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`It's a great deal for our kids'

The mayor explains his compromise plan to reform L.A.' s public schools.

June 22, 2006|Antonio Villaraigosa | ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA is mayor of Los Angeles.

ON WEDNESDAY, I stood with Democratic and Republican legislative leaders and with representatives of California's leading teacher organizations to offer a comprehensive, landmark reform of L.A.'s public schools.

The proposal combines elements of my original proposal for mayoral oversight of the Los Angeles Unified School District -- which was facing increasingly dim prospects in Sacramento -- with some new ideas. I didn't get everything I wanted, but in exchange, our teachers unions made a historic commitment to reform, one they are serious enough about to codify into law.

The bill is a compromise. But it's a great deal for our kids.

The proposal will allow us to cut the rampant bureaucracy, boost systemwide accountability, grant greater power to educators and parents at their own local schools, increase operational flexibility for the superintendent and provide a central role for our city leaders in improving our public schools.

I can promise you this: As long as this law is on the books, there will not be another election for mayor of Los Angeles in which education is not the defining issue.

School reform will no longer be debated primarily in the remote and nearly invisible realm of school board contests but will become part of the daily discussion in the mainstream media of L.A. mayoral races.

Here are some details of the legislation we're proposing:

First, the bill will give the mayor direct oversight of three clusters of the lowest-performing schools in the city. Simply put, the proposal will make turning around our toughest schools our central civic challenge.

The bill also creates a "Council of Mayors," responsible for reviewing the district's budget and coordinating the delivery of essential services for kids, such as after-school programs and campus safety. Right now, the district too often operates as a separate island, and it's the kids who are getting marooned.

Because he or she will control a majority of the votes on the Council of Mayors, the mayor of Los Angeles will have a central role in the selection and in the ultimate ratification of the district superintendent. The mayor will not only have a bully pulpit from which to articulate a reform agenda, he'll have a major hand in selecting the district's leader. Currently, he has no such role.

The superintendent, in turn, will be granted expanded authority to lead and manage systemic change. The bill will untie the superintendent's hands and provide greater operational flexibility by streamlining the process for receiving waivers from burdensome state codes and regulations.

And by giving the superintendent authority over personnel, business operations, budgeting and the facilities program, the bill will empower a new school leader -- whoever is chosen to replace outgoing Supt. Roy Romer -- to cut the bureaucracy and move resources to the classroom.

The bill will preserve the essential powers of the school board, but it will require the board to focus on its essential policy mission: student achievement. It's time to get the school board out of the business of micromanaging day-to-day operations and back to the hard work of improving outcomes.

Finally, the bill will give teachers in the classroom greater choice in the selection of state-approved instructional materials. The time for one-size-fits-all solutions has passed. We need to respect teachers as professionals and grant them the freedom to teach.

Our coalition believes that changes in state law are necessary to shake up the bureaucracy at L.A. Unified, but we have no illusions. No bill by itself will change conditions for students in the classroom. Only parents, teachers, principals and communities can do that.

That's why I believe that the biggest news in Wednesday's announcement lies in the formation of a powerful new community coalition for change that includes our teachers. We can't improve our schools without the active support of teachers, and I want to thank them for their willingness to stand as leaders.

I've said it many times: Positive change is like childbirth. It's hard. It's painful. But in the end, there's no greater reward in life.

I didn't get all I wanted in this negotiation. There wasn't a lot of support in Sacramento for giving the mayor of Los Angeles complete control of the entire school district.

But I compromised in the interest of moving forward with a historic agreement. Our proposal reflects a common consensus that our schools are in a dire state of crisis and that we can't continue to conduct business as usual. Fixing our schools is the fundamental civil rights issue of our time. We will not prosper if we allow the state's largest school district to languish in mediocrity.

This plan reflects the necessity for all of us to get out from behind our traditional defenses and partisan fortifications, to lock arms as one city and to try things a new way.

I can't wait to get started.

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