L.A. city councilman Richard Alarcón's plan to have Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa take over the Los Angeles Unified School district by using California's notoriously easy charter school route is a brilliant idea that just won't work. It's another noble effort easily sold to a gullible public but fraught with danger to the schools, the parents and the city.
As usual with charter schools, it offers less bureaucracy, more responsibility and less red tape. Happy school kids trudge off to smaller classrooms where eager teachers are ready to pitch in and help Superintendent Villaraigosa achieve his goal of improving the dismal performance of existing schools.
But one recalls when, as a young assistant Navy secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to tame the naval bureaucracy only to admit defeat by likening the Navy to a huge gas bag where you push in one side only to have it bulge out the other.
The mayor currently is working within the system to bring about a change in the make-up of the current school board, which many people seem to think has demonstrated an incapacity to govern the district. Instead of setting policy and establishing goals, the district has burdened itself with trying to micro-manage everything.
The trouble with Alarcón's charter school solution is that charters have a tendency to pick and choose motivated students and parents, and have not been required to accept everyone who applies. They are unprepared to educate all students -- the good, bad and indifferent.
Then there is the question of teachers. The goal in education is finding and motivating so-called "good teachers." Unfortunately, identifying them is difficult. As in every organization that deals with people there are some employees who are better at their tasks than others and who actually possess those qualities of leadership, compassion and skill that make them stand out.
There are many such teachers in the LAUSD, just as there are others who are not so good but who do a workmanlike though not inspiring job. Whether the charter school system would do any better than the LAUSD is doubtful, especially when it would be necessary because of sheer size to transfer all teachers to the new program.
And what of the infrastructure, the hundreds of administrative personnel, the staff people who do the myriad jobs to keep the schools open and running, feeding the students, protecting and nurturing them? These too would have to be transferred, bringing with them their bureaucratic habits that are so ingrained in the system.
The mayor is already burdened with the task of running the city and looking after its many problems -- traffic, crime, gangs, the homeless, culture and the arts, parks and recreation (including a troublesome zoo). Not to overlook public works, potholes, one-way streets, landfills, the airport, harbor, mass transit and international relations ... all with a city council ready to pounce. This poor man has already bitten off more than he can chew. He has no time to spend on matters of educational substance.
No, the citizens of Los Angeles should let well enough alone and seek by other means to reform the schools, especially by demanding a less political school board,
But at the head of the list of things to do, the district needs a top-level citizen's committee, similar to the state's Little Hoover Commission, to review and reform the system from top to bottom. A just-released audit shows a school system in such chaos that the charter juggernaut and a little tinkering by the mayor cannot correct.
Councilman Alarcón's plan belongs in the circular file, along with the whole concept of charter schools.
Walter P. Coombs is professor emeritus of social sciences at Cal Poly Pomona, and Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.
Look at the Indianapolis model