L.A. Mayoral Race Focuses on Fixing Public Schools

The race for mayor in Los Angeles has focused largely on pledges by both candidates to fix the city's troubled public schools. Trouble is, L.A.'s mayor has no authority over schools.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in Los Angeles, there's a heated race for mayor. With the election less than two weeks away, the incumbent, James Hahn, is trying to hold on to his job by vowing to fix the city's troubled public schools. The challenger, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, has made a similar pledge. There's just one problem: LA's mayor has absolutely no authority over the schools. As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, that hasn't stopped both candidates from promising to be the education mayor.

INA JAFFE reporting:

For most LA voters, political campaigns don't exist until they're on TV. So it's significant that when challenger Antonio Villaraigosa ran his first ad last week, the subject was LA's struggling school system.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles City Council): For four years now, my opponent sat on the sidelines. But education is so important, a mayor has to get involved. I'll work for smaller classes, expanded preschool and more parental involvement.

JAFFE: Hahn denies he's done nothing for schools. At an assembly at a charter school in the San Fernando Valley, he told students and teachers he dramatically expanded a program called LA's BEST.

(Soundbite of assembly)

Mayor JAMES HAHN (Los Angeles): It's an after-school program that I have expanded for 50 schools since I've been here, 'cause I want young people to have a fun place to go after school, and that should be right at school.

JAFFE: The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest in the nation. Schools are severely overcrowded, test scores are below national norms and a recent Harvard study found that more than half of black and Latino high school students drop out before graduation. At a rally over the weekend, Antonio Villaraigosa said the next mayor has to change that.

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: I think the mayor needs to work with teachers and parents to empower them to have a voice and begin to demand change and accountability in our schools.

JAFFE: But Villaraigosa hasn't been that specific on how he'd do this. In Chicago, New York and other cities, mayors have taken direct control of school districts. Jim Hahn hasn't proposed going that far, but speaking at an event at a high school construction site, he said the mayor of Los Angeles should be able to appoint three members to the school board, which is currently an all-elected panel.

Mayor HAHN: That way we can partner in making our schools safer. We can work together to make sure that the state gives our schools the adequate funding that they need. And it makes sense to enter into that partnership. It works in many other big cities in America; it ought to work here.

JAFFE: Standing just a few feet away from the major was A.J. Duffy, the incoming president of the LA teachers union. He said Hahn's idea was a non-starter.

Mr. A.J. DUFFY (Incoming President, LA Teachers Union): When you get into the area of political appointments, who knows who's gonna be appointed to the school board for what reason, whose relative, what's the purpose of it all? It's too suspect.

JAFFE: It's also not that easy to give the mayor any direct authority over the school system. It would require a change in the city charter or in state law, and there's an even more daunting obstacle, says Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

Mr. FERNANDO GUERRA (Loyola Marymount University): The city of LA is only one of 17 cities that are part of the school district, so that if you give power to the mayor over the school district, all of a sudden the mayor of Los Angeles has power over decisions in the city of Huntington Park, let's say, or in the city of South Gate or other places like that. So that becomes potentially a difficult issue.

JAFFE: Nevertheless, the candidates have to talk about education, says Guerra, because opinion polls show it's so important to the voters.

Mr. GUERRA: It appeals across the board. Every geographic group, every ethnic group, every interest group scores high in terms of their interest in education, and that it's a priority.

JAFFE: One the voters may insist that the mayor of Los Angeles take on, whoever that turns out to be. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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