WHEN MAYOR Antonio Villaraigosa announced his plan to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District, I reserved judgment. Many people wanted me to speak out against this idea, but I resisted. Although I was disturbed by the mayor’s factually inaccurate rhetoric, I listened carefully to see if any ideas emerged that would deepen and quicken the instructional reforms the district has implemented over the last six years. But last week, after waiting more than a year to see the details of the mayor’s plans, I was sorely disappointed.
At the end of this year, I will leave my post of six years to embark on another chapter of my life. I have lived immersed in education and power politics. I was governor of Colorado for three terms, chairman of the National Governors Assn. and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. I also have been on the board of American College Testing for years, and I chaired the first National Education Goals Panel. President Clinton called me his “partner in educational reform.”
So I am speaking from 50 years of deep experience when I say that the mayor’s compromise is about power and money, not about children — and certainly not about education reform.
Education reform is about establishing clear lines of accountability, raising expectations, improving the quality of teaching and the curriculum and providing the training and support that educators need. The mayor’s compromise with the teachers union not only fails to accomplish these goals, it threatens to undercut many of the reforms we’ve put in place and that have led to unprecedented gains in student achievement. It reflects an almost willful inattention to substance in the service of a political deal.
Take the proposal to let each school decide its own curriculum, which was announced as part of the deal last week. It sounds great until you learn that about one in four of our students change schools in any given year because of family circumstances. If a child leaves 112th Street Elementary School on Friday and enrolls at El Sereno Elementary School on Monday, his learning should be uninterrupted.
Every child should receive the best, most proven curriculum we can find. It took L.A. Times reporters one day to discover that many teachers have come to appreciate the Open Court reading program as a proven, well-implemented, common curriculum. I can’t say it better than one of our thousands of motivated teachers, Grace Blanc of Cahuenga Elementary School: “We need to put the children first. I think the consistency is what the children need.”
The results of our six-year effort to reform the district include test scores that have increased 150% faster than the average school in California. Under the mayor’s proposed deal, our reforms would be rolled back. Bold high school reforms such as a mandatory college preparatory curriculum for all students could be lost if schools were allowed to opt out.
The mayor has said for more than a year that he feels accountability in the district is lacking. I don’t agree with that statement. I am held accountable every day, and appropriately so.
But this compromise deal clouds accountability. Under the mayor’s plan, the Board of Education hires (and can fire) the superintendent, but the new “Council of Mayors” — which the mayor of Los Angeles will effectively control — can veto those decisions. That means the superintendent has two bosses. The superintendent would have increased budget authority, but the mayor would review that budget, while the board would still set overall budgetary categories. And principals and teachers would have increased authority over curriculum.
So who, exactly, are parents, voters and concerned citizens supposed to hold accountable in this matrix of players?
There is not a single Fortune 500 company structured this way. I cannot imagine why we would subject our children’s future to this experimental management structure.
To be clear: I’m not defending the status quo — in fact, I’m trying to ensure that we continue to reform and evolve. But this plan would turn back the clock to a system of limited accountability, chaotic inconsistency and unproven instructional methods.
I had hoped that the mayor’s history with the teachers union would give him a unique opportunity to persuade the leaders of this union to embrace many of the reforms that they previously resisted. Instead, under great political pressure to come home from Sacramento with a “victory,” he capitulated to the demands the union has been making on the district for years — demands that would undermine the hard-fought gains we have made.
Even as this article is being written, negotiations are continuing and the exact language of the new legislation is being hammered out. But this much is clear: The deal the mayor struck with the union — actually, with just one of the 10 unions we negotiate with — is not the right way to make public policy. It threatens to unravel the academic achievements our students have accomplished. It presents the new superintendent with a divided and unaccountable line of authority. It does absolutely nothing to improve instruction, which must always be the primary goal in education reform.
Whatever changes are made to this district deserve public debate that includes those who will be affected — parents, teachers, school administrators and students.
The Legislature should reject this proposal and send it back to Los Angeles so that everyone who has a stake in public education can participate in this discussion and together identify the actions needed to continue our efforts to give our students the education they deserve.