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School semantics

April 30, 2006

THE COMING BATTLE OVER control of the Los Angeles schools will be "a holy jihad," in the memorable phrase of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is attempting to wrest control of the district from the school board. Yet, while the struggle involves some of the most powerful forces in the city and state -- the jihad to which the mayor was referring is against the teachers union -- its outcome may well rest on something far more mundane: the meaning of three modest sentences in the state Constitution and the City Charter, and on Villaraigosa's crafty interpretation of them.

The 31 words from the City Charter are fairly straightforward: "The Board of Education shall have power to control and manage the public schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District in accordance with the Constitution and laws of the state."

So, unless the mayor wants to change the charter -- which would require a popular vote -- the school board has to remain. By keeping the board and making sure it retains at least some "power," such as the power to expel wayward students, the mayor hopes to avoid a difficult, expensive and time-consuming campaign. Instead, he has decided to focus on the last third of the sentence. His plans would severely limit the board's authority by changing the "laws of the state."

That's why center stage for this fight isn't in City Hall or on Beaudry Avenue but in Sacramento. Villaraigosa has to persuade the Legislature to pass a bill allowing him to govern the most important aspects of the district.

But the state Constitution presents problems of its own, in particular this sentence: "No school or college or any other part of the Public School System shall be, directly or indirectly, transferred from the Public School System or placed under the jurisdiction of any authority other than one included within the Public School System."

Because the mayor and city government are not within the public school system, this wording implies that no one, including the Legislature, can place the schools under the power of a mayor or any other non-school group. The mayor points out that charter schools, which are often run by for-profit companies or independent nonprofits, won a legal battle over this very sentence. But charter schools are still under the purview of the school systems that authorize their existence and oversee their operations.

The mayor can be expected to cite another sentence in the state Constitution, which says the public school system "shall include ... the school districts and the other agencies authorized to maintain [schools]." Conceivably, those "other agencies" could include the Council of Mayors proposed by Villaraigosa to run the schools.

A fight in the courts is almost unavoidable, and unavoidably legalistic. But it will have been worthwhile if it informs the more important discussion: how best to improve the schools -- and keep those who run them accountable.

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