September 18, 2019

The ultimate school test

The political struggle over school governance is now the most significant internal conflict in the Democratic Party, at the city, state and national levels. With gun control, gay marriage and immigration now uniting Democrats as never before, education reform remains a main dividing line.

A reform coalition that includes President Barack Obama, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a number of business leaders has been in conflict with national, state and local teacher unions. Teacher unions have long been a backbone of Democratic national conventions, but education reform created rifts at the quadrennial meeting in 2012. On April 14, delegates to the California Democratic convention in Sacramento condemned the reform coalition. 

This intense conflict may explain the reticence on the subject of schools of L.A.’s two Democratic mayoral candidates. Former Mayor Richard Riordan, one of the earliest reformers, has endorsed Greuel, while Garcetti has the support of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). But neither candidate is ready to offer full-throated, unvarnished support for one or the other contending sides, and both seem understandably leery of jumping into the boiling pot.

In his final State of the City address, Mayor Villaraigosa challenged the mayoral candidates to speak out on education. The criticism stung, and the candidates started to roll out some of their plans for education. But, after all, what can the mayor actually do about education?

Section 805 of the city charter vests control of the schools in a seven-member board of education, elected by district. In most other big cities, the mayor has a larger formal role. In New York City, the mayor appoints the superintendent. In Chicago, Baltimore and Boston, the mayor is clearly the dominant figure in public education.

Los Angeles voters believe that city leaders can and should do something about the schools. In June 2005, the Los Angeles Times’ exit poll, the last one done in a local election, found that 40 percent of voters ranked education as the No. 1 issue in the mayoral race. Education ranked ahead of the next highest issue, crime, by 10 points.

Yet it is uncertain that voters would give the mayor greater formal authority if asked to do so in a ballot measure. That assumption led Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to sidestep a charter amendment and go directly to the state legislature to get partial authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District — a law that was eventually overturned in court. Eventually, he reached an agreement with LAUSD to create a nonprofit entity under his leadership that would operate several low-performing schools.

Back in the early 1990s, Mayor Richard Riordan challenged the UTLA, which had dominated recent school board elections. Spending his own money and raising additional funds from allies, Riordan helped elect a board majority in favor of his vision of school reform, and strongly supported then-Superintendent Roy Romer. But Riordan lost his board majority near the end of his mayoralty.

Riordan endorsed Villaraigosa for mayor in 2005, and once the new mayor’s legislative strategy for the schools failed, his next steps to exercise influence over the schools resembled Riordan’s. In 2006 and 2007, Villaraigosa supported winning candidates who comprised a majority on the school board for his reform coalition. This year, despite millions of dollars in campaign spending, the reform coalition failed to unseat an incumbent board member. The board is now precariously balanced between the two contending sides.

The real question for the mayoral candidates is not whether they will go down the path that Riordan and Villaraigosa did, of seeking to build working majorities on the school board. The question is whether what the next mayor says or does will make a difference in this political environment. Will he or she be willing to risk political conflict to have an impact on the schools?

The two main forces are not going to go away. Is the mayor going to pick a side or chart a third course? 

There are issues on the table that will require the new mayor to pick a direction: How should we evaluate teacher performance? How many charter schools should we have, and how should they be evaluated? How much should teachers be paid? Should the superintendent be supported or opposed? There is certainly an opening for a mayor who takes on either or both sides when the evidence suggests a better way. The “bully pulpit” is not just a vehicle for good ideas offered by a mayor; its strength reflects the mayor’s ability to generate and use political power to advance those ideas.

We may not get all the answers from the candidates about how they will try to help education. But the real test will come after one or the other takes office on July 1, when they will either stand aside, or wade into a thick environment in a way that makes their impact both forceful and productive. 

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.