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Los Angeles Mayor Takes on Schools

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Los Angeles Mayor Takes on Schools

Education

Los Angeles Mayor Takes on Schools

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TONY COX, host:

NEWS & NOTES has followed the issue of school reform most recently in our segments about GEDs and charter schools. Lately, the mayors of New York, Chicago and Boston have won some control over struggling school districts, but not without fights.

The mayor of Los Angeles joined that group this week after a year-long political battle that's still not over. From NPR member station KPCC in Pasadena, California, Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reports.

ADOLFO GUZMAN-LOPEZ: This week California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law giving L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa some control over the 730,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): We will move graduation numbers up. We will move test scores up, and we will move our dropout rate down. This will improve student's achievement, and every student will have an equal chance to succeed.

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Like most other large urban school districts nationwide, the L.A. Unified School District has been struggling in the last decade to improve education. Various estimates put the dropout rate at between 30 and 50 percent. The school district's mostly Latino and black student population has the lowest graduation rates and the lowest test scores.

Mayor Villaraigosa knows the turf personally. He was expelled and then dropped out before graduating from a campus in L.A.'s working class east side in the late 1960s.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Democrat, Los Angeles): I know, as you do, that Los Angeles will never realize its promise if we don't come together as a community and face up to our fundamental challenge. So we have a simple message today: We cannot succeed unless we all, each and every one of us here, hold ourselves directly accountable.

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: Ultimately, it was the state legislature, where he once served as speaker of the house, that approved legislation allowing the takeover. California State University Fullerton political science Professor Raphe Sonenshein.

Professor RAPHE SONENSHEIN (Professor of Political Science, California State University Fullerton): Everyone had assumed this was going to be handled in an election down here, maybe to amend the charter or something like that, and that would've been probably pretty tough. But when he moved it up to Sacramento he really did completely alter the debate in a way that was to his advantage.

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: In lobbying for his proposal, the mayor also built alliances among business owners and Latino and black leaders in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Come on, can we do it again? Everybody clap. Come on.

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: That coalition was in evidence last month after California's legislature narrowly approved the mayor's proposal. The bill's supporters gathered to celebrate at a school in L.A.'s largely black South Central district.

Reverend John Hunter of L.A.'s First AME Church was one of seven black religious leaders on hand. He led the group in prayer.

Reverend JOHN HUNTER (First AME Church, Los Angeles): We come before you, Lord, thanking you for the leader of this city, the leader of this community, for our mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who believes that every child deserves a chance.

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: The mayor will need this coalition now. Many oppose the mayor's plan, including most school district board members as well as philanthropists and parent groups. School officials argue L.A. Unified test scores are on the rise while a $19 billion school construction program is easing classroom crowding.

Other critics said Villaraigosa's plan would not increase accountability for school performance. As approved, the reform split authority among the Board of Education, Mayor Villaraigosa and the school superintendent and a 27-member council of other municipalities within school district boundaries. The mayor also gets near total control over a cluster of low-performing schools within L.A. Unified.

Villaraigosa will establish a community organization to run those schools. The reforms could become official on January 1st, but not if L.A. Unified administrators have their way. The school district is moving forward with a lawsuit to block the changes. In California, as in most states, it's illegal to overlap city and school district governance.

L.A. Unified Superintendent Roy Romer says the bill doesn't address that.

Mr. ROY ROMER (Superintendent, L.A. Unified School District): There are severe constitutional questions. We need to determine whether that is correct or not, and only the courts can say that.

GUZMAN-LOPEZ: But the flaws, he said, don't cancel out the need for the mayor to have a role in the running of local schools. Other big cities in the U.S. have put mayors at the top of that partnership. Whether or not reform plays out that way in L.A. too remains to be seen.

For NPR News, I'm Adolfo Guzman-Lopez in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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