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Back to school

September 05, 2006

TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY of school for 418,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, who will be expected to put the scrapes and slights of summer behind them and focus on learning. The same expectation applies to the adults in the aftermath of the political fight over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to assume some control over the Los Angeles schools.

That fight is over, with his victory last week in Sacramento. The legislation creating a power-sharing arrangement among him, the school board and the district superintendent is about to become law -- the governor is expected to sign it any day now -- and will take effect Jan. 1. The priority now is how to make this new system work. We have not always agreed with the mayor's approach, though we support his ultimate ambition of assuming responsibility for education in this city. We wish him well in his endeavor.

Yes, his plan raises important constitutional issues that may need judicial resolution. But our main objection to the legislation was that it promised too little mayoral control, not too much. Whatever the courts decide, we are not among those hoping that a legal setback will defeat the cause of mayoral control.

On the contrary. It is both desirable and inevitable for big-city mayors, as the most representative local elected officials, to assume control over public education and to be held accountable for the performance of schools, just as they are held accountable for public safety and other vital services. Villaraigosa's law, after he negotiated its details with teachers unions hostile to the concept of mayoral control, is an imperfect first step toward the goal of true mayoral control. But it is in everyone's interest that this experiment become just that: a first step, not a disappointing dead end.

The mayor's undeniable political skills could help minimize the plan's flaws. It is essential in coming weeks that he and the school board set aside their recent animosity, and any animosity stemming from litigation, when it comes to choosing a new superintendent. The mayor formally will have no say in the matter until January, but it is in the best interest of the district to have a superintendent backed and respected by both the board and the mayor.

Collaboration and trust between the mayor and the board also will be crucial in smoothing out some of the law's rough edges -- areas in which ambiguity presents a danger and an opportunity.

For instance, the law pays an alarming amount of lip service to the notion of empowering the community on school construction decisions and local teachers on curriculum choice. Community input is a laudable goal, but it would be a setback to Supt. Roy Romer's legacy if construction decisions became overly politicized. On curriculum matters, the reference to empowering teachers need not be interpreted too generously. Maybe, as in Boston, local schools can have a greater say in their budgets and curriculums only if they meet stringent performance standards.

There will be less ambiguity, of course, when it comes to the cluster of low-performing schools that Villaraigosa will run directly. This will be the pilot program for true mayoral control.

Last week, after his triumph in Sacramento, Villaraigosa said he felt as hopeful as a kid on his first day of school. We now have the opportunity, he said, "to do something truly meaningful for our kids." It's time to end the political struggle over what form this opportunity should take and focus on fulfilling it.

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