A civics lesson for L.A.'s mayor
NEARLY 20 YEARS AGO, my students from John Marshall High won the U.S. Academic Decathlon -- a first for a California public school. I was a third-year teacher, recently out of UC Berkeley with a degree in American history, and I was proud to coach the diverse immigrant children who bested affluent kids from states that spent three times what California did on education.
I was particularly proud when my team aced the Super Quiz, which covered the U.S. Constitution, landmark legal cases and American government -- the topics I taught at Marshall. What were the lessons I wrote on the blackboard each semester? They were foundational ideas of American democracy. Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” James Madison, wondering “whether men were angels?” If yes, would government be necessary? What did it mean to have checks and balances? Why did we elect officials rather than appoint them? Of course, my students read Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” which Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also cites as his favorite book.
With enthusiasm similar to that which swept our popular mayor into office two years ago, my students encouraged me to take my passions and ideas about government into elective office. My students, teacher colleagues and friends walked precincts with me when I ran for the Los Angeles Unified School District board in 1995. I won by only 76 votes, and my students, who themselves could not vote, learned the value of the franchise.
Those lessons on governance served me well during my three terms on the board, which will end June 30. To the boondoggle Belmont Learning Complex project, which cost the public hundreds of millions of dollars, I applied Madison’s checks and balances, creating the office of inspector general to find waste, fraud and abuse. I also created the idea of a Citizens Bond Oversight Committee, which I believe gave the public confidence to pass our first school bond in 30 years with 70% voter approval, and three more since.
No one disputes the major accomplishments of this school board. We hired two extraordinary superintendents. Elementary test scores are rising faster than anywhere else in California or any other major urban area. Middle- and high-school test scores are moving upward faster than the state average. Sixty-five schools have been constructed, and 80 more are on the way.
My colleagues and I knew that, like Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, we had to build the public institution both in bricks and mortar and in virtue.
I am not so sure that supporters of AB 1381 -- the state law that shifts control of our schools from the school board to the mayor -- have considered the latter. The law removes the simple accountability of local schools and elected school boards. Instead, it puts in charge a convoluted hodgepodge of government officials who know little about education and have other municipal interests and responsibilities.
AB 1381 replaces the rights of moms and dads concerned about their local public schools and gives that responsibility to a cabal of political bosses who chose to not even trust the voters with the ultimate social concern: the education of children.
Proponents such as the mayor wrap AB 1381 in the soft rhetoric of school reform, only to deform the clear language of Los Angeles’ City Charter and California’s Constitution, both of which specify a separation of the school system and local government. According to the texts I taught my students, this is the behavior of despotism, not enlightenment.
Today, L.A. Unified lawyers will argue in Superior Court that our state legislators knew AB 1381 was unconstitutional before they passed it; that their own legal counsel published that very opinion. So why didn’t our bicameral Legislature stop this bad law? Because reasoned and open discussion was squelched.
A manufactured “crisis” in student learning ensured that legislators would not think critically about the California Constitution, the City Charter or voters’ rights, not to mention transparent, inclusive government. Passionate pleas to do something, anything, for our kids led to placing “a significant part of the public school system” under the mayor and a convoluted Council of Mayors. The Legislature ignored how California voters resoundingly approved a constitutional amendment -- Section 6 of Article IX -- that took cities out of the business of running schools.
As a participant in the 1998 charter reform discussions in Los Angeles, I heard firsthand how the charter commissioners explicitly avoided reunifying City Hall and the school district.
Why didn’t a law like AB 1381 face a vote by the people and parents of Los Angeles and its schools? I can imagine how my former students would respond: The creators of this bad law did not want any internal or external controls, particularly voters.
When AB 1381 was rushed to Sacramento, a handful of ambitious politicians and legislators crafted a backroom deal consolidating a mayoral power grab that the city’s lawyers will plead today is a “modest, reasoned law.” Yet in Sacramento, I personally heard several legislators say: “The court will strike it down, and I can still preserve my committee chairmanship/friendship with the bill’s sponsors.” How would my championship students respond? “Beware the tyranny of the majority; we must be a government of laws, not men.”
Today, the court should find AB 1381 unconstitutional. Otherwise, perhaps in my last few months on the L.A. Unified board, we’ll have to revise our civics textbooks to reflect our city’s new ban on open debate and voters’ rights.