In a major shift in their education strategies, both mayoral candidates now say the next mayor of Los Angeles should have unprecedented control over the city's ailing public schools.
Mayoral challenger Antonio Villaraigosa said Thursday that the mayor should have "ultimate control and oversight" over the Los Angeles Unified School District. His announcement followed incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn's proposal Tuesday to give the mayor the power to appoint at least three members to the school board.
Polls repeatedly have shown that voters say education is their top priority in the campaign, although the mayor now has no direct control over the schools.
Until this week, the two men had spoken passionately about their commitment to the public schools, but had acknowledged that they had little power -- other than the bully pulpit -- to change them.
The Villaraigosa campaign initially dismissed Hahn's announcement as a gimmick. But on Thursday -- at the same charter school where Hahn unveiled his proposals -- Villaraigosa announced his intention to make the mayor "ultimately responsible" for the schools.
Villaraigosa offered no specific plan, but said he would seek input from teachers, parents and others across the city. If the idea of mayoral control proved popular, he said, he would push to change the City Charter.
"Look, what we have now is not working," Villaraigosa said. "What we have now just isn't acceptable in terms of the kinds of achievement we're looking for."
Hahn's plan would allow him to appoint at least three members to a board that would have 10 members.
Former mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg's advocacy of a plan to break up the district helped make education a major issue in the election. Hertzberg nearly rode the idea into the May 17 runoff.
Parents and teachers continue to be worried by school overcrowding and high dropout rates.
Recent studies have shown that the nation's second-largest district trails national averages in almost every objective measure of school quality, including teacher salaries, class size and academic achievement. A Harvard University study found that the district's high school graduation rate was 45.3%.
The mayoral candidates' late-breaking education initiatives appear to be recognition that education issues resonate with voters, said political consultant Allan Hoffenblum, who is not involved in either campaign.
Once Hahn moved in a big way on the issue, it was not surprising to see Villaraigosa jump on it as well, he said.
"I think what you are seeing on Antonio's part is he isn't going to let the mayor outflank him on that issue," Hoffenblum said. "He wants to make sure Hahn isn't out there on an issue this important where he is not on the same side."
Until recently, Hahn and Villaraigosa focused on supporting education peripherally, given the mayor's limited role.
They spoke of expanding the city-funded LA's BEST after-school program and ensuring that students can walk safely to school.
Their latest ideas, if implemented, would make Los Angeles one of a number of big cities that have given municipal governments more control over school systems in recent years.
In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg persuaded the state Legislature to give him control over schools in 2002. He now has the power to appoint a majority of school board members and name a chancellor who oversees the system's superintendents. In Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley has controlled city schools since 1995.
From 2000 to 2004, an experimental program in Oakland allowed Mayor Jerry Brown, the former California governor, to appoint three school board members to complement the elected members -- a system similar to Hahn's idea. But Brown said fractious politics undermined the initiative.
"The elected board members jealously guarded their position and tended to marginalize the mayoral appointees, so instead of increasing mayoral influence, it tended to polarize the board," Brown said.
The Los Angeles mayor may have trouble big-footing into the school district past the current superintendent, former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, and the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, said Priscilla Wohlstetter, director of the Center on School Governance at USC.
"Here we've got a very strong superintendent and a very strong union," Wohlstetter said. "I can't see the professional educators railroaded by a new mayor coming in."
Despite his experience in Oakland, Brown still believes that "mayors should take responsibility for the schools -- that's as clear as crystal."
In big cities, Brown said, school board members fly too far under the radar for people to really pay attention to their actions. "You need some visible person in charge accountable to the electorate," he said.
Los Angeles school board President Jose Huizar and City Council President Alex Padilla are working to create a 26-member commission to study changing how the district is governed.
Huizar, who has endorsed Villaraigosa, said it was unclear what would be legally necessary to make major changes in governing the district, because it derives its power partly from the city and partly from the state.
Education also dominated Thursday's campaign events in other ways, with Hahn attacking Villaraigosa's record on education as Assembly speaker.
At a news conference at his Miracle Mile campaign headquarters, Hahn said California ranked 40th among states in per-pupil spending when Villaraigosa became speaker in 1998, and was 32nd when Villaraigosa left the post in 2000. Hahn noted that despite a $13-billion surplus, the state just "inches up in terms of national rankings in spending per pupil."
Villaraigosa defended his education record to students at Animo South Los Angeles Charter High School, saying that he helped pass the state's charter schools law and worked to reduce class sizes.
Hahn, he said, was "completely disengaged" from local school issues, although Villaraigosa did give Hahn credit for focusing on after-school programs.
The two also disagreed this week on merit pay for teachers. Hahn said he was open to the idea.
Villaraigosa opposes merit pay for teachers, but supports financial incentives for teachers who transfer to poor-performing schools, spokesman Nathan James said.
Times staff writer Jean Merl contributed to this report.