LA mayor gets mixed reviews on education

Four years ago, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa campaigned heavily on a promise to improve the L.A. Unified School District. Upon his inauguration, Villaraigosa set about to make good on his promise. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez says the mayor's asking voters on Tuesday to judge his achievements and give him a second term.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: At his inauguration, Antonio Villaraigosa promised what some people said would be a miracle.

Antonio Villaraigosa: Reforming public schools is the central challenge facing Los Angeles. And it will be a central priority in my administration.

Guzman-Lopez: In recent memory, an L.A. Unified education has meant crowded classrooms and a 50-50 chance of graduating. To overhaul the district Villaraigosa wanted the power to appoint the school board, an elected body.

Then he changed course and proposed a state law to give the L.A. Mayor's Office some of the board's powers, including appointing the superintendent.

Lawmakers, many of them Villaraigosa allies from his days as assemblyman, approved the proposal. But the courts ruled it unconstitutional. Political consultant Kerman Maddox observed the process.

Kerman Maddox: To me, that he got involved in education early was important, but to a lot of people they thought it was an overreach, and he probably should not have done.

Guzman-Lopez: Eventually Villaraigosa helped elect a majority of his allies to the school board. Last year, those members gave the mayor's non-profit authority over 10 of the district's 750 campuses.

Loyola Marymount University political scientist Fernando Guerra said voters may have to wait for a second Villaraigosa term for the results of his promise four years ago.

Fernando Guerra: He's done pretty good to influence the politics of the school board, a new superintendent, part of the board. But does it filter down to the children in the classroom? I don't think so, it hasn't yet.

Sherry Williams: My name is Sherry Williams and I am the principal here at 99th Street School, and you're at an event titled Donuts for Dads.

Guzman-Lopez: 99th Street Elementary in Watts is one of the campuses run by the Partnership for L.A. Schools. The organization hired Williams and a lot of other new administrators.

Williams devised Donuts for Dads as an opportunity for fathers, local ministers, police officers, and other men to read to students. It's part of Williams' and the Partnership's effort to improve morale at the school.

Williams: When I had first come here at 99th Street School, there were some struggles, there were situations with, between students, parents, and staff. So mainly what we've tried to do here since I've come in is to bring about a sense of family, a sense of peace, and an excitement about education.

Guzman-Lopez: The Partnership's also cleaned up long-neglected corridors, bathrooms, and classrooms at most of its campuses. To do this, the organization uses state education money supplemented by private donations the mayor's rounded up.

[Student band]

Guzman-Lopez: The Gompers Middle School band in Watts welcomed Villaraigosa recently to the opening of a refurbished parent center. DirecTV, a donor to Villaraigosa's re-election campaign, contributed $250,000 to help fix up the center. The mayor said the satellite television company is part of the school's constituency, too.

Villaraigosa: I've said from the beginning that if you want to change a school, you need a community. A community of parents and teachers, of staff, the outside, overall community as well. And this is an exciting turning point in our reform effort.

Guzman-Lopez: Parent advocate Lillie Robinson described what the mayor's achieved at Gompers as a minor miracle.

Lillie Robinson: Now you can walk in the classrooms and the students feel comfortable. Babies have textbooks now. Now he's getting ready to put new computers in all classrooms.

We have a brand new computer lab that's awesome for these students to work with. The students feel like this is a new home for them.

Guzman-Lopez: Villaraigosa's set concrete improvement goals for the 10 Partnership schools. Test scores will be out later this year. He's claiming partial victory.

Villaraigosa: We've laid a foundation. We've said that school reform is the order of the day, that we're going to do everything possible to work with parents and teachers to lift the expectations and to raise achievement.

Guzman-Lopez: Now it's up to voters to decide whether Villaraigosa will get another four years to fulfill his promises.

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