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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

Friends face off in legal fight over L.A. Unified

December 11, 2006|Bob Sipchen

Saenz left MALDEF to join the mayor's team last year, in part because of his concern for students. "I agree with the mayor when he says this is the civil rights issue of the 21st century," he says. Saenz supports the mayor's efforts to seize control of the educational hierarchy because he believes it's the only way to shake the status quo out of its stupor. "The key," he says, "is strong leadership and accountability, a clear message.... Not just that you want to change the culture but that it will change."

When Reed began working for the district, he was shocked, he says, and wouldn't have stayed if things hadn't changed.

But as he worked with former Supt. Roy Romer's team to push through bond measures, and saw new campuses rising in poor and minority areas as a result, he began to believe that systemic reforms could be spurred from within.

"Seeing this tremendous transfer of wealth that allows $19 billion of peoples' money to go to educational infrastructure -- almost entirely for poor kids -- makes it very easy to believe in this job and this Board of Education's ability to make profoundly meaningful changes," he says.

Hordes of private and public lawyers are representing an array of parties on either side in this litigation, and Saenz won't even be arguing in court. But more than a few observers clearly think of the complex case as Saenz vs. Reed.

"Watching them as two gladiators, as opposed to allies on the same side, is kind of exhilarating in a way," says attorney and education reform advocate Connie Rice. "Seeing two of your best-trained friends go against each other professionally is fun."

Legal issues aside, the mayor's bill -- with its concessions to the teachers union and muddled chains of command -- is lousy. The district, meanwhile, remains bloated and oblivious to the frustrations it continues to inflict on students, parents, teachers and principals.

Still, many education obsessives see cause for encouragement in the fight itself.

Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation and a supporter of the mayor's plan, puts it like this: "A lot of people had given up on public education.... This debate has given [the] public the sense that there are alternatives and that people care deeply enough to fight for them."


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