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Schoolyard Brawl

How schools came to dominate the race to become L.A.'s next mayor.


by Howard Blume

May 5, 2005 | 8:00 pm

Mayor Jim Hahn vs Antonio Villaraigosa - Photos by Javier Cardona/PI

Mayor Jim Hahn vs Antonio Villaraigosa - Photos by Javier Cardona/PI

Mayor Jim Hahn couldn't have put it more plainly. His tone was crisp, impatient, as though he'd had more than enough of this subject.

"Yes, it would be wonderful if I was in charge of the school district," he told The Jewish Journal in February, "but that's not going to happen -- and neither is breaking up the school district. I think people ought to level with people, you know."

Hahn characterized his predecessor, Mayor Richard Riordan, as someone who "spent a lot of time and effort raising money to rearrange the members of the school board."

"Look," said Hahn with indignation and finality, Riordan "made no impact."

Fast forward to Tuesday, April 19.

There's the same Mayor Hahn standing before 150 students and parents at a South Los Angeles school, earnestly announcing an education reform plan that includes partial, but very real, mayoral authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Two days later, challenger Antonio Villaraigosa upped the ante, vowing as mayor to pursue direct oversight of the city's schools.

The law didn't change in two months -- Los Angeles' mayor still has no control whatsoever over Los Angeles' schools -- but the political winds have shifted immensely. As a result, this mayoral campaign has become as much about education as anything else. How it became that way is a study in both electoral tactics and stark reality, clever strategizing combined with a sense of crisis.

Two independent forces were primarily responsible: Bob Hertzberg, who campaigned for mayor on schools, nearly making it into the runoff, and a nascent group called the Small Schools Alliance, which gambled $1.5 million to make education the No. 1 issue in this spring's campaign. The result is two candidates who vow to be the next education mayor; each would bring distinctly different qualities to the job.

The state of the schools publicly entered the mayor's race in December. At the time, challenger Hertzberg, a former state Assembly speaker, was mired low in the polls. It wasn't that voters disliked Hertzberg, it was more that they didn't know he existed, a problem in a five-horse race where only the top two make the runoff. Then Hertzberg unveiled a proposal that set him apart: his pledge to break up LAUSD, the nation's second-largest school district.

Among journalists and politicos, the reaction ranged from ridicule to cynicism. An L.A. Times editorial titled, "Hertzberg's Gimmick," called his plan "insulting," "half-baked," "a series of platitudes." Experienced political reporter Matea Gold, who covered last year's presidential campaign, made Hertzberg's breakup pledge the lead item in a campaign analysis, defining it as "one of several unlikely scenarios, farfetched ideas, and flat-out impossibilities being floated by the candidates vying for the mayor's office."

Later on, two veteran Times education reporters politely and didactically eviscerated Hertzberg, pointing out inconsistencies that arose as Hertzberg pondered sometimes conflicting ideas, such as small schools or small school districts or perhaps a small-er but still-immense school system, whose borders would be contiguous with the city of Los Angeles.

Hertzberg simply wasn't settled on what he intended, other than to convene a post-election summit. That didn't stop former mayor Riordan from endorsing Hertzberg or Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from backing Hertzberg's breakup notion, while not quite explicitly endorsing Hertzberg.

All along, some of the city's most astute political observers speculated that the district breakup idea, despite the attention, damaged Hertzberg as much as it helped.

Something clicked with voters, however, because Hertzberg nearly knocked the sitting mayor out of the runoff, finishing a close third in the March 8 primary. And polls suddenly revealed that L.A. voters were more concerned about education than just about anything else.

This is especially true among Jewish voters, who make up less than one-tenth of the city's population, but about one-fifth of the electorate. More than half of L.A.'s Jewish children attend public schools, and many others are tempted to do so. Jewish politicians, from anti-busing activist Bobbi Fiedler to Hertzberg, have reflected this concern. They've also frequently brought it to the fore of political debate.

With Hertzberg retired from the race, the discussion shifted from district breakup to district involvement. And suddenly, a mayor involved with schools didn't seem so farfetched.

In "Bigger Ideas for the Runoff," the day after the primary, the Times lauded Hertzberg for underscoring "that schools are key to every city goal, from reducing crime to attracting jobs."

The Valley's Daily News, which lined up behind Hertzberg, was gung-ho from the start on schools as an issue.

