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Educator in chief

The mayor's efforts to take over L.A. schools have been sidetracked, but the goal is still right.

March 11, 2007

MAYOR ANTONIO Villaraigosa may or may not be getting his new school board; Tuesday's election was inconclusive and two races will be decided in a May 15 runoff. He may or may not get formal control over a handful of schools; the court ruling striking down his reform bill, AB 1381, is on appeal. Whatever the outcome, he has put improving the education of the city's students on the top of the political agenda, and for that he deserves credit.

But if education remains a concern of Los Angeles voters, how is it possible that their turnout in Tuesday's school board races was in the single digits? It could be that they saw very little at stake. After all, even if the mayor's present course proves successful, it would leave him accountable for only a handful of schools and with only a modicum of clout over the district. This is better than nothing, as we pointed out last week. But the power he holds over the whole district would be based on personality and political string-pulling, and it would expire the minute he left office. Then what?

The mayor should stay the course. Simultaneously, however, he should go back to the drawing board for a plan to achieve the real goal: full control of the schools. Villaraigosa chose influence and partial control as a political tactic. But lasting improvement requires a single person accountable to voters for the district's performance.

The campaign over the last year pointed out some roadblocks to mayoral control. School districts in California (and much of the nation) are separate from city government, and that separation was underscored in Los Angeles by district lines that intentionally embrace more than just one city. Why, the thinking goes, should the mayor of Los Angeles have control over schools in South Gate or West Hollywood?

AB 1381, with its Council of Mayors, was one way out of that jam. But it's not the only one. If the bill fails, Villaraigosa should be ready with Plan B.

If it means breaking up the school district so that the mayor's authority reaches only schools within city limits, so be it. If it takes a vote of the people to do it, then the people should vote. If it takes amending the state Constitution, then amend it. Californians have made bigger changes at the ballot box. And if a constitutional amendment means that other cities besides L.A. will have a chance to take direct control over their schools and hold their mayors accountable for their performance, that's a good thing.

For now, voters must wait until May, and all of us must wait for the courts to act when they will. The drive toward accountability, and full mayoral control of the schools, must not wait.

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