In a political power grab that has few historic parallels, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is slowly but successfully maneuvering to take over the troubled Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest K-12 system.
At first glance, any shake up at LAUSD might be considered advantageous. With a high school drop out rate of about 50 percent and lower than average national test scores, many wonder what's to lose by changing the bureaucratic players on a losing team.
But is a brand new mayor, just beginning his second year in office and with a full plate of municipal challenges already overwhelming him, the man for the job?
Since Villaraigosa took office on July 1, 2005, in Los Angeles the following have risen: spending, taxes, water rates, murders and certain municipal employee salaries.
What Villaraigosa proposes is that through Assembly Bill 1381, introduced by his friend Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, the Los Angeles mayor would have virtually unlimited power to choose a new school superintendent as well as to appoint key administrators with LAUSD. The superintendent, under Villaraigosa's direction, would have expanded powers while the Board of Education's influence would be reduced.
Before considering whether or not such a heavy-handed ploy is good for the 727,000 children served by LAUSD, let's pause to consider the politics, never far from the surface.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, endorses Democrat Villaraigosa's plan. Schwarzenegger said that he would sign AB 1381 no matter what its final form.
A more natural ally for Villaraigosa is Schwarzenegger's Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides.
But a Villaraigosa-Angelides partnership does not serve the Mayor well. In one of California's most open secrets, Villaraigosa has his eye on the governor's seat in 2010 when Schwarzenegger will be termed out.
A Schwarzenegger win in 2006 therefore plays right into Villaraigosa's hand. On the other hand, if Angelides pulls off an upset, he would be running as the Democratic incumbent in 2010 thus delaying Villaraigosa's gubernatorial bid until 2014, a political eternity away.
If you can get past the cynicism of using school children as political pawns, is the idea of a government body running a school district sound?
If history is the judge, the answer is an overwhelming "No."
In 1989, 1991 and 1995 New Jersey took over Jersey City, Paterson and Newark schools. California seized control of Compton 1993. Other states interceded, too.
But they all shared a common experience. As soon as states ran the troubled districts, they wanted out.
In her 1996 Education Week article, Caroline Hendrie wrote: "In case after case, when state administrators have tried to elbow out local officials and run a failing district themselves, improvements have come at the heavy cost of lawsuits, bitter media battles and confused and angry teachers and parents"
States also found that administering from hundreds of miles away is not so easy. Parents, especially residents of minority communities, resented interfering, predominantly white legislators. And firing teachers and principals sounds easy. But no one lined up to replace them.
Some mayors fared better, specifically Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In those two major cities, school plumbing now works and texts arrive on time, no small achievement. But academically, test scores remain in the pits.
Villaraigosa, should LAUSD fall to him, shows no particular talent or training for educational tasks. He has no degree in education and never worked as a teacher. In fact, Villaraigosa sat for and failed the California bar examination four times.
But Villaraigosa has keen political skills. As one LAUSD teacher explained to me:
"Villaraigosa's play for control is in order to tap into the $7.5 billion required to run LAUSD. By establishing relationships between lead administrators as well as being able to cultivate other relationships by granting building contracts, materials/textbook/ supply contracts and hiring consultants, Villaragosa will be able to amass enough economic inertia for his future political career."
LAUSD can't afford to suffer through a coup that will leave its students stranded.
JOENOTE TO VDARE.COM readers: Walter Moore, our friend who ran for Los Angeles Mayor in 2005 and will run again in 2009 provided important insights on the Los Angeles political scene.