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IT'S NEVER A GOOD IDEA TO JUDGE a proposal by its...

April 21, 2006

IT'S NEVER A GOOD IDEA TO JUDGE a proposal by its detractors. But sometimes it's tempting. The instant opposition to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's ambitious proposal to take over the ailing Los Angeles Unified School District demonstrates that the "conservatives" in this debate -- the ones intent on protecting the status quo, no matter how broken -- are the teachers unions and the politicians they support.

Faced with a passionate, labor-friendly Democrat willing to spend his considerable political capital on as radical a restructuring as the law (and his own compromising heart) will allow, the unions and their allies have drawn from the same playbook they used to rebuff Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, City Controller Laura Chick, former Mayor Richard Riordan, philanthropist/mogul Bill Gates and just about everyone else who has dared tinker with their lack of success.

California Teachers Assn. President Barbara Kerr preemptively ruled out any mayor-based plan. A. J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, made the bizarre claim that there have not been "appreciable gains" in other mayor-led districts, which will come as news to students in New York and Chicago. State Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Assembly's Education Committee, said the real problem with L.A. Unified is a lack of money.

United Teachers Los Angeles has become a force for reaction, not action. When Chick proposed a full audit of L.A. Unified, the union (and the district) objected, then quickly insisted that previous and forthcoming audits were sufficient. When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wanted to spend $1.5 million on struggling Carson High School, it was forced to withdraw its money after union reps objected to the (modest) strings attached to the grant. And the day before Villaraigosa's speech, United Teachers unveiled a pathetic, three-page proposal of its own.

The good news is that some key people in Sacramento seem willing to fight for a bill this year, including Schwarzenegger, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland). The bad news is that the California Teachers Assn., after spending a mind-boggling $55 million to defeat the governor's ballot initiatives last year, is sitting on a war chest of at least $10.8 million, and it is gearing up for a protracted legal battle should the mayor get his votes. Already, Villaraigosa is being portrayed as a power-monger who is damaging the district by saying mean things.

Such sentiments are more fit for the playground than the classroom. State legislators shouldn't confuse the union's bankroll with what's best for the students of Los Angeles, who have suffered long enough.

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