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Skipping out on schools

THE MAYOR WILL NOT when he may. By refusing to support a bill that would effectively give him control of the schools, Antonio Villaraigosa has lost his best chance to have a major influence on the education of three-quarters of a million Los Angeles schoolchildren -- and abdicated his promise to their parents.

Pushed by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) to take a position on her bill to give the L.A. mayor control of the school district, Villaraigosa’s office said the legislation was premature. Despite his earlier statements calling for control of the schools, Villaraigosa has soft-pedaled the subject since taking office. His spokesman said Tuesday that “consensus needs to be developed at the local level” before moving forward.

That desire is understandable, even admirable. And the Romero bill is hasty and imperfect. But this isn’t the time for timidity. Waiting even one legislative session effectively means that Villaraigosa would not be able to appoint a majority of school board members -- and thus exercise much control over the district -- until the final years of his second term (assuming he wins a second term).

Yes, the mayor should take time to examine how he could best improve the schools. But he would have had that time even if he had supported the bill; under the measure’s provisions, it would still take a couple of years for him to gain meaningful influence. The bill even includes an escape clause, leaving it up to the mayor to launch the takeover.

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But none of this can happen if the legislation dies in the Senate. And Villaraigosa’s lack of support just about kills its already slim chances.

To be sure, it would not have been easy for Villaraigosa to support this bill, given his relationship with the teachers union. But his strategy is hardly trouble-free: He may never achieve the broad-based consensus he seeks. The board won’t voluntarily loosen its grip on the schools. The leadership of the teachers union has openly said it will never support mayoral control, which would dilute its influence. It’s clear that Villaraigosa is going to have to break some eggs if he wants to cook up real school reform.

It’s also true that mayoral control of schools hasn’t worked in every city that’s tried it. It has worked best in such cities as New York and Chicago, where decisive mayors committed to education actively sought out leadership of the schools.

The new mayor of Los Angeles isn’t joining that club. Antonio Villaraigosa might want power over the schools, but he is apparently unwilling to take the political risks of fighting for it.

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His reticence may please the school board and the unions, but it’s a disappointment to the parents and voters who were captivated by his strong campaign stance on education.


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