School Reform Best in Small Steps, Mayor Finds

Times Staff Writer

On the campaign trail, candidate Antonio Villaraigosa had a bold vision for education reform: The mayor of Los Angeles, he said, should have “ultimate control and oversight” over the underperforming public school system.

This week, Mayor Villaraigosa plans to set out a more modest reform package based on suggestions from his handpicked group of education experts. It’s a list of proposals that even some of its authors admit is limited in scope -- but one they hope marks a beginning.

Their plans include moving bus stops away from dangerous streets, attracting adult mentors for students at underperforming schools and creating “centers of tolerance” on racially troubled campuses.

The ideas, detailed in memos obtained by The Times, are Phase 1 of the mayor’s plans -- “the recommendations that can be implemented quickly,” spokesman Joe Ramallo said.


But some observers see a telling gulf between the grand ambition of a hard-charging candidate and the sober reality of an elected official.

“When we all run for public office, we say a lot of things that we believe, but the reality of these things, well ... the reality is that [Villaraigosa] has no control over the school system,” said Rick Taylor, a veteran Democratic consultant. “So what he’s doing is what every smart politician would do. He’s looking at what he can do, what he can achieve.”

The idea of taking over the Los Angeles Unified School District played well in the spring election with voters, who identified education as one of their biggest issues, despite the mayor’s lack of any direct control over the independent school district.

But after his election, Villaraigosa surprised some supporters when he decided not to back state legislation that would have given the mayor more authority over L.A. Unified. The bill was fraught with problems, he said, but the main one was that it was premature -- he said he hadn’t had time to build “consensus” around the idea.

Today, Villaraigosa says he is still committed to the idea of mayoral control, an experiment undertaken in Oakland, Chicago, New York and Boston with varying success.

Making it happen in L.A. wouldn’t be easy. A mayoral takeover would face opposition from powerful teachers unions, which supported Villaraigosa with more than $920,000 in contributions in the last election. And the bill that would have given him takeover power was deemed unconstitutional by the state legislative counsel’s office -- a harbinger of the legal wrangling that would be virtually inevitable no matter how Villaraigosa chose to seize power.

The mayor, meanwhile, must also deliver on the other herculean tasks he vowed as a candidate to take on, such as building a subway under Wilshire Boulevard and expanding the Police Department by more than 1,000 officers.

Thus, school reform, Version 2.0.

Villaraigosa’s group of roughly 30 experts was told not to address the issue of a mayoral takeover of the schools but instead to find ways the city government could help a school district over which it has no control.

They met in closed-door sessions over a two-month period. The subcommittee on healthy students suggested that Villaraigosa launch a $35-million fundraising campaign to insure students who lack health coverage. The subcommittee on “strategic alliances” suggested that the mayor create a liaison position to find ways the schools could take advantage of city resources such as parks. A subcommittee on before- and after-school programs suggested that existing programs, both private and public, simply be identified, just to sort out who is doing what.

Members of the group are hoping that these and similar ideas are just the first, best steps the city can take, given the circumstances.

“I think our work right now is focused on, ‘What recommendations can we make at this point in time for immediate action?’ ” said Judy Burton, executive director for the Alliance for College Ready Public Schools and chairwoman of the strategic alliances subcommittee.

“There are no silver-bullet, quick-fix actions to reform an entire educational system,” added Burton, a former L.A. Unified superintendent for the central and eastern San Fernando Valley. “But the mayor is committed to getting off to a quick start.”

A.J. Duffy, head of the union United Teachers Los Angeles, was also part of the group. He called the recommendations “a beginning of something that could be major.”

He also said they were the wisest course for Villaraigosa to steer right now.

“One of the problems for any politician ... is, when you’re campaigning, you’re talking big-ticket issues,” Duffy said. “You’re talking about really where you want to be in five or 10 years. And it’s misleading to people because when you get down to the reality of the situation ... you find that if your goals are really solid, then you have to really do it incrementally.

“Now, I have said from the very beginning that Villaraigosa’s plan to take over education was too bold, and I think part of what’s going on right now is he’s going to have to pay some of the political penalty for overreaching. But I think what he’s doing now is much more sensible.”

However, Priscilla Wohlstetter, co-director of USC’s Center on Educational Governance, called the suggestions “tangential” to the work of improving classroom conditions.

“Where’s the beef?” she asked.

School board member David Tokofsky said Villaraigosa was trying to strike a more realistic agenda on school reform.

“He was in campaign mode, not governance. Now he’s approaching his first 100 days” in office, Tokofsky said. “You begin to realize that sound bites fade and the harder work of systemic change becomes the reality. His reputation has been as a coalition builder, and this foray into ‘I’m going to fix the city’s schools by myself’ was not in line with his past successes. His slowing down now to build greater cooperation on improving schools is more in line.”

Villaraigosa staffers said the mayor might introduce a few new ideas to the mix when he unveils the plans this week.

Ramallo, the mayor’s spokesman, stressed that the reform effort was not over.

There will be more meetings, he said -- and inevitably, more ideas.

“The committee,” he reminded, “is still at work.”

Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.