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A Mayor's Plan to Improve the L.A. School District

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A Mayor's Plan to Improve the L.A. School District

Education

A Mayor's Plan to Improve the L.A. School District

A Mayor's Plan to Improve the L.A. School District

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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has negotiated an agreement with the California legislature to allow him greater control of the fractured Los Angeles school system. But will his plan prove effective? And how much can a mayor help improve how kids learn in the sprawling school district?

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

First, this story. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants to control the city's public schools. He needs the approval of state lawmakers to do that. And earlier this week he made his case at a news conference.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): I have a very significant role. The budget, the ratification of superintendent. I have a bully pulpit, remember. And so with this role my voice will be heard.

BRAND: This wouldn't be the first takeover of big city schools by a mayor, but it may prove the most challenging. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

Last year, as he ran for mayor of Los Angeles, candidate Antonio Villaraigosa made no secret that one of his goals after election would be to turn around L.A.'s troubled behemoth of school system. Late Wednesday afternoon, he made good on that promise by convincing the state legislature and the city's powerful Teachers Union to agree to consider a proposal that gives him expanded control of the city's schools and its $7.4 billion budget. It is, he allowed, a risky move for a popular new mayor.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: A lot of people, including some of my friends who opposed this legislation, say why would want this albatross around your neck. And I said to them, you know what, I owe it to these kids.

BATES: The Teachers Union has chafed under mandates by Superintendent Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor who has had the unenviable task of correcting the system for the past six years. Villaraigosa's proposal made L.A.'s teachers a lot happier. Romer had insisted on a uniform teaching curriculum, which many teachers felt was too rigid. Here's A.J. Duffy, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles.

Mr. A.J. DUFFY (President, United Teachers of Los Angeles): This plan empowers educators by allowing them more choice and flexibility to develop curriculum and professional development that meets the needs of their students. And this, maybe more importantly, will bring back the joy of learning and the joy of teaching to our schools and our classroom.

BATES: Not everyone, however, saw it that way. Superintendent Romer says the mayor is pushing for control for reasons other than educational.

Superintendent ROY ROMER (Los Angeles School System): He's come to the conclusion that you can't be a big city mayor unless you run the schools. I think that's a political conclusion he reached. The mistake he has made is to assume that he knows how to do it.

BATES: Before the new compromise, the board oversaw the school's budget and the curriculum. Romer's current boss, School Board President Marlene Cantor, worries that the gains made by uniform teaching standards imposed by Romer will be lost when each school gets to decide how to teach.

Ms. MARLENE CANTOR (School Board President, Los Angeles): What bothers me the most is that it's taken us six years. Kids are now reading that have never read before in their lives. We won't know the result of this change for a long time from now, which is another group of children going through school that may not learn how to read.

BATES: Mayor Villaraigosa's move to control L.A.'s school system is a first for the city but not for the country. Michael Kirst is a professor at Stanford's school of Education. He's been studying the issue of mayoral control for more than seven years. One thing he's learned in that time, Kirst says, is that mayoral control of the schools only works when the mayor has absolute control.

Professor MIKE KIRST (Stanford's School of Education): When Daley of Chicago, Menino of Boston, and Mayor Bloomberg of New York took over, they said hold me accountable. I'm the person in charge here. I'm going to set clear centralized policy directions.

BATES: Karen Klein is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times. She's just returned from assessing how Boston has faired under its mayor's oversight.

Ms. KAREN KLEIN (Writer, Los Angeles Times): In going there I found that having mayoral control brought extraordinary stability to the district. The superintendent runs the day-to-day operations, the school board takes care of policy, they both are appointed by the mayor, and they both report to the mayor, and the results have been pretty impressive.

BATES: Klein says part of the problem with Villaraigosa's plan is that so many people are accountable in theory that nobody is in actuality. Stanford's Mike Kirst agrees.

Prof. KIRST: This proposal moves power in all directions, up to the mayor, down to the sites, sideways to the Board of Education, and I'm just a little baffled as to how the public will figure out who's is charge here.

BATES: Some of those answers may begin to emerge next week when the first public discussions on the plan will be held. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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