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Not when, but why

January 29, 2006

NOW THAT MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA has said when he wants to take control of the Los Angeles schools, he can turn to explaining why. The mayor's timeline -- two years -- is ambitious but realistic. It's his rationale that could use some elaboration.

We've been convinced for some time that the mayor should govern the schools, as mayors are doing successfully in similarly huge urban districts such as New York and Chicago. Among other benefits, mayors provide better accountability, forge more flexible contracts with unions and efficiently combine city and school resources. The greater accountability in how schools are governed has led to improving academic achievement.

That said, Villaraigosa still needs to sell the concept to other elected officials here and in Sacramento, as well as to voters. Teachers' and other unions, which through their endorsements and campaign contributions are a potent force in school board politics, are sure to fight this effort. They don't want to see contracts like the one recently signed in New York that gives principals more flexibility to hire the right teacher for the right job, rather than letting seniority decide the matter.

The mayor is methodically forging ahead. Last week he met with education-minded mayors who have taken over their school districts and made it work. His newly appointed takeover team will tackle the thorny job of figuring out, as a legal matter, how best to accomplish the actual change in governance. Then there is the more exciting task of mapping out exactly what the mayor can and will do to improve the schools.

That will be key to persuading voters, who will ultimately have the say. So far, Villaraigosa has advocated mayoral control by criticizing the district and calling it a failure. Yet most voters are as familiar with dedicated educators persevering in difficult circumstances as they are with the many shortcomings of the L.A. schools. They have seen new schools going up and noticed some promising movement in elementary school scores. They want to hear what the mayor can do for them, not a litany of complaints.

Los Angeles Controller Laura Chick could play a role in helping the mayor, if she succeeds in launching an audit of the school district. Supt. Roy Romer has suggested that Chick lacks the education expertise to perform a top-notch audit. That's exactly the kind of defensiveness the district has been criticized for in other audits. Chick's outsider perspective is likely to lead to a refreshing look at the district's operations.

The school board isn't going to like the idea of mayoral takeover no matter how it's couched. But Villaraigosa might make the district less defensive -- and advance his own campaign more effectively -- if he replaced his attack with some fresh insights into how the schools can be improved.

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