L.A. Mayor Hopes to Take Over School District

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been talking tough in his bid to take control of the city's large, troubled school district. Such a takeover could put Villaraigosa at odds with the teachers' union, a group he once served as a labor organizer.

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The mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, wants to take control of his city's public schools. The LA Unified School District is the second largest in the nation. It has more than 700,000 students and low test scores and high dropout rates. To take over, the mayor would have to overcome opposition from the elected school board and the teachers' union. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.

(Soundbite of applause and cheers)

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: When I started--good afternoon, everybody.

INA JAFFE reporting:

Antonio Villaraigosa got a standing ovation from the students in the Belmont High auditorium last week. In a school that's more than 90 percent Latino, LA's Latino mayor coming to talk to them was a big deal. He was there to support a new community-based program designed to cut the number of dropouts and increase the number of kids going to college.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Because we've got to plant seeds like this not just at Belmont but in schools throughout our city.

JAFFE: Speaking outside the school afterwards, Villaraigosa cited a Harvard study that found that roughly half of black and Latino boys in LA public schools drop out before high school graduation.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: I think we've had a school system that for 40 years hasn't done the kind of job that it could. And I'm suggesting that we need one person in charge, one person responsible, one person that will hold accountable. And right now, I think the best person for that is the mayor of the city of Los Angeles.

JAFFE: Villaraigosa has been talking about school reform since the campaign. But his remarks have been more frequent and more blunt in recent weeks, blunt enough, in fact, that veteran school board member Julie Korenstein walked out of one of his recent speeches.

Ms. JULIE KORENSTEIN (School Board Member): For anyone to come in and say that they're going to snap their finger and all of a sudden make major changes is, number one, unrealistic and it leads me to believe they really don't understand the problems that we deal with.

JAFFE: Such as 42 percent of students still learning English and 77 percent being poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized meals. The educational establishment seems united in the belief that mayoral control is not the way to improve things.

Mr. A.J. DUFFY (President, Teachers' Union): It takes away the democratic process for the communities that are involved in electing their board of education members.

JAFFE: That's A.J. Duffy, the president of the teachers' union, the same union that once employed Villaraigosa as an organizer.

Mr. DUFFY: I have great respect for him. I do actually trust him. My concern is less with the mayor than who comes after the mayor. Who's to say that the next mayor is not going to use it as political patronage to give a job to his or her best friend's uncle's aunt's sister who may or may not know anything about public education? That's a big concern.

JAFFE: But there's a good reason for Villaraigosa to be stirring up this tempest just five months into his administration says political analyst Rayfield Sunenshine(ph).

Mr. RAYFIELD SUNENSHINE (Political Analyst): The underlying reason is that the voters are increasingly ranking education at the top of their issues. In the 2005 mayor's race, the number one issue was education. So what it suggests is that what had been seen as a separate world, the world of educational governance, at least the big city level now is turning out to be overlapping with city politics and city government.

JAFFE: Well, one of the big questions is even if Villaraigosa wants to take over the school system, can he? The LA Unified School District is comprised of dozens of small cities in addition to Los Angeles. So State Senator Gloria Romero, who represents east LA, introduced legislation shortly after Villaraigosa's election to give him the legal authority he wants.

State Senator GLORIA ROMERO (California): I am at a point where I would say, `Blow up the system. It doesn't work and we are sacrificing entire generations of young people, predominantly Latino kids, low-income kids. Let's really shake up the system.'

JAFFE: But Villaraigosa called Romero's bill premature and the state's nonpartisan legislative analysts called it unconstitutional. Some legal experts say Villaraigosa might have to convince LA voters to amend the city charter. No one's really sure. Meanwhile, he hasn't yet presented his blueprint for what the revamped school district would look like under his control. When he does, then the real battles will begin. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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