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The mayor's 'jihad'

October 10, 2005

GIVEN MAYOR ANTONIO Villaraigosa's wobbly tone on schools since taking office, no one was expecting his group of education experts to come up with a bold blueprint for improving L.A.'s schools. But the plan he announced on Thursday is a primer on how the mayor can improve schools from the outside, almost as a helpful volunteer. That's disappointing coming from a mayor who promised to improve schools from the inside by taking control of them and being held accountable for their performance.

A census of afterschool programs? Fundraising to provide children with health insurance? Helpful, and in the latter case important. But these aren't the key education issues on voters' minds, especially those whose children attend one of the district's many low-performing schools.

The good news is that last week the mayor did reiterate his commitment to take over the school district, which will enable him to address more fundamental education problems. Villaraigosa said he plans on assuming responsibility for schools by the end of his four-year term. This page has pressed the mayor to act with a greater sense of urgency, but we are still relieved to learn, after some suggestion to the contrary, that Villaraigosa appreciates that this is not an optional fight but an inevitable one.

He also knows it won't be easy. In a meeting on Wednesday with The Times editorial board, the mayor acknowledged that to achieve mayoral control, it will take "a holy jihad" against the powerful city teachers union, which opposes mayoral control but has been one of the mayor's most generous supporters. (It and the state teachers union donated more than $920,000 to his campaign.)

The mayor wants time to build "a consensus for fundamental change." It's unclear exactly what he means by consensus and with whom he's trying to reach it. The mayor knows that the district's teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, will never go along with his plan. The school board is highly unlikely to hand its powers over willingly.

This leaves the public. Villaraigosa says his polling shows some resistance to the idea. Yet it's hard to argue that the mayor doesn't have a mandate to proceed. His campaign pledge to take over the schools was clear in an election dominated by concerns about education.

It would be understandable if, at this point in his term, Villaraigosa lacked a plan to take over the schools. But he cannot use consensus-building as an excuse to procrastinate. The mayor is popular enough, and politically astute enough, to show leadership on this issue and forge ahead.

Meanwhile, the mayor's short-term school initiatives are only tangentially related to education and guaranteed not to offend anyone. Probably the most constructive action for Villaraigosa at this point would be to call for an outside audit -- ideally overseen by Controller Laura Chick -- to determine how responsive and efficient the school district is.

Villaraigosa is on the right track when he says he will survey the examples of other cities with mayoral control to see what works. A well-informed plan is vital; a bill in Sacramento that would have given him authority over the schools failed largely because its mechanism for takeover was deemed unconstitutional.

One of the things Villaraigosa will find in his survey is that mayoral control works best in cities where the mayor makes schools the top priority, moves boldly for full authority and is unafraid of ruffling feathers when necessary. Bring on the jihad.

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