On Wednesday at approximately 5 p.m. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave his sixth state of the city speech. As anticipated, although AV talked about topics like the potential greening of LA, about the crime drop, and about filling more potholes, the speech’s centerpiece was about education reform, the one topic out of the list over which the mayor has exactly zip direct control.
Some of the potential candidates who hope to take his place after Villaraigosa terms out, tisk-tisked to LA times reporters about how AV should have instead addressed the city’s fiscal deficit, in that forming a workable city budget is a part of the LA mayor’s actual job description.
The critics made a fair point.…and yet….and yet…
In truth, Antonio did precisely the right thing with his speech. If we are to bounce back as a city and as a state nothing, and from there begin once again to thrive, nothing could possibly be more important than building on the fragile areas of growth and reform in the district, and blasting out of the road the calcified and obstructionist attitudes that have been so wrong-headed and ruinous to our schools and our kids for such a very long time.
Villaraigosa delivered the speech at Thomas Jefferson High, a school that six years ago—right after AV was first elected mayor—erupted in a series of huge and traumatizing riots on campus.
I was assigned to cover Jefferson’s riots for the LA Weekly, and so spent a lot of time at the school during the jittery days and weeks that followed.
In particular, I spent dozens of hours talking to teachers, administrators, kids, school police, parents, and others—all of whom were surprisingly eager to spill what they knew to somebody, anybody. They talked, not so much about the riots, but about a school that had a 31 percent graduation rate, where only 9% of Jeff’s students tested “proficient” in English, just over 1 % were proficient in math, and about the conditions on campus and at the district that made teaching and learning at Jefferson a discouraging daily swim upstream against an overwhelmingly strong current.
Worse, Jeff was merely one of many LAUSD high schools that had similarly ghastly stats and conditions.
It soon became evident that the so-called riots were not the story at all, but a big, bad signpost that pointed to the real story—which was the catastrophic state of LA County’s education system. The riots were the canary in the coal mine.
Yet, as bad as things were, at a district level, those in charge seemed too paralyzed to make any substantive changes. Instead they would hire a one more string of very high priced independent consultants, who delivered high priced reports that generally came to nothing.
Six years later, as Antonio points out, some heartening progress has been made in some pockets. But not anywhere close to enough progress.
Villaraigosa clearly hopes to shove the reform efforts into high gear before his mayoral term is up.
“This is a pivotal moment for our schools and our City,” the mayor said, and reminded the those assembled that we have a new superintendent of schools, John Deasy, whom he likened to “Bill Bratton with a ruler,” and newly elected union leadership that appears to want to turn over some kind of new leaf.
Then Villaraigosa got down to specifics about the changes he sees as essential.
JIn her dead-on column about the speech for the LA Weekly, Jill Stewart laid out the heart of AV’s message:
He called for turning LAUSD into a network of local, independently controlled campuses, allowing “open enrollment beyond traditional neighborhood boundaries” to create parental choice, and for “protecting and expanding the use of the parent trigger” to give parents the power to convert failing schools.
Finally, he issued the hottest news:
“The teacher contract expires in June,” Villaraigosa said. “With the stars aligned, we have to seize the opportunity. Let’s (devise) a new contract … Let’s stop dictating at the district level and let local schools make the decisions” on such things as staffing, funding and curriculum.
“Let’s compensate teachers for demonstrated effectiveness — not just [for their] years of service and course credits …. and do away with the last-hired, first-fired seniority system.”
He said to loud applause: “When more than 99% of district teachers receive the same ‘satisfactory’ evaluation, it serves nobody.”
Finally, he added: “I know that these proposals will raise some concern and spark controversy. I could hear some of the people [protesting] outside. As a former union organizer, I understand your fear. I stood with you then, and I’ll stand with you now. Change is hard.”
But he added: “Our time is now. The nation is watching. L.A. must take the lead.”
(Read the rest of Stewart’s column. It’s a good one—so far about the best thing I’ve read on the speech.)
“We’ve had our differences with the mayor…” said the LA Times said in its own editorial on Villaraigosa’s SOC speech.
Yes, well, haven’t we all.
But this time Antonio was right on the mark.
“We can fulfill the promise of public education by agreeing to a new contract with ourselves—a promise to put aside the concerns of a few adults in the interest of all children,” he said.
And he sounded like he meant it.
Here’s the full text of the speech.
Photo by Gary Friedman for the Los Angeles Times