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From bad to worse?

August 28, 2006

SUPPORTERS OF MAYOR Antonio Villaraigosa's flawed attempt to acquire a say in how Los Angeles schools are run tend to give one of two reasons. Either they're afraid of displeasing the politically powerful mayor and the Legislature's Democratic leadership or, though the bill falls far short of full mayoral control, supporters say it at least gives Villaraigosa a foot in the door.

Nothing can be done about the first argument except to exhort politicians to grow some backbone, which is a hardy perennial for editorial pages. As for the something-is-better-than-nothing claim, the problem with this something is that the mayor's bill, once his union allies were done editing it, blurs responsibility and muddles decision-making powers.

We've been through all that before. The more immediate problem with AB 1381 -- as it heads toward probable passage and then an almost guaranteed legal challenge -- is that its backers might never see the mayor run a cluster of schools or get to pick the superintendent. But they could be stuck in any event with the more regressive parts of the legislation that have nothing to do with mayoral involvement.

At issue is the bill's so-called severability clause, inserted by Villaraigosa's legal team. It spells out that, even if courts strike down parts of the legislation, the rest of it survives. The parts that haven't been found unconstitutional could still go forward.

Severability is rightly troubling many senators at this eleventh hour, given their concerns that the most positive elements of this tortured compromise are the most susceptible to a legal challenge. They want the severability provision removed, but that wouldn't go far enough because most bills are assumed to be separable into parts. The bill cries out for the insertion of a clause declaring that its provisions cannot be divided; the law must stand or fall all of one piece. But the mayor's team, which has brokered many deals to make this bill happen, has been unwilling to do that.

Challenges to the bill almost certainly will concern the mayor's role because the state Constitution is specific in separating the powers of school agencies from municipal governance. The mayor's lawyers have constructed a clever circumvention of that wording by placing the mayor's role under the county Department of Education. But it is a fragile legal premise that attempts to break new ground; there is no case law, no way to predict which way this will go in the courts. The Legislative Counsel, the independent legal advisor to the Legislature, thinks it is most likely unconstitutional.

Take out the mayoral involvement and what does the bill offer? A weakened school board that is even more beholden to its unions than the current one. Clashes of responsibility over who gets to decide where new schools will be built, which could delay the district's massive construction effort. Where a stronger administration is needed, the district gets instead a superintendent whose hands are tied over the hiring and firing of principals, adopting the most effective curriculum and requiring teacher training.

In considering AB 1381, state senators would be irresponsible to decide schoolchildren's fates based on political deals, and remiss in voting for a bill whose legal vulnerability could mean that, in the end, no one but the teachers union gets a better deal.

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