We can’t quit on school reform

ANTONIO R. VILLARAIGOSA is the mayor of Los Angeles.

ON THURSDAY, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge struck down AB 1381, the landmark effort to reform the Los Angeles Unified School District that was set to take effect Jan. 1. The ruling represents a temporary setback for students and their parents, but if I have learned anything from a lifetime of overcoming obstacles, it is that success is the reward of perseverance.

After the court’s decision, I directed the city attorney’s office to prepare an immediate appeal. We don’t have the luxury of waiting another year — or even another term — for a fundamentally different approach in a school district that loses as many as half its students before they reach graduation.

Put simply, the district is at a crossroads. Supt. David L. Brewer has indicated that he is prepared to take on the bureaucracy within L.A. Unified, to champion the idea that every child can succeed no matter his or her economic or ethnic background. Brewer’s attitude is a refreshing departure from an insular culture that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the gravity of the dropout crisis.

Opponents of our efforts claim that there is a manufactured crisis in student achievement. They just don’t get it. Independent study after independent study put the high school dropout rate at 50%, and in some schools it is much higher. More than 35,000 students disappeared from the class of 2005 between the start of their freshman years and graduation day. Meanwhile, Los Angeles has more gang members than any other American city. It’s hard to imagine a more pressing crisis facing our community than education.

If the higher courts rule as they should, AB 1381 will be found constitutional and will provide a historic opportunity for change and innovation. It gives the superintendent authority to reduce the bloated bureaucracy, and it offers new resources for the lowest-performing schools. By creating a partnership among elected officials — including the mayor — community leaders and parents, the legislation firmly rejects the outdated notion that school bureaucracy alone can tackle the most critical job of government: educating our children.

It is plainly and profoundly a responsibility that the entire community bears. L.A. Unified faces enormous challenges. Yet the structure governing the district was put in place at the beginning of the 20th century — about the time that the city’s population reached the 100,000 mark. Today, there are more than 700,000 students and 75,000 employees in the district. While the isolation of the school district may have worked in the era of the Model T, it is demonstrably untenable today.

As this case goes to a higher court, I am confident that we have the law on our side. My office will continue planning to give the Mayor’s Community Partnership Schools — the high schools and feeder schools that AB 1381 would put under my control — a running start when they open in the next academic year. We will engage parents, teachers, business leaders and members of the community in the selection, design, planning and administration of those schools to make them genuine incubators of innovation. We will continue to challenge business and philanthropy to stake their futures with the futures of our kids. We will continue to reach out to the mayors and elected officials of the communities that make up L.A. Unified, because we all have a role in the important work of education reform. And make no mistake: We will support leaders in the March school board elections who are committed to a vision of fundamental change.

The future economy of Los Angeles — and our ability to attract and retain middle-class jobs — hinge on our ability to improve our public schools. It’s time for the entire community of Los Angeles together to face up to this defining challenge. Just as so many others did for me, I intend to fight for the students in L.A. Unified — and I will not be deterred.