MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA knows his way around Sacramento. The former speaker of the Assembly has been holding news conferences and waylaying lawmakers for the last 24 hours, trying to gather support for his plan to take over L.A.'s schools. The mayor has the advantage of being right on principle — better accountability will bring about better schools — but there's another reason his former friends and enemies in the Capitol may want to hear him out: He's got more leverage than the usual supplicant to Sacramento.
He also has more experience. "I'm not a Johnny-come-lately to this process," he said Monday. "I know this Legislature. I know what we have to do to get the reform that we need."
But the mayor is not alone in the Capitol. L.A. schools Supt. Roy Romer is there as well, lobbying against the Villaraigosa plan, and the superintendent is also no stranger to politics. The former governor of Colorado and chairman of the Democratic National Committee called the mayor's plan all but dead. "We seem to be here today because we're trying to save face for Antonio," Romer said.
It remains to be seen who will save face and whose face will end up with egg on it. In that sense, the mayor's tiff with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Angelides is about more than just politics.
Angelides hasn't signed on to the mayor's reform plan. The mayor, not coincidentally, has yet to make an endorsement in the governor's race. Granted, the dispute may have more to do with Villaraigosa's political ambitions (he reportedly wants to be governor someday, and he wouldn't want to run against an incumbent of his own party) than with his education plan. But it's not unreasonable for Villaraigosa to expect his party's candidate for governor to support the most important initiative of his administration.
Lawmakers, too, may want to focus on what's best for Los Angeles students and their parents, and on how to help the mayor of the state's largest city give voters what they asked for a year ago. Several legislators reiterated Monday that they would be all for Villaraigosa's plan, if only they knew what was in it. A change in governance is fine, one said, if she could be shown just how it would shrink class size. Full-day kindergarten, another said. Better teacher training, insisted another.
What they don't understand, or perhaps what they understand all too well, is that the essence of Villaraigosa's plan to change governance is to fix accountability. Make the mayor accountable for school performance and the rest falls into place. There is no way to write smaller class sizes and more qualified teachers into the mayoral-control legislation. In New York, Boston and other cities where mayors run the schools, though, mayors have made a substantial difference on these and other school issues. With their higher political profile, mayors have effectively lobbied legislatures for more funding and have been even more successful at pulling in private donations.
Villaraigosa knows that the surest way to bring the lawmakers around is to focus on showing the California Teachers Assn. that his plan can help teachers and their students. If he can get the CTA onboard — it is a long-standing supporter of the mayor, and it may yet be persuaded to support his plan — many Democrats in the Legislature who rely on the support of teachers unions at campaign time may suddenly find that the devil is no longer in the details.
The trick, as the mayor surely knows, will be to make sure those details give him, and not the unions, the control he needs to deliver on his promise.