With a hard-hitting speech that branded the city's teachers union as an unyielding obstruction to education reforms, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa set the stage this week for a new battle over control of the troubled Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest.
In a Sacramento address to state leaders, Villaraigosa — himself a longtime teachers union employee before launching a career in public office — declared that education in Los Angeles stands at "a critical crossroads," and he assailed United Teachers Los Angeles for resisting change.
During the last five years, the mayor said, union leaders have stood as "one unwavering roadblock to reform." He called for change in contentious areas such as tenure, teacher evaluations and seniority — all volatile arenas in which teachers unions have balked at proposals for reform as eroding their rights.
"At every step of the way, when Los Angeles was coming together to effect real change in our public schools, UTLA was there to fight against the change and slow the pace of reform," Villaraigosa declared at a forum of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank.
The mayor had been at odds with the teachers union for years but had never until now called the union out so vociferously. He left no doubt he had consciously embarked on a new campaign that could define his administration before he leaves office in 2013.
"I knew it would cause a firestorm," Villaraigosa said in an interview Thursday, two days after the speech.
"I knew that if I said it at one of my partnership schools, it would go unnoticed," he said, referring to a nonprofit group that runs 15 schools under the mayor's control.
Furious union representatives denounced the mayor's comments as those of a turncoat who seemed to ignore the pernicious effects of state budget cuts and had joined in a union-bashing chorus once associated with conservative Republicans. Some seemed bewildered at what they considered a betrayal from Villaraigosa, who defines himself as a "progressive" politician and man of the left.
"Pointing fingers and laying blame does not help improve our schools," UTLA President A.J. Duffy said in a terse statement. "UTLA will continue our partnership with all parties to overcome the devastating effects of the budget cuts on the education program for our students."
The mayor's words come at a crucial juncture: By spring, the 680,000-student district will have a new superintendent, Duffy will step down as head of UTLA and a majority of the seven school board members will be up for election. The candidate filing deadline was Wednesday, and the mayor and the union are beginning to pick sides.
Nationally, the Obama administration is pressing for the same kind of reforms that Villaraigosa championed in his speech.
"All of these changes create a real opportunity for us to focus on solutions and to stop talking about whether we are going to move forward but how we are going to move forward," said Ted Mitchell, president of the California Board of Education. "Rigor, high expectations and the transparent use of data in everything from performance evaluations to individual instruction have got to be supported now at the local level. That's the reform position and should be rigorously pursued."
The mayor, in the interview, said his speech reflected years of frustration and his conviction that an opportunity was finally at hand.
"I believe that California, and in particular Los Angeles, have an opportunity to be the epicenter for education reform across the nation," Villaraigosa said.
Taking matters a step further, the mayor accused the teachers union of using its ample political clout to blunt talk of meaningful change.
"The most powerful defenders of the status quo are the teachers' unions," Villaraigosa said. "They intimidated people, especially Democrats, from doing anything about reform."
Teachers' representatives insist the union has been at the forefront of reforms, such as efforts to reduce the number of students per classroom.
Villaraigosa's agenda threatens to "turn back the clock on historic gains made in public education," removing due process for teachers and switching to a system of evaluation for teachers that is subjective, not objective, said Joshua Pechthalt, UTLA's vice president.
"We reject the notion that real reform has to come at the expense of the rights of teachers and other educators," Pechthalt said. "All of these reforms are part of a vision that suggests the interests of children, and the people who work with them, are best served by a competition that exists in the marketplace," he added. "And we have seen how disastrous that competition has played out on Wall Street."
School board member Steve Zimmer, who described himself as closely aligned with organized labor, said the union has not done a good job of putting forth its own coherent reform agenda. But Zimmer also argued that the union rescued the district by taking significant pay cuts during a disastrous budget year.
"LAUSD wouldn't have survived without UTLA stepping up," he said.
Former school board member David Tokofsky said Villaraigosa went after the union because national politicians, billionaire philanthropists and the recent documentary "Waiting for Superman" have made it popular to do so.
"As a father of a kid in the district, I've never seen less support for teachers," said Tokofsky, a former teacher at John Marshall High School.
Some education experts, however, were thrilled with the mayor's comments.
The speech drew praise from former school board president Marlene Canter, who was at odds with Villaraigosa from 2005 to 2007 about his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to gain control over the district.
Canter said she suspects that Villaraigosa came to his position after his nonprofit group — one of his key education initiatives — discovered how difficult it is to run individual schools on a day-to-day basis.
"Hearing this is music to my ears," Canter said. "We need leadership like the mayor's, and I'm just so happy to hear his voice loud and clear…. I don't know why" he went public with his opinions this week.
"I'm just happy he said it," she said.
Villaraigosa's comments follow a series of reports in The Times analyzing the performance of thousands of teachers based on student test scores, the first time in the country such information had been released publicly. It found vast disparities among some teachers, even those in the same schools, fueling a national debate over how to judge teacher effectiveness.
Even though Villaraigosa has been at odds with the union for years, he has been reluctant to criticize UTLA leaders by name. To avoid a direct confrontation with the UTLA, the mayor frequently used his bully pulpit to criticize what he described as the "status quo" at the school district, leaving audiences to figure out who precisely he meant.
That hedging occurred even as he pursued multiple strategies for gaining control of Los Angeles schools. He sent his deputy mayor for education, Ramon Cortines, to help run the district in 2008. And he helped elect six of the board's seven members, spending $2.2 million alone in 2007 to elect school board candidate Tamar Galatzan, defeating the union's candidate, incumbent Jon Lauritzen.
Most recently, Villaraigosa angered the union for his role in a class-action lawsuit settlement in which the union did not participate. Several civil rights groups sued the state, school district and Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, alleging that students at three middle-school campuses were denied their right to an equitable education because of massive layoffs at those campuses.
The mayor's newly aggressive stance comes as Villaraigosa and the teachers union are starting to pick sides in the March 8 election, a race that will have four of seven school board seats up for grabs.
The UTLA has already agreed to support Jesus Escandon, an employee of the California Teachers Assn., in a challenge to board member Richard Vladovic, who won with Villaraigosa's help in 2007.
The union also has endorsed John Fernandez, a retired Roosevelt High School teacher who has frequently criticized Villaraigosa. And it has agreed to back board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who survived a challenge four years ago from Johnathan Williams, one of Villaraigosa's appointees on the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners.
Times staff writers Teresa Watanabe and Jason Song contributed to this report.