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Give Us Our Schools Back

June 12, 2005|David Abel | David Abel is chairman of the civic organization New Schools/ Better Neighborhoods. He is president of Abel & Associates, a public policy consulting firm serving public and private clients.

During his successful mayoral campaign, Antonio Villaraigosa pledged to use the power of the mayor's office to fix the city's dysfunctional public school system. It was a sound goal because no mayor can address crime, poverty, the lack of economic opportunity for working-class families and middle-class flight without also dealing with the failures of our educational system.

The problem, however, is that a Los Angeles mayor lacks the power to do the job.

Mayors of other major U.S. cities are taking failed schools in hand. Richard M. Daley of Chicago is a case in point. When he became mayor 10 years ago, Daley inherited a school system over which he had little control. The Illinois General Assembly gave him the power to make reforms. His handpicked school superintendent opened school buildings to the community during evening hours, and he invited nonprofit groups to lend a hand in staffing schools and improving programs.

Daley's leadership led to higher graduation rates and higher test scores. Chicago's public schools have cut by half the number of students with scores in the bottom 25% on the Iowa basic stills standardized test, while doubling the number in the top quarter. Villaraigosa has the opportunity to make a similar difference in L.A.

As a city councilman, Villaraigosa worked with my organization, New Schools/Better Neighborhoods in Boyle Heights, seeing firsthand how poor neighborhoods, through the use of integrated joint-use planning, can contribute to rather than cripple the economic life of a city. He should recognize that the physical isolation of schools has contributed to their failure over the last 40 years.

Schools have become islands, barely engaging with the larger community. To reverse this, the new mayor must act decisively, asking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers to give him the power to choose the school district's leadership -- which implicitly means overcoming major obstacles to create a city of Los Angeles school district.

At the same time, the mayor should require the LAUSD to build smaller, community-centered schools. These schools would become neighborhood "anchors," providing an array of services, including healthcare, libraries, recreational space and adult education.

With his strong electoral mandate, Villaraigosa is in a sound position to assume a leading role with the schools. He also has a chance to invite volunteers and nongovernmental groups to help rebuild schools and improve the educational performance of students.

If he fails to do so, he will have missed a crucial opportunity to change the fortunes of the city.

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