A Definite Maybe
March 10, 2006
by Jill Stewart
As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa swirled through both Washington and
Los Angeles this year, a media darling wherever he went,
I contemplated a core mystery: Can Los Angeles’ schools be fixed by a man who
loves to be loved, who with his union allies opposed education reform and whose
wife is an educator with no presence in the fight for reform?
The surprising answer is maybe — if his current independent streak holds.
It is typical these days in speeches by the bustling, well-spoken Villaraigosa
to hear a quick civics lesson from him about the profound troubles in public
schools and the way these troubles harm the viability of Los Angeles.
He asks, “How could we do worse?”
He should know. He dropped out of troubled Roosevet High School, then eventually
persevered to earn a law degree. It wasn’t easy. Infamously, he failed the
California Bar Exam several times. But before you snicker, remember that a
disastrous school system saddled him with enormous academic deficits — yet he
refused to be its victim.
Now, like mayors in Chicago, Detroit, New York and Cleveland, Villaraigosa wants
the power to run the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) of 727,000
students, encompassing several cities and two dozen unincorporated communities.
Some are asking why anybody would want to run a district I dubbed, “Los Angeles
Mummified” — a name that resonated for many. The better question is, can the
schools be helped by a man who, despite his youthful travails, spent his
adulthood on precisely the wrong side of the education wars?
As a state legislator, Villaraigosa joined California’s consistently
anti-progressive “liberal” legislators to oppose Proposition 227, the ballot
measure that ended the disastrous experiment known as “bilingual education.”
What if Villaraigosa’s views — that English immersion would hurt students — had
Luckily, clear-eyed California voters ignored the nearly unanimous opposition
from politicians. Today, English-language reading and writing skills are
improving dramatically among Latino children.
Nor can Villaraigosa take credit for the tough subject matter “content
standards” imposed on California’s whiny school districts by Sacramento. Those
standards were embraced by the State Board of Education under a surprisingly
fearless Gov. Gray Davis, despite claims by the Legislature’s powerful Latino
Caucus — of which Villaraigosa was a member — that the standards were just too
hard. Under the standards, designed to halt widespread dumbing-down by teachers,
California students are clearly improving.
These and other fundamental reforms, fought by teachers unions which are the
mayor’s longtime allies, are producing a quiet miracle. After two decades of
decline that left California near the bottom among the 50 states, public schools
Today, L.A. Unified is cited by serious reformers as an example of how a
troubled urban district can help its teachers turn things around. LAUSD has
miles to go. But in many innercity grade schools, where Superintendent Roy Romer
has focused tremendous effort, test scores are approaching levels more typical
of the suburbs.
That’s huge. Low-income, minority students are starting to succeed. This, even
though roughly 50 percent of L.A. students arrive speaking Spanish or another
language (by comparison, only about 16 percent of students in New York City
schools arrive speaking a language other than English.)
This turnaround happened in the wake of years — even
decades — during which the unions and political groups (with which Villaraigosa
was allied) blamed low achievement on insurmountable social ills, particularly
poverty, that nobody could fix. The unions fought basic reading reforms,
insisting students should work “at their own pace.”
They were tragically wrong, and many Los Angeles teens were left functionally
illiterate. Today, with reading reforms now firmly in place, children
areenjoying big leaps in reading ability, despite the hardships of poverty.
Belatedly, some union leaders — and many teachers — understand and appreciate
the importance of these reading reforms. Other union honchos are merely
simmering over their political defeats, all too ready to make new missteps in
the mission of teacher job protection or, laughably, in the name of helping
If he takes over the schools — a very big if — Villaraigosa’s biggest challenge
will be to come to grips with how wrong he and his friends were. Although
Villaraigosa has criticized Romer, the truth is that Romer, the former
Democratic governor of Colorado, stood up to his own natural allies. In his
former life, Romer was staunchly pro-union as a politician.
Romer’s efforts in Los Angeles, along with those of former school board
President Caprice Young and no-nonsense current board member Mike Lansing, are
among the reasons I rarely call the place L.A. Mummified anymore.
Yet Villaraigosa has taken Romer to task for, among other things, failing to
stem the dropout rate. On this count, Villaraigosa’s lack of experience in the
education wars really shows.
The semi-illiterate dropouts common today were little kids 10 years ago,
subjected to endless fads enacted under former school board presidents, such as
Jackie Goldberg, and past superintendents, such as Sid Thompson.
Romer tried to undo much of that, by getting teachers to focus heavily on solid,
basic skills. In an ironic twist, now-state Assemblywoman Goldberg’s name
recently surfaced as a possible replacement for Romer when he retires. Goldberg
has spent much of her time in Sacramento fighting to weaken reforms in reading,
English immersion, math, science, testing and content standards that Romer has
With such struggles still facing the schools, Villaraigosa’s own weak history in
this field doesn’t inspire confidence. What inspires confidence, however, is the
manner in which the mayor has proved himself independent of City Hall unions and
thus of his past as a labor organizer.
Likewise, he parted company with the powerful Los Angeles Teachers Union in this
week’s special election, endorsing a different candidate than the union in the
Tuesday primary for an open school-board seat.
If a leader with Villaraigosa’s energy can learn from his mistakes and maintain
the independent quality that has helped make him a media darling, he can be a
positive force for improving L.A. schools — whether he wins the power to call
the shots or not.