L.A. Mayor Wants to Build a 'Schoolhouse For Reform'


Jan. 29, 2007 — -- The mayor of Los Angeles is fighting back against an attorney for the school board who compared the mayor's effort to bring area schools under his control to placing Jiffy Lube in charge of more than 700,000 California students.

"I thought it was a trite and offensive remark unbecoming of the school district and, or, its lawyer," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told ABC News last week during an interview in Washington, D.C.

Villaraigosa's comments came one month after he was handed a major legal setback by a California judge.

The state trial court sided with attorneys for the Los Angeles Unified School District (L.A.U.S.D.), who argued that if the California state legislature could defy the state constitution by transferring authority from the schools to the mayor, it could hand over schools to any unqualified entity -- even a chain of lube and oil change centers.

Citing a 1946 amendment that "specifically removed municipal authority over school districts," Judge Dzintra Janavs wrote in her ruling that the California state constitution blocks entities outside the school system from assuming control over schools. The mayor's attorneys had argued that the state legislature had broad authority to designate the mayor or any entity as a valid education agency.

Despite the December ruling, the mayor is unbowed in his push to reform a school bureaucracy which he blames for students' low test scores and high dropout rates.

Villaraigosa, who once dropped out of high school himself before ultimately graduating from college and law school, immediately appealed last month's decision.

He also promised to elect his own slate of school board members.

"Make no mistake about it, we intend to make our case at the ballot box as well," Villaraigosa said in December. "We'll be supporting candidates in the March 6 school board election who are committed to leading school reform."

With his takeover bid mired in the courts, the mayor stepped up his school reform push earlier this month by outlining 50 far-reaching goals for L.A.U.S.D., including mandatory school uniforms, better teacher pay and English-language classes for adults. Other proposals include breaking up large campuses, reducing class sizes and raising money for schools from the corporate and philanthropic community.

"We've talked to hundreds of experts -- teachers, parents, academics, business leaders -- that have helped us put together what we call the 'Schoolhouse for Reform,'" Villaraigosa told ABC News. "They're ideas that focus on the best practices from across the nation."

Villaraigosa, who served as speaker of the California state assembly before being elected mayor, said any education reform effort should be a "collaborative effort" built on "respect for teachers and what they do." He added, however, that his background as a former organizer for the United Teachers Los Angeles gives him a "leg up" when dealing with the state's powerful teachers unions.

Villaraigosa, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Task Force on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, is also speaking out on national education policies.

While in Washington, D.C. last week, he called for subsidizing college savings accounts, investing in preschool and expanding career training.

Villaraigosa's tenacity on the education issue, when coupled with his obvious love for pressing the flesh, has some thinking that the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since 1872 might have his eyes set on higher office. But for now, the mayor is continuing to deflect such questions.

After Villaraigosa unveiled his ideas for fighting poverty last week, the president of the National Press Club asked on behalf of a journalist in the audience: "Is this your timetable: mayor today, governor 2010, president when?"

Without missing a beat, Villaraigosa fired back: "Mayor today, mayor tomorrow, mayor the next day. Thank you very much."

ABC News' Matthew Zavala contributed to this report.

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