Mayor posts his strategy for schools

Times Staff Writers

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled a sweeping reform strategy for Los Angeles public schools Wednesday, calling for top-to-bottom changes that would include ending the practice of promoting failing students, requiring school uniforms and bringing in outsiders to help transform schools.

The education blueprint -- drawing heavily from reform ideas already underway in Los Angeles and elsewhere -- amounts to Villaraigosa’s fall-back position if the courts rule against his efforts to gain a measure of control over the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In releasing the “Schoolhouse” policy framework at a town hall meeting Wednesday evening, and supporting candidates in the March 6 school board elections, Villaraigosa is hedging his bets: He is seeking a prominent role in the school district through a friendly board majority that could promote his vision of more decentralized schools.

But the mayor -- who called for greater collaboration among the city, the district, civic groups, labor organizations and others -- did not formally consult the school district’s top leadership in assembling his 52 policy recommendations, which are long on promise but short on details.


Only one school board member, Villaraigosa ally Monica Garcia, attended the gathering along with schools Supt. David L. Brewer. Board President Marlene Canter was out of town.

Villaraigosa’s top education aides drew up the proposal by researching practices in L.A. Unified and other major urban school districts, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, and by culling ideas from local charter school operators that have shown success with poor and immigrant student populations.

The mayor’s approach would require a massive infusion of money and expertise, both of which are in limited supply. And many of his proposals -- including a call for smaller schools and a return from multitrack calendars to a traditional schedule -- are being employed by L.A. Unified schools or campuses elsewhere, sometimes with mixed results.

Still, Villaraigosa characterized his Schoolhouse strategy as the best chance for improving a district facing myriad challenges, including crowded classrooms and large numbers of students living in poverty or learning English.

Addressing about 200 parents, teachers and others at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, Villaraigosa said his effort would produce results that are crucial to educational success.

“After over a year of debate, I think most of us agree that the issue is no longer whether we need fundamental change in our public schools. The question is how,” Villaraigosa told the invited audience.

“These ideas didn’t come from the mountaintop and they are not etched in stone,” he added. “But I believe our Schoolhouse provides a framework for reform that the entire Los Angeles Unified School District should follow.”

With several young students seated behind him, Villaraigosa spoke for about 15 minutes from a teleprompter, then took mostly polite questions. He drew applause several times but demurred when pressed for details.

Some school board members, who were briefed on the plan just hours before the meeting, cautiously greeted the initiative even as they questioned Villaraigosa’s sincerity.

The school district is locked in a legal battle with Villaraigosa over a law that would give him substantial authority over the district -- allowing him to pursue the very reforms outlined in his plan. That law was struck down by a Superior Court judge last month, and Villaraigosa has appealed directly to the California Supreme Court.

Canter, who was in New York on district business, reiterated her position that the mayor is not seeking to join with the district leaders for the good of the school system.

“I think it’s misleading to the public when you have a mayor who talks about the urgency of partnership.... It would be nice if we could put this conversation aside and have a real partnership,” she said.

Canter and Brewer said the district is not at a loss for new ideas -- only the resources and strategies to expand reforms through a system that serves more than 700,000 students.

“Many of the initiatives are basically already being implemented,” Brewer said in an interview. “The mayor needs to help me find more money for these initiatives.”

Villaraigosa departed from the harsh language he has often used to characterize the district as a bloated bureaucracy that fails students. Instead, he struck an even tone in his remarks and in his blueprint, highlighting practices that have shown promise around the nation and acknowledging that L.A. Unified has already embraced many of these approaches, if on a limited basis.

Deputy Mayor Ramon C. Cortines, a former interim L.A. Unified superintendent and a chief architect of the mayor’s proposals, said new guidance and energy would help spread promising practices that he found while visiting schools in the district and elsewhere.

“I have said that some of the best practices are in L.A. Unified. What I am suggesting is that we need to be consistent. There is not the accountability, the responsibility or the authority at the local level to carry out these kinds of things. If we are ever going to bring back the middle class in LAUSD, we are going to have to address these issues.”

The 25-page policy paper breaks down the challenge of improving schools into six areas that need attention: high expectations, safe schools, empowered leadership, rigorous curriculum, family and community involvement, and more money to schools.

It says that teachers, principals and other school staff should be paid more and class sizes should be reduced -- two goals that Villaraigosa believes could be met by streamlining central support operations and increasing daily student attendance, the basis for state education funding.

These ideas, and the framework in general, were greeted enthusiastically by union leaders from United Teachers Los Angeles.

The blueprint also calls for moving more money and resources away from the central administration to schools, and giving campuses greater authority over their resources -- ideas that are drawn from the charter school movement and that have become increasingly popular in mainstream education circles in recent years.

Villaraigosa calls for changes that have shown mixed results in Los Angeles and other places, including an end to social promotion -- moving failing students to the next grade level. Such an approach was tried in L.A. Unified eight years ago with second-graders and eighth-graders but was ended partly for lack of space. And taking a page from state and federal accountability programs, the mayor’s plan could lead to the removal of employees at chronically underperforming schools.

The mayor’s plan suggests that the school day be extended so struggling students can receive more help; that foreign languages, such as Spanish and Arabic, be taught as early as first grade; and that student mentor programs and preschool be expanded.

Villaraigosa intends to rally a broad swath of Los Angeles around the schools, inviting the involvement of organized labor, universities, cultural institutions and faith-based organizations. And he would lead an aggressive campaign to raise $200 million for the schools over five years from foundations, corporations and philanthropists.

The multi-pronged effort would start in several clusters of low-performing schools and then expand to every campus, the mayor’s aides said.

That mirrors the approach advocated in the education law now winding through the courts. It would give Villaraigosa control over three high schools and the middle schools and elementary schools that feed them -- amounting to as many as 80,000 students.