In case it was needed, editorial boards got plenty of background nudging. Last year, charter school operator Steve Barr organized a coalition whose goal was to make education foremost in the mayor's race. The aspiration seemed almost quixotic, but he raised $1.5 million for that purpose.

Contributors who put in $100,000 included Riordan, Schwarzenegger's appointed education secretary. Barr tapped both the liberal and the more conservative business elite, as well as those who'd been involved in earlier school reform efforts.

Part of the plan was a television buy timed to appear just before the candidates started their on-air barrage for the March 8 primary. In fact, the ads, covering a two-week period, coincided with an early TV buy from Hertzberg, who also wanted to get out in front. Because Hertzberg, too, was touting education, the commercials dovetailed accidentally but effectively.

Concurrently, Barr was organizing a diverse, broad coalition of community groups, including black ministers and Latino activists, to endorse his brand of school reform under the aegis of the Small Schools Alliance as well as influencing wider public debate. These groups put additional pressure on candidates. The alliance asked candidates to sign a pledge in support of small schools that featured local control, mandatory parent involvement and a college-prep curriculum.

In addition, Barr met with opinion shapers, notably editors at the L.A. Times. Other civic leaders also communicated behind the scenes that education deserved to be on the table.

In late March, newspapers gave top billing to Harvard researchers who concluded that more than half of LAUSD students dropped out of school, a point that Hertzberg had emphasized repeatedly. Predictably, school board members said they were shocked to learn about the dropout situation, almost as though they had never noticed. They hastily ordered Superintendent Roy Romer to devise a dropout prevention plan.

It ultimately wasn't lost on thoughtful observers that Riordan's involvement in schools some years back had indeed shaped events at LAUSD, even though the board majority he endorsed has since been voted out. Besides, the City Charter, which gives Los Angeles' mayor no jurisdiction over schools, could be changed, albeit with difficulty. Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, who has substantial clout in school-reform circles, is lobbying for just such a change.

Not long after narrowly surviving the primary, Hahn was trailing Villaraigosa by 18 points in one poll, worse in another. Hahn needed an issue, because he couldn't possibly ride his popular police chief, William Bratton, all the way to victory. And, well, schools had almost worked for Hertzberg.

So there in mid-April was Hahn, solo, facing a panel of questioners with nothing on their list but education. It took place at one of Barr's charter schools in South Los Angeles before 10 TV news cameras. The cameras stayed around even though a new pope had been named just minutes before.

Hahn delivered standard campaign points for about 15 minutes, Barr recalled later. Then he introduced something new, something newsworthy. Hahn not only supported the small schools pledge, but said the mayor should appoint at least three school board members, giving him direct control of at least three of 10 seats.

Such a setup would resemble the mayor's role vis-?-vis the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The MTA's area of service, like the school district's, extends beyond city of Los Angeles borders. Hahn's proposed configuration would mirror that of the Oakland school board in recent years under Mayor Jerry Brown, the former governor.

And then Hahn lobbed this stunner: He wants the city to open its own charter schools at a rate of five a year. Keep in mind it took more than 30 years for LAUSD to build one new high school.

Hahn also called for a privately funded pilot program to attract high-quality teachers to failing schools and for more early intervention programs for children as young as kindergarten age.

Like any front-runner, Villaraigosa didn't need to leap first on schools. But he answered two days later at his own forum before Barr's group. That's where Villaraigosa called for direct mayoral oversight of Los Angeles' schools, with details to be worked out later.

In sum, Hahn, four years after becoming mayor, has a specific school-intervention plan that voters can consider, a stark contrast to his first-term record. Supporters characterize Hahn's first four years as genuinely helpful to student welfare; critics call him passive to a fault.

Specifically, Hahn expanded after-school programs, though not as much as he said he would. Hahn also supported Romer's efforts to finish the star-crossed Belmont Learning Complex project, as well as Romer's project to build on the site of the shuttered Ambassador Hotel. In both instances, Hahn resisted the temptation to reap a political dividend through being an obstructionist.

Hahn also has backed a charter school being developed at the Port of Los Angeles, said Caprice Young, head of the California Charter Schools Association. And, in a neighborhood just west of downtown, Hahn participated in a landmark collaboration involving the city, the school district and a nonprofit developer. The result will be a new elementary school that incorporates park space, child care, a Boys & Girls Club and new affordable housing.

