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August 17, 2006

MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA should be pleased with himself. He is about to acquire a say in the management of the Los Angeles Unified School District, a political win almost as clean as his plan is convoluted. If only his supporters were as pleased with his proposal as he is.

When Villaraigosa first said he would make mayoral control a priority, more than a year ago, a lot of establishment figures gave him credit for rising above politics to take on a thankless task. Now many of them acknowledge privately that this compromise is an unwieldy mess, yet they refrain from speaking out against it for fear of crossing the mayor.

The dominoes started falling soon after Villaraigosa reached an accord in June with his friends-turned-enemies-turned-friends-again, the California Teachers Assn. and United Teachers Los Angeles. They hated his initial proposal for clear lines of authority and accountability over the schools, with the buck stopping at the mayor's desk. So they negotiated an alternative in June that manages to dilute, rather than strengthen, accountability by giving everyone a say in running our schools.

What's remarkable is how quickly the initial proponents of strong mayoral control have fallen in line. The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, for instance, first applauded Villaraigosa's push for assuming responsibility over education. Once Villaraigosa made his costly peace with the unions, then-President Russell "Rusty" Hammer rightly said in his weekly newsletter that "the current proposal is not at all what the mayor first discussed, and what we know is required -- a fundamental overhaul." Indeed, he went on to write, "it seems to fall short of that, and some question whether it may be even worse than what we currently have."

And yet the chamber has somehow found itself endorsing AB 1381, which would implement Villaraigosa's plan. Worse, it seems, is better than nothing, especially if it pleases the mayor. The Villaraigosa steamroller also managed to garner 15-0 acquiescence out of the City Council, some of whose members know better but might have been seduced -- OK, so it's not always about the kids -- by the mayor's willingness to play ball on term limits.

Plenty of others have joined the mayor's motley coalition of the unenthused willing. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly wasn't going to quibble with Villaraigosa's flawed definition of mayoral control. Then there were activist groups that should know better, such as One L.A. and Acorn, rushing to ingratiate themselves with the mayor by supporting his plan, as did the influential Green Dot charter schools. The cluster of cities in southeast Los Angeles County that were adamantly against this bill got onboard this week -- Villaraigosa threw them a bone that will make this plan even more unwieldy by giving them more say on the choice of their local district superintendents.

If politics is the art of compromise, then it must be conceded that Villaraigosa is Picasso. But who knew so many civic leaders were blobs of paint?

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