ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA'S one-year anniversary as mayor almost perfectly coincides with what he is heralding as the signature achievement of his term. But what he calls a grand compromise to bring greater accountability to the city's schools is better described as an ill-advised plan that cedes too much to teachers unions, offers too little to students and relies too much on the mayor's talent for consensus.
Since he took office last July, Villaraigosa has promised to take control of (actually, he prefers the phrase "bring oversight to") the schools, and in many ways he has staked his mayoralty on it. His passion for the issue is clear, and he says the deal he struck Wednesday with unions and state lawmakers is the best he could have hoped for. If that's the case, he would have been better off leaving Sacramento, declaring defeat and living to fight another day in L.A.
Under the proposed bill, details of which are not yet public, the school board would be in charge of student achievement — or at least parts of it — while the mayor would control about three dozen poorly performing schools. Both would have a role in hiring the superintendent. Schools would be in charge of their curriculums. Instead of creating a clean line of accountability — the chief advantage of having a mayor run the schools — this deal divides responsibility so confusingly that even the main players would have trouble figuring out who's in charge of what.
The school board would be a "broad policymaking body," the mayor says, "not a management body." Yet decisions about curriculum would be made at the local school level. The superintendent, meanwhile, would be charged with carrying out the policy set by the board — but he or she could be fired by the mayor. The superintendent would have power to sign contracts — except the biggest contract, with the teachers union, which would be negotiated by the board.
Most schools would be under the authority of the elected board, but a few dozen would be essentially run by the mayor. The mayor says that if these schools improve, the Legislature may be more willing to give a future mayor more direct control. Maybe so. But the rest of the plan would so damage the district that this experiment hardly seems worth it.
"Fragmentation is failing our kids," the mayor explained in his State of the City address in April. "Voters need to be able to hire and fire one person accountable to parents, teachers and taxpayers. A leader who is ultimately responsible for systemwide performance." Under this plan, fragmentation is increased, accountability diminished. Who's in charge of the schools? Any answer that requires more than one subject and one verb is no answer at all.
Consider a school whose students are failing at math. Who could responsible parents see to address the problem? The teachers picked the curriculum, but they can't be voted out of office. The school didn't decide its budget; the superintendent did that. But both the board and the mayor have a say in it. The board can't hire and fire the superintendent on its own; the mayor can say the board selects the superintendent. And because the board loses power in this deal, it has little interest in seeing it succeed.
The mayor has never been shy about wading into controversies, so he would almost certainly offer those concerned parents a hearing (actually, he could do so now). But how much he would be able to do is an open question. And the larger problem, as the mayor himself is fond of pointing out, is that this quest to improve L.A. Unified's schools is not about the mayor. It's about providing accountability — and accountability shouldn't depend on who happens to be sitting behind the mayor's desk.
"We're going to be responsible," the mayor said Wednesday. Unfortunately, this deal spreads responsibility so thin that it's hard to know who has it.