Painful lessons

Running LA schools shouldn't be on Villaraigosa's things to do list in 2006

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 01/05/2006

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Longtime education activist, former LA school board member, City Councilwoman and chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Jackie Goldberg, flatly says that LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hasn't said or done anything to show that he can run the schools any better than the LA Board of Education. Her words don't mean much.

Villaraigosa's determined to barge ahead with his plan to takeover the school district. Though LA City Controller Laura Chick would probably deny it, she recently aided and abetted the mayor's takeover plot by demanding that the LAUSD turn over all its financial records. That's a thinly disguised effort to show that the district is the abysmal failure Villaraigosa's claims that it is. That will make it even easier to sell his takeover notion to the public and the Legislature.

Villaraigosa has loudly touted the supposed success that mayors in Chicago, Cleveland, and New York have had in turning their miserably failing schools around to back his claim that he can do the same. But have they? And are LA's schools as far gone as Villaraigosa insists?

Few dispute claims that LA public schools can do better, much better. The drop out rate is still way too high, graduation rates are still way too low and too many students still can't read properly or do basic math. Still, the LAUSD has made some improvement. It has stepped up the pace of school construction, decentralized operations, encouraged more parent involvement and, most importantly, bumped up math and reading test scores for fourth and eighth graders.

But LA's educational woes are hardly unique. According to a recent report by the National Assessment of Education Progress, students in nine of the nation's 11 big city school districts fell below national achievement levels, and that includes students in Chicago, New York and Cleveland, all cities where mayors call the shots. The school districts bomb in part because there are too many lousy teachers and wasteful and inefficient administrators and moribund school boards.

But they bomb in bigger part because of poverty, immigration, language difficulties and gross under-funding. These are big-ticket, intractable social problems that a mayor can't wave a magic wand and solve.

In the mayor-run school districts in New York and Chicago, which Villaraigosa touts as examples of the educational miracle mayor's can work if given a free hand, the test scores have marginally inched up, while nearly half of fourth graders fell below basic reading levels.

New York has gone through four chancellors in two years and teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders complain that, in creating a central command school board and disbanding the community boards, parents and teachers are shut out of school policy decisions.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley doesn't rule the schools with an iron hand. Local school councils make many of the key school policy decisions. They include parents and community members, principals and teachers. Under state law, each council can hire and evaluate the principals and have the final say over a school's discretionary budget and improvement plan.

In Cleveland, the schools had nightmare debts and drop-out rates and wallowed at the bottom in achievement scores. There was absolutely nowhere for them to go but up. Though, the debt is down and student achievement has slightly improved since the mayor took over, the results from the assessment survey show that the majority of students in Cleveland still test on a par with or below those in LA schools.

Then there is Baltimore. That's the one mayor-run school district that takeover backers don't talk about. Baltimore schools were an educational disaster when the mayor took them over in 1997. Several years later, they still were. It took a state-city partnership before significant improvements were finally attainted.

This is not to say that Villaraigosa's takeover bid is a crass political grab, or that he shouldn't have a voice in school direction. Trained, educated and skilled professionals are crucial to the economic growth and well being and quality of life in Los Angeles.

However, he can have that voice by doing what Mayor Richard Riordan did. He turned the mayor's office into a bully pulpit to prod and cajole LA Unified officials to do even more to reverse the district's low student achievement levels. He put his political muscle and money behind school board candidates committed to education reform and aggressively lobbied state and federal officials for more money for school improvements.

Villaraigosa has barely completed a half-year at City Hall. He still must put the final touch on police reform, come up with a workable plan for LAX expansion, deal with a looming city budget shortfall, strengthen neighborhood councils, battle the gang and homeless crisis, jump start business development in South LA and tackle the city's horrendous transportation problem. That's more than enough to keep him busy. Running the LA schools shouldn't be on his list.

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