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Playground reform

July 31, 2006

THE CHILDREN OF THE LOS ANGELES Unified School District are going overboard these days with rude behavior. Such name-calling, such insults.

Oops, sorry. Those aren't the kids. They're the grown-ups.

Understandable mistake. As legislation to carve up governance of the school district moves forward, the posturing has heated up to the point of political neener-neener. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa berates and belittles the district with questionable statistics. Superintendent Roy Romer delivers an over-the-line retort, likening the mayor to the architects of Japanese American internment. The mayor then reacts to this relatively minor miscue with dramatic outrage and demands a retraction. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger then has Villaraigosa's back with a quick verbal jab at Romer, implying that the superintendent deserves to be fired for the "horrible" job that's been done running the district.

The governor's staff needs to do a better job on prep -- the point of the legislation is to disempower the fractious and glacier-slow school board, not the superintendent, who is leaving in September anyway after having made real improvements at the schools over the last few years. Those improvements, though, have been far from Romer's boast of being "spectacular." This is a district desperate for change, not fictitious accolades or poisoned barbs.

It can become easy to forget that underneath the verbal fireworks lurks an actual piece of legislation, and that it remains a step in the wrong direction. The bill comes before the state Senate Appropriations Committee in one week, and though Villaraigosa's office has been hard at work amending it, so far nothing has emerged that would move it in the necessary direction -- true mayoral control of the schools.

Last week, the mayor's office released tentative amendments that were minor in nature, aimed more toward shielding the bill from opposition than devising a strong new structure for running the schools. A proposal to let the mayors of southeast cities take over a cluster of campuses, meant to drum up support from those mayors, appears to be failing. The smaller cities in the district are mostly opposing the bill.

Rather than setting up a broad policy to clear up the lines of accountability over the schools, every version of the bill so far muddies matters by dividing up responsibilities and micromanaging who gets to do what under which circumstances. This is one of those cases in which getting partway there -- some mayoral control instead of full mayoral control -- isn't a step forward but a retreat toward even more confusion and lack of progress. It could put off genuine reform for years.

This page continues to support real mayoral control as the best way to pull the schools from inertia and to inject swift, meaningful reform. We continue to hope the mayor will deliver that reform, instead of a bill that does more for childish politicians than for undereducated children.

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