THEY’RE TRYING TO CENTER LOS ANGELES again. The umpteenth iteration of the give-L.A.-a-downtown project features the combined efforts of Frank Gehry, Eli Broad, the mayor, the county supes, a good deal of business and just about all of labor. This time, it may just work, though it’s still unclear how many retailers want to set up shop there.
In Los Angeles, though, it’s not just centers of business that are spread all across the map, it’s centers of power, too. By both accident and design, we are the most polycentric of cities. And the question raised by Mayor Villaraigosa’s bid to take over the school district — at least, one of the questions — is whether that’s any way to run a mega-city.
If we step back from the immediate power struggles, and from the drama of Antonio battling the union where he spent eight years as an organizer, what we have is the governmental version of L.A.’s recurrent battle between centralization and diffusion. More particularly, we’ve returned to the question of the fundamental opacity, the invisibility, of power and accountability in Los Angeles, and whether there’s anything we can do about it.
For power in Los Angeles is different from power in other major cities. In New York and Chicago, mayors may have relatively recently gained power over the school districts, but they have also long run most other governmental agencies in town. In L.A., that’s not the case. Within L.A. city limits, the county is responsible for health and welfare; the city, for police and fire. There’s no hidden logic here; those responsibilities could just as easily be flipped. As well, ours is, at least on paper, a strong council–weak mayor system, and even the mayor’s control of his own department heads is mediated by the city’s commissions. The school district, of course, is an independent entity altogether. And not since the Hiram Johnson Progressives broke the power of political parties nearly a century ago have there been citywide structures through which citizens could informally access their government. Add to this the media’s general disinclination to cover government in Los Angeles, and what we get is a county of 10 million people who don’t know which public officials to hold accountable for what.
Which, as I mentioned, is partly by design. When progressives wrote the City Charter in the 1920s, they feared political power and political organizations, so they did their best to diffuse the former and abolish the latter. In the absence of elected officials with real power, however, a tight elite of leading local businessmen ran the city, backing the candidates they liked and vetting all key appointments. Today, as virtually all our major corporations, through merger or wanderlust, have moved their headquarters elsewhere, we don’t really have a business elite, but governmental power remains as fragmented as it’s ever been, and the mystery of who in government is responsible for what is no clearer than it’s ever been.
One sure way to school yourself in this popular confusion of responsibilities is to run for mayor. For most of the past two decades, as L.A. schools have grown more overcrowded, and as an increasing number of parents of students have been immigrants for whom L.A. governance may be even more mysterious than it is for natives, mayoral candidates have found that they are repeatedly asked what they’ll do about the schools — though they have no statutory power to do anything. Antonio Villaraigosa has run for mayor twice, and having heard that question thousands of times, he has now given us his answer.
HIS PROPOSAL WOULD CREATE A COUNCIL of mayors of all the cities included within the Los Angeles Unified School District — with each mayor given a vote proportional to the population of his or her city. Since just over 80 percent of the students in the LAUSD reside in Los Angeles, the mayor of Los Angeles would control just over 80 percent of the council’s voting strength. The council would have the power to hire, oversee and fire the superintendent, and would set the district’s budget. The existing school board would not be abolished — that would crete legal complications Villaraigosa would just as soon avoid — but its members would be reduced to parents’ advocates, though at least they don’t have to be hall monitors.
Some of the plan’s critics have termed it dictatorial, which is not merely hyperbolic but ridiculous. Clearly, a democratically elected official or officials should be accountable for the performance of the schools, and Villaraigosa’s proposal vests that accountability in an office for which vastly more people vote than they do in elections for school-board members. Some (not all) of the mayors of the smaller cities in the LAUSD have complained about the plan as well. Villaraigosa has responded that he works to achieve consensus, which he generally does, though there’s no guarantee that he always will or that his successors will at all. Even so, surely a council that voted not proportionally but by a one mayor–one vote system would be not only absurd, but also a violation of the apportionment rulings that the Supreme Court handed down in the early 1960s.
In short, the mayor’s proposal clarifies accountability in a district where clear accountability has at times been in short supply, and transfers that accountability to an office whose democratic legitimacy — if the size of the electorate and the visibility of that office are any criteria of legitimacy — is actually greater than the school board’s. It does diminish the power that teachers, through their union, have exerted over the district through their electoral support of board members, but it gives the overall union movement, which is increasingly the leading player in mayoral elections, more power.
Which is to say, governmentally, Villaraigosa’s proposal is sound. Pedagogically — well, that depends on the mayor, and what the voters ask of him, and how well they hold him to account.