In 2005, I made improving schools and increasing student achievement a central plank of my agenda for Los Angeles. I did so because I had received countless pleas from parents begging for change. These parents wanted the best possible education opportunities for their kids, and they weren’t getting that from the Los Angeles Unified School District. These parents were tired of sending their kids to failure factories. They wanted achievement academies. I became determined to give them what they needed and deserved.
I also committed to improving our schools because I knew that good schools held the key to achieving our other goals for Los Angeles. If we wanted to prepare Los Angeles for the economy of the future, we would need students who had the skills to create and fill the jobs of the future. If we wanted livable, attractive neighborhoods, we would need good schools as anchors of the community. And if we wanted to strengthen the rungs on the ladder to success and grow our middle class, we had to make sure that every Angeleno child could enjoy the opportunity and mobility that a quality education provides.
I knew I couldn’t tackle this critical issue without the support of a coalition built around strong and creative District leadership at the top and empowered parents and community groups at the grassroots. Our thinking was simple: the path to success for any community begins in the local schoolyard.
To reach our goals, we adopted an ambitious, multi-pronged reform strategy. We created the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools—an innovative non-profit—to run 22 of the District’s lowest performing schools and to incubate creative solutions that could be exported to the rest of the District.
We knew we needed new and creative District leadership, so we strongly supported the election of a pro-reform majority to the School Board. We also helped recruit nationally recognized leaders to serve as Superintendant, first Ramon Cortines and now John Deasy.
We have pursued reform through the courts, helping to drive landmark lawsuits, such as Reed v. California and Doe v. Deasy. Reed v. California was instrumental in putting us on a path to protecting students’ right to quality education and their access to effective teachers. We expect that Doe v. Deasy will serve as a catalyst to improving teacher evaluations across the District.
Knowing that Angeleno families wanted and need more choices, we pushed for the development of a portfolio of quality options. These options include charter schools and locally empowered District schools with charter-like flexibility. And at every turn, we have grass-roots reform and have empowered parents and community groups to take charge of bringing accountability and excellence to our schools.
The results of our efforts have been impressive. In 2005, nearly half of District high school students never made it to graduation. A full third of all schools had API scores below 650. The District did not have enough schools, and as a result, thousands and thousands of students were subjected to year-round schedules.
Today, the number of L.A. schools meeting or exceeding the state of goal of 800 API has more than doubled. The number of low scoring schools with an API of 650 or below has dropped to one in ten. At our 22 Partnership Schools, API scores are up 50 points over the last three years which means they are outpacing both the District and the state. We have more than doubled the number of charter schools, with a five-fold increase in charters scoring 800 or higher on the API. And we are seeing promising results at schools where teachers have been freed from bureaucratic and contractual constraints, and empowered with flexibilities to innovate.
I am especially proud of the fact that parents, teachers, students and civic and community groups have come together to support school reform across the city, not just in their neighborhoods. They understand that the educational future of our children must not be determined by a lottery or a zip code.
We have built a solid foundation for reform. In the years ahead we must build on our success.
It is clear that great teachers and principals have the power to change lives. The research is clear on this. With a great teacher in front of the white board, students can gain two years of knowledge in a single year.
Knowing this, we need to take a holistic approach to elevating the profession. This means prioritizing effectiveness over length of service. It means putting strong evaluation systems in place and changing broken tenure and seniority laws. It means recruiting top talent to the profession, establishing strong systems of support, giving teachers time to collaborate, and creating real career pathways. And, yes, it means increasing base salaries and dramatically increasing potential earnings for those teachers and principals who excel. Great teachers and principals are a tremendous asset. This profession, including everything from entry standards to potential compensation, should reflect that.
We will not achieve lasting improvement of our schools without more funding. For decades, the state has underfunded education, and we are now last in almost every measure of school staff and resources per student. We need more teachers, more counselors, more school nurses, more librarians and more safety officers.
You can’t build by cutting. You build by investing. To provide a great education for our students we have to take a multi-pronged approach. The solution to this problem is bigger than any one ballot initiative, however well crafted, can fix.
We need to go to the root of the problem and fix California’s busted budget and tax systems. We need to reform Proposition 13 and move from a tax system full of loopholes and exemptions to a system that protects homeowners, supports job creation and gives Californians the ability to generate new revenue.
Without common sense and balanced reforms and the added revenues they would bring in, Californians will not be able to ensure that every student in every neighborhood gets the quality education they deserve.
Our students are moving forward. They are making progress. They are the proof that our efforts have worked. Our job as reform minded elected officials, educators, parents and community leaders is to keep the momentum going. The District has set out an ambitious set of performance targets: one, improve the graduate rate; raise English language proficiency; increase math proficiency; and achieve a greater proficiency in Algebra. Let’s pledge to work together, meet these milestones, and go beyond—for the sake of our students and for the sake of our city.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is the 41st Mayor of the City of Los Angeles. Elected in 2005, his second term ends June 30, 2013. This is the first in a series about the future of Los Angeles.