Makeover, not takeover

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORESanta Anita opens winter meet Saturday with loaded card Moreover, L.A.’s educational woes are hardly unique. According to a recent report by the National Assessment of Education Progress, students in nine of the nation’s 11 big city school districts fell below national achievement levels. That includes students in Chicago, New York, and Cleveland, where mayors call the shots. The school districts bomb in part because there are too many lousy teachers, wasteful administrators and moribund school boards. But they bomb in bigger part because of poverty, immigration, language difficulties and gross under-funding. These are big-ticket, intractable social problems that a mayor can’t wave a magic wand and solve. In the mayor-run school districts in New York and Chicago that Villaraigosa touts as examples of the educational miracles mayors can work if given a free hand, test scores have marginally inched up, while nearly half of fourth-graders fall below basic reading levels. New York has gone through four chancellors in two years, and teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders complain that they have been shut out of school policy decisions. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley doesn’t rule the schools with an iron fist. Local school councils make many of the key school policy decisions. The councils include parents and community members, principals and teachers. Under state law each council can hire and evaluate the principals and have the final say over a school’s discretionary budget and improvement plan. In Cleveland, the schools had a nightmare debt and dropout rate, and wallowed at the bottom in achievement scores. There was absolutely nowhere for them to go but up. Though debt is now down, and student achievement has slightly improved since the mayor took over, the majority of students in Cleveland still test on a par with or below those in L.A. schools. Then there is Baltimore. That’s the one mayor-run district that takeover backers don’t talk about. The Baltimore schools were an educational disaster when the mayor took them over in 1997. Several years later, they still were. It took a state-city partnership before significant improvements were finally attainted. Boston is the one school district where the mayor has received consistently high marks for turning the schools around. But even that’s not a good comparison. The district is much smaller, more manageable, less diverse and not as poverty-strapped. Despite its arguable success, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino bluntly told a forum at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2002 that mayors are not a panacea for failing urban school districts. He fingered poverty, lack of funding and deteriorating school facilities as the prime culprits in why schools grossly under-perform. But even if students in the mayor-run districts made the quantum leap in performance that Villaraigosa claims they have, these districts would still be bad models for what could happen in L.A.’s schools. The mayors took over these districts because the schools were not just failures, but were racked by corruption, inefficiency and political infighting. The takeovers were a last-ditch, desperation measure, but they were also political win-wins for the mayors. The mayors knew that any improvement they brought would burnish the luster on their political star. This is not to say that Villaraigosa’s takeover bid is a crass political grab, or that he shouldn’t have a voice in school direction. Trained, educated, and skilled professionals are crucial to the economic growth, well-being and quality of life in Los Angeles. However, he can have that voice by doing what Mayor Richard Riordan did. Riordan turned the Mayor’s Office into a bully pulpit to prod and cajole LAUSD officials to do even more to reverse the district’s low student achievement level. He put his political muscle and money behind school board candidates committed to education reform, and aggressively lobbied state and federal officials for more money for school improvements. Villaraigosa can urge the board to copy the dozens of innovative programs in other school districts nationally that have boosted achievement levels among poor and minority students – without a mayor directly calling the shots. In these districts, teachers, administrators and parents work together and challenge the students to learn by setting specific goals, requiring mandatory participation of the students and parents, stressing clarity of class and homework assignments, providing positive reinforcement to students and continually monitoring classroom progress. They believe that poor and minority students can learn and achieve like students in well-heeled suburban schools, and they push them hard to be the best students they can be. Villaraigosa has barely completed a half-year at City Hall. He still must put the final touch on police reform, come up with a workable plan for LAX expansion, deal with a looming city budget shortfall, strengthen neighborhood councils, battle the gang and homeless crisis, jump-start business development in South L.A., and tackle the city’s horrendous transportation problem. That’s more than enough to keep him busy. Running the L.A. schools shouldn’t be on his list. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst, social-issues commentator and frequent contributor to the Daily News.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Longtime education activist, former Los Angeles school board member, and chairwoman of the state Assembly Committee on Education Jackie Goldberg flatly says that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hasn’t said or done anything to show that he can run the schools any better than the L.A. board of education. Not that her words mean much – Villaraigosa’s determined to barge ahead with his plan to take over the school district. Though L.A. City Controller Laura Chick would probably deny it, she recently aided and abetted the mayor’s takeover plot by demanding that the LAUSD turn over all its financial records. That’s a thinly disguised effort to show that the district is the abysmal failure Villaraigosa claims it is. The move will make it even easier to sell his takeover notion to the public and the California Legislature. Villaraigosa has loudly touted the supposed success that mayors in Chicago, Cleveland and New York have had in turning their miserably failing schools around to back his claim that he can do the same in L.A. But have they? And are L.A.’s schools as far gone as Villaraigosa insists? There are few who dispute that L.A. public schools can do better, much better. The dropout rate is still way too high, graduation rates are still way too low, and too many students still can’t read properly or do basic math. Still, the LAUSD has made some improvement. It has stepped up the pace of school construction, decentralized operations, encouraged more parent involvement and – most importantly – bumped up math and reading test scores for fourth- and eighth-graders. last_img read more