teachers union has had an image of disarray ever since the chaotic primary election to replace former school-board member José Huizar.

United Teachers Los Angeles met two weeks ago with Villaraigosa chief of staff Robin Kramer to discuss its own L.A. Unified reform plan — one that relies on a full-time school board, a vigorous campaign for more state funding and a devolution of decision-making to local campuses. Unnerved by Kramer’s frequent references to L.A. Unified as “the beast,” the union’s policy makers failed to deter Villaraigosa from a takeover. One week later, union leaders decided to promote their reform plan a different way, writing radio spots that will serve as a counter to Villaraigosa’s campaign.

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