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Learning curve

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's latest schools plan is ambitious. If only he actually had control of the schools.

January 18, 2007

MAYOR ANTONIO Villaraigosa's blueprint for the Los Angeles schools, unveiled Wednesday evening, contains a little something for everyone. There are some fine-but-small ideas (school uniforms), some big-but-redundant ones (more schools and family centers) and a few that are simply pie-in-the-sky (better-paid teachers, smaller class sizes and longer school hours). The problem with the mayor's "schoolhouse" plan isn't his vision -- it's his inability to carry it out.

The feel-good plan offers no thoughts on how the mayor, who currently has no authority over the schools, would bring its proposals to fruition. It provides only vague notions about how such proposals would be paid for, and it doesn't refer to his legal battle to win partial control of the schools.

That battle isn't going so well, with the mayor having suffered two losses in state court. So the blueprint is a kind of fall-back plan: If he can't beat the school district, Villaraigosa will join it. After all, he can wield his considerable charisma to influence Schools Supt. David L. Brewer, and his equally considerable political power to support a sympathetic slate of school board candidates.

This is a pragmatic and understandable tactic -- and it's to the mayor's credit that he is willing to use whatever means are available to achieve a better result for children rather than refusing to act if he doesn't get everything his way. But let's not kid ourselves. This 26-page plan doesn't bring about the kind of sweeping, permanent structural overhaul that L.A. schools desperately need. Only true mayoral control would accomplish that.

The courts could still approve the mayor's plan for partial control. Though the state Constitution specifies that only a public school agency can run schools, it would not be a stretch to define a mayor's office as a public school agency. But even if the mayor loses his case in the courtroom, he should have a more ambitious Plan B at the ready -- one that gives him more control than the watered-down plan now before the courts.

Many of the mayor's proposals are worthwhile. By all means, let's have an independent audit of the school district to see what cost savings can be gleaned through a more efficient operation. Meaningful report cards, better-trained principals, foreign-language instruction starting in elementary school, a push against social promotion: None of these are new ideas, but they're all good.

The best way to make them happen, though, isn't for the mayor to negotiate their acceptance, even if he has a friendly superintendent and a pliant school board. It's to give the mayor the power to make them policy.

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