Another such model collaboration between the school district and other entities is taking shape in Villaraigosa's council district, with Villaraigosa's full assistance. Separately, Villaraigosa helped speed the development of one of Barr's charter schools, which has opened on the Eastside.

Before joining the City Council, Villaraigosa served six years in the state Assembly, and he worked for eight years prior to that as an organizer for United Teachers Los Angeles, the LAUSD teachers union. Along the way, he compiled a track record denoting a long-term interest in education.

He was a driving force behind Proposition 1A, the 1998 school bond, according to parties involved. And he also brokered compromise legislation that opened the door for an explosion of new charter schools statewide. In the Legislature, Villaraigosa was known for taking a keen interest in education policy and, despite his liberal views, for achieving compromises that crossed party lines.

When it comes to mayoral oversight of schools, Villaraigosa has substantial political motivation to keep things vague. On one side, his supporters include Riordan and Hertzberg, both of whom are staunch interventionists. Riordan, for his part, wants a strong mayor to counteract the influence of the teachers union.

"Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," said Riordan in an interview with The Journal. "The teachers union has absolute control over the Legislature. It's people fighting over who can eat the last first-class meals on the Titanic. They're telling you everything to do. You can't fire teachers. They tell you how to spend every penny of the budget."

"We need to start putting children first," added Riordan, who is stepping down as state education secretary on July 1. "You have to create a governing structure to put power and accountability down at the schools, with the principal and teachers working as a group. It's been shown time and time again throughout this country that, when you do that, children learn. Put authority and accountability right down at the school level."

The teachers union, Villaraigosa's onetime employer, also backs Villaraigosa. In the view of current UTLA President John Perez, Riordan has some "very strange ideas about education," including "giving all the money to principals and letting principals run schools the way they want to." He said the real solution is more money for schools.

A.J. Duffy, UTLA president-elect, considers himself a personal friend of Villaraigosa, but insisted he would fight mayoral authority over schools "with every breath I have."

"Everything is about education now for politicians, because we're an easy whipping boy," Duffy added. "Public education in Los Angeles is, in fact, succeeding. The Los Angeles Unified School District is getting better. With all due respect, I want to tell politicians and newspaper reporters, 'Go to hell. We're doing it.'"

"We need to start forming coalitions and look at going on the offensive -- to show what's good and to work with progressive forces to fix what's not good," he continued.

Villaraigosa's position, like Hahn's, has evolved. In his own February interview with The Journal, Villaraigosa declined to support breakup or mayoral control. Instead, he talked of improving on Hahn's record with after-school programs, helping find locations for schools and assisting developers of charter schools.

"I'm going to focus on the things that we can do," Villaraigosa said then. "There's a role in creating a more harmonious relationship between the school district and the teachers union."

In an interview last week, he'd become more assertive.

"I support the mayor having oversight and authority over the school district," he told The Journal. "I took a position that is diametrically different from the teachers union. What I also say is that it will not be by executive fiat, but by building trust and selling the idea that what we have now doesn't work. I am not unwilling to disagree with my friends. I understand there won't be support for mayoral oversight unless I can build support for that idea."

Hahn's staff was unable to arrange interview time last week. But elsewhere, he explained his turnaround this way: "Seems to me the mayor ought to have some say about what's going on. Everywhere I go, people talk to me anyway as if I have control over the schools."

One education advocate said the two candidates pose distinctly different questions for voters.

"Villaraigosa knows a lot about education, and has leadership skills," said one advocate, who requested anonymity because of ties to both candidates. "Villaraigosa also has a long record with the teachers union. So, will he come in and really reform the system, even if it requires taking on the teachers union? That's the question nobody knows the answer to.

"Conversely, is Hahn capable of doing something with schools? I think the answer is yes," the advocate continued. "The unknown is: Will he do it, and if he does, will it be beneficial? Villaraigosa will definitely do something, but, again, will it be beneficial?"

When it comes to the May 17 election, none of this positioning or handicapping would matter if education didn't matter. Somehow, in a city of apathy, short attention spans, divergent interests and celebrity preoccupation, it does. And for good reason, said Barr, the charter-school operator.

"The average high school freshman class has about 1,500 students, and the average senior class has about 500 students," Barr said. "And then, one of 10 students graduating from [LAUSD] has completed the minimum requirements to attend the University of California. That's devastating. I don't think you can do any worse than that. If that isn't an emergency, I don't know what is."

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