We did it, L.A. should too
AS ELECTED officials who have stood in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s shoes, fighting to bring accountability to our cities’ once-failing school systems, we recognize the importance of the debate that will take place in the California Legislature this month over the issue of school control.
Reforming an urban public school system that has failed generations of students is one of the most difficult and complex challenges any mayor faces. It also can be one of the most lengthy. The Illinois Legislature gave the mayor of Chicago control over the city’s 600 schools and the ability to appoint the school board in 1995 -- seven years after passing a decentralization plan that produced weak school leadership citywide.
In New York, the passage of mayoral control in 2002 was the culmination of the efforts of four consecutive mayors, from both political parties, spanning two decades. In that time, New York’s mayors won a number of important interim steps toward accountability that prepared the Legislature -- along with labor unions and interest groups -- to take the final step.
In both of our cities, shifting authority over the education system to the mayor’s office has allowed for fundamental changes that are breathing new life into our public schools. We have brought back standards, empowered principals, improved safety and created innovative programs to support struggling students and schools. In addition, we have been able to allocate resources far more efficiently and effectively, shifting money out of the central bureaucracy and into the classroom. We knew that success wouldn’t happen overnight. But by holding schools accountable for improving the skills our children learn, we are making real progress -- as evidenced by the rising test scores and graduation rates in Chicago and New York.
Los Angeles is poised to take an important step toward the approach followed by cities such as ours. It is important to recognize, however, that one size does not fit all, and the specific shape of school reform varies by city. Tailoring reform around local considerations is particularly necessary in Los Angeles, where the L.A. Unified School District encompasses 27 other cities. Villaraigosa’s proposal recognizes the need to bring the cities together in a framework that gives each municipality a voice.
At the same time, the proposal provides a clear pathway for systemic change and accountability. The superintendent would be recast as a CEO, with clear authority over the business operations of the district, and would be empowered to cut the bureaucracy and shift those savings to the classroom, where they are needed most. And because the mayor would have a central role in the selection of the superintendent, parents would be able to hold him responsible for the success of the public school system.
Villaraigosa’s proposal also contains a plan to bring bold new leadership to three clusters of Los Angeles’ lowest-performing schools. The mayor would have direct oversight of some of the city’s toughest hallways and classrooms, with the flexibility to implement needed changes. This is a pilot program, in essence, that, if it proves successful, would provide powerful evidence that direct mayoral control can produce real results, as is happening elsewhere.
Any reform proposal can always be criticized as less than perfect. But from our vantage point, it is important to not lose sight of the forest when examining these trees. Villaraigosa deserves credit not only for taking on an exceptionally difficult challenge but for keeping his eye on the long-term goal: a more accountable, better-performing school system for the children of Los Angeles. By shifting a great deal of power from an invisible board to an elected mayor, Los Angeles would take the first big step toward a public school system that can provide its children with the education they need to follow -- and achieve -- their dreams.