Mayor Attempts to Take Over Los Angeles Schools

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is promoting a controversial fix for the city's struggling public school system. He wants to put the bureaucracy under his control. Villaraigosa says this will bring more accountability to Los Angeles public schools. But his opponents call it a power grab.

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The mayor of one the nation's biggest cities wants to take charge of one of the nation's biggest school districts. Here in Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa says public schools can improve if the mayor becomes accountable for them. The mayor will be pushing for that change in his State of the City speech today, following cities like Chicago, Boston and Cleveland.

If he fails, Villaraigosa says all of the rest of his agenda, from economic development to public safety, won't amount to much. It's an enormously difficult task, even for a popular mayor with considerable political capital, as Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

When Mayor Villaraigosa unveils his vision for the future of Los Angeles at a public school today, he's likely to revisit the promise he's made repeatedly to public school parents since his election 10 months ago.

Mr. ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Mayor, Los Angeles, California): When you hear me talk about mayoral control, I'm not looking for more power. I'm looking for accountability to you.

(Soundbite of Applause)

SANCHEZ: At this event a few days ago at a privately run charter school that Villaraigosa helped create for mostly low-income, immigrant students, he told nearly 400 parents, I will rescue your children from a public school system mired in complacency.

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: I'm tired. I'm tired of those who would say (Foreign Language Spoken) you know. Oh they can't learn English. 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 of Los Angeles, 'cause that's what they said to me and people like me a generation ago. And we're here to say, (Foreign Language Spoken).

SANCHEZ: Enough, Villaraigosa shouts, punching the air with his fist. This is Villaraigosa at his best; defiant, connecting with frustrated parents like Mary Narjera(ph). She makes her way to the podium, shaking, teary-eyed, embittered by her son's experience in a bad school.

Ms. MARY NARJERA: I felt that the system had abandoned him. He had failed. He had failed across the board. I was scared. I am a single parent and I was scared. I thought I was losing my son to the system. So I just think that Mayor Villaraigosa, he needs to know that we really, really need his support to get many, many more schools like this open.

SANCHEZ: Villaraigosa embraces Narjera; then waves into the crowd, gleaming in his trademark, dark-blue suit, white shirt and shiny, lime-green tie.

(Soundbite of Crowd Chanting in Foreign Language)

Several women known as Las Promotores(ph) chant their approval. But as Villaraigosa leaves this adoring crowd, he knows he's on a collision course with the city's elected school board, the powerful teacher's union and the massive bureaucracy that runs the Los Angeles unified school district; the second largest in the nation with nearly 730,000 students spread out over 700 square miles.

All that Villaraigosa's opponents know about his plan, though, is through stump speeches like today's. When he agreed to an interview with NPR, he declined to discuss specifics. He was anxious, however, to say that it's his critics, not him, who call his plan a takeover.

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: The term I use more often than not is the term accountability; mayoral oversight for the purpose of ensuring accountability and success in our schools. A takeover sounds more like, you know, a power grab.

SANCHEZ: The mayor's critics say that's exactly what it is; a power grab. And it's been sold to parents based on a lie.

Mr. AJ DUFFY (President, United Teachers of Los Angeles, California): A lie that says this is a failing school district. Don't tell me this is a failing school system.

SANCHEZ: AJ Duffy is president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. The union opposes mayoral control of the schools, because, as Duffy puts it, it would be replacing one bloated bureaucracy with another. What the mayor really wants is control of the school district's $7 billion budget, says Duffy. He is, after all, a politician.

Mr. DUFFY: And politicians do things--let me be kind, for what they consider to be the greater good of the greater whole. If a time comes where he needs money for the city to fix infrastructure and he can find it in the school budget, he'll take it.

SANCHEZ: Villaraigosa scoffs at the idea. He says there are laws that prevent him from raiding the city school budget. But in the end, he says, it doesn't matter what people think of his motives. Los Angeles is facing an educational meltdown. Only 13 percent of the city's students read at grade level. No more than 11 percent are at grade level in math. Over 80 percent of the students in the system, says Villaraigosa, are trapped in schools that the district, itself, has identified as failing. And worse, the dropout rate is over 50 percent.

Mr. ROY ROMER (Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District): He's wrong.

SANCHEZ: Los Angeles School Superintendent Roy Romer is a former governor of Colorado, who came to Los Angeles six years ago with his own plan to overhaul the school system.

Mr. ROMER: Now, we're a long ways from being perfect at this system. But let me show you something that's really critical.

SANCHEZ: Romer spreads out several binders with spreadsheets and bar graphs on a big table in his downtown office.

Mr. ROMER: And I know we're on mic, but I need to just show you the graph. No other urban district in California has made the academic gains that we have made.

SANCHEZ: The data show that math and reading scores in Los Angeles elementary schools have shot up three years in a row; faster than the state average and higher than most cities in California. As for the city's dropout rate, Romer argues it's not 50 percent, as the mayor says. It's half that.

Mr. ROMER: Our dropout rate is less than New York. It's less than Chicago. The mayor doesn't represent it that way, but that's the fact.

SANCHEZ: And finally, Romer argues, if the school system was as bad as Villaraigosa claims, the residents of Los Angeles would not have approved four straight bond issues worth $19 billion to help build 150 new schools.

Mr. ROMER: We're not trying to get into an argument with the mayor. But for him to come at us and say, you know, you're a failure; you're complacent; it's simply not true. He should not be trashing this district.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Look, I'm not here to bash or trash the superintendent.

SANCHEZ: Again, Mayor Villaraigosa.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: What I am here to do is to speak out for these parents. I think you saw me a few minutes ago. You saw the way their parents and the students respond to me; because they know that for a generation I've spoken out on their behalf. They know I believe in them. And I believe in the power of transforming our schools.

SANCHEZ: How tough will Mayor Villaraigosa's fight for control of the Los Angeles Public School System be? In a meeting with editors and reporters at the L.A. Times last week, Villaraigosa said it's going to be an absolute war.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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