Villaraigosa: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time”

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent John Deasy made an impassioned case for improving public education in Los Angeles at the latest UCLA Luskin Lecture Series event on Wednesday night.

The event – coming the day after city elections that narrowed the field of mayoral hopefuls and saw nearly $6 million in outside spending on races for three school board seats – served as a chance for Villaraigosa and Deasy to chart a course for the next administration. Villaraigosa’s final term ends June 30.

“The next mayor of L.A. has to understand that there’s not really an option,” Villaraigosa said. “He or she absolutely needs to be involved in the success of our schools.”

Since he took office eight years ago, Villaraigosa has spent much of his tenure trying to improve performance at the nation’s second-largest school district. He made an early-term attempt to wrest control of the LAUSD board – an effort that ultimately was defeated in court. Through the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, he implemented reforms at 22 of the district’s worst-performing schools, improving student performance and parent engagement. The mayor’s advocacy of parent-trigger laws gave parents greater control over the administration of troubled schools, at the expense of union protections for teachers.

Although Deasy took the top job at LAUSD less than two years ago, he has helped implement Villaraigosa’s efforts, pushing reforms in charter schools and teacher performance evaluations.

“We’ve got to make it easier to get better teachers,” Deasy said.

In addition to focusing on teacher performance, Deasy has worked to improve student achievement through careful analysis of data. When statistics on student suspensions painted a bleak picture of school safety – suspensions are intended only for violence and other serious problems, Deasy said – he met with school leadership to learn more.

“The tiniest fraction of suspensions were for serious issues,” Deasy said, “but an overwhelming proportion were for ‘defiance.'” Administrators were keeping students away from school for low-level problems, such as failing to bring materials or “answering in a defiant tone,” Deasy said.

Since increasing student performance depends on consistent student attendance, and minority populations have been shown to be suspended at higher rates than their peers, Deasy told administrators to suspend students only as a last resort. As a result, suspensions went down 50 percent.

Deasy said the episode was a lesson that school reform is incredibly complex.

“I learned that we didn’t have a drop-out problem. We had a push-out problem,” he said. “We were forcing these kids out.” Only by focusing on the ultimate goal of providing high-quality education for every LAUSD student could reform be achieved, he said.

“When you pay attention and want to drill down, you can instigate positive change,” Deasy said.

Villaraigosa said the stakes for the city are incredibly high. A quality education system that serves every Angeleno is key to the future success of the city, he said.

“This is the civil rights issue of our time. It’s the democracy issue of our time. It’s the economic issue of our time.

“It matters.”

The Luskin Lecture Series is designed to enhance public discourse on topics relevant to today’s societal needs. Bringing renowned public intellectuals and scholars together with national and local leaders, the Luskin Lecture Series presents issues that are changing the way our country addresses its most pressing problems. For more information on upcoming Luskin Lecture Series events, please click here.

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