As both sides prepare for a fateful debate in Sacramento over the future of Los Angeles public schools, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Thursday picked up the endorsement of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which announced its backing for his proposal to enhance mayoral authority over local education.
The chamber's support was somewhat hedged -- the bill in the state Legislature, it said, "is not a cure" for all of the Los Angeles Unified School District's problems -- but it placed a widely recognized and respected business group on the record in support of Villaraigosa's efforts. That could have special weight because the bill is seen in some quarters as being driven by union interests, notably United Teachers Los Angeles, which also has endorsed it.
Chamber President and CEO Gary Toebben said the bill is "a very positive first step" toward bringing the school district under mayoral authority. While he acknowledged that the chamber would prefer legislation that went further in that regard, he said he hoped the bill's passage would begin a long process of strengthening district leadership.
It is, he added, "very positive that the mayor has such a strong interest" in the district.
In an accompanying set of "findings," the chamber acknowledged that the district has made progress in recent years and praised Supt. Roy Romer for his role in those improvements.
"However," the chamber added, "the pace of constructive reform has been painfully slow, and those reforms are often achieved over the objections of the school board, teachers union, and the entrenched bureaucracy."
The chamber's findings also included a stinging rebuke to the concept of elected school boards such as the one that governs L.A. Unified today. Such boards, the chamber said, "no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended." Because board elections receive little attention and fundraising by candidates is dominated by school unions, the offices have lost their relevance, according to the chamber.
"The advantages of an elected school board in Los Angeles," it concluded, "are overwhelmed by the disadvantages."
A spokeswoman for Villaraigosa said the mayor welcomed the chamber's endorsement, which she said provided evidence of growing support for the bill.
The chamber's endorsement, which also features a "Plan for the Future" with recommendations for running the district should the bill pass, comes as each side in the debate is making a final push for support.
In addition to the chamber and UTLA, Villaraigosa has won backing from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and other school and union groups. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who enjoy strong authority over their cities' schools, have spoken out in favor of Villaraigosa's effort.
Villaraigosa also hopes to pick up the support of the full Los Angeles City Council today, when it takes the matter up for final consideration and considers the recommendation of two council committees that backed the proposal earlier this week.
Critics are making their voices known as well. Billionaire philanthropist and education advocate Eli Broad has publicly expressed his unhappiness with the proposal, as has Bill Ouchi, a UCLA professor and former chief of staff to Mayor Richard Riordan.
Both said the plan fails to deliver sufficient authority and accountability to the mayor.
Mayors of some of the small cities served by L.A. Unified also have voiced objections to the bill, which would, among other things, create a council of mayors to oversee certain district functions but would dole out votes on that council proportionally. That would give Villaraigosa the dominant voice on that body -- a fact that troubles some of the smaller cities even as it heartens some advocates of clear accountability since it would centralize some authority in the Los Angeles mayor's office.
Also opposing the bill are the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., a San Fernando Valley business group, and the California State PTA.
On Thursday, even as the chamber came out in favor of the bill, the Valley group reiterated its opposition. The legislation, association President Brendan L. Huffman said in a statement, "represents a missed opportunity to implement sorely needed reforms at LAUSD and improve the quality of our children's education."
The bill is scheduled for a first reading on Monday by the state Senate Appropriations Committee, but action on it is not likely until later in the week.