In summary

Los Angeles mayors have historically taken different approaches to their involvement with education issues. Even though Karen Bass has prioritized homelessness and public safety and tried to sidestep a recent strike at L.A. Unified, issues affecting children and families are difficult for mayors to avoid.

Karen Bass ran for mayor of Los Angeles mainly on her promise to address the city’s vast and persistent problem of homelessness. And she knew that public safety would haunt her tenure – after historic declines in the 1990s, crime has been reasserting itself in recent years, and the city’s police chief, Michel Moore, was up for reappointment just weeks after she took office.

But the first crisis she faced was not about housing or police. It was a strike by service workers at the Los Angeles Unified School District. When those workers walked out in March and teachers joined in solidarity, schools shut down, stranding students and parents across the city and beyond. The prospect of a prolonged standoff affected schools, of course, but also city residents. Bass stepped in to mediate

It was a reminder of a question that has haunted every one of Bass’ predecessors in the modern life of America’s second-largest city: When – and how – should mayors get involved in the business of education?

Neophyte pundits of this city’s politics and government like to call the Los Angeles chief executive a “weak mayor.” That’s not true, at least since the charter reform of the late 1990s gave explicit authority to the mayor to hire and fire department heads, as well as setting their budgets and managing the operations of the government. 

What is true is that L.A. mayors, unlike their big-city counterparts in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, lack power over schools. And that can be a source of frustration, given how much of a city’s sense of well-being turns on how well it serves students and their parents.

The result: With few exceptions, Los Angeles mayors get embroiled in education, with decidedly mixed results.

Los Angeles’ longest-serving chief executive, Tom Bradley, was drawn into education when busing roiled the city’s racial politics during the 1970s. Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles and the pre-eminent historian of the Bradley era, noted that once Bradley engaged over busing, he remained attentive to educational issues. Among other things, Bradley secured funding for after-school programs, a way for him to assist children, families and schools without having any control over teaching or learning.

His successor, Richard Riordan, chomped at the bit to have more authority over schools. Chafing at his inability to oversee them directly, Riordan backed slates of candidates for school board and manifested his influence through them. Democratic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a onetime union organizer, seemed unlikely to follow the lead of his Republican predecessor, but he did, aggressively seeking to take over schools as well (he got a bill through the Legislature, only to see it tossed out in court). Villaraigosa then took over a smaller batch of schools and launched what one advisor called a “policy shop” for school reform out of the mayor’s office.

Sonenshein referred to the work of Riordan and Villaraigosa as creating a “reform model” for mayors.

Mayor Eric Garcetti liked to avoid big initiatives – he preferred “back to basics.” But he, too, intervened during labor disputes and weighed in politically, supporting school board candidates and backing an education parcel tax in 2019. The tax failed miserably, a reminder that mayors may covet influence but they don’t always get it. 

For her part, Bass has hardly positioned herself as an education mayor. In her recent State of the City address, Bass mentioned “safety” eight times and homelessness six times. She never uttered the word “education.” 

Even during the recent strike, Bass initially showed no particular enthusiasm for intervening. But, like so many of her predecessors, she found it difficult to resist wading in when the strike left children and parents in a lurch. Bass hosted a series of talks at City Hall East, across the street from her office, and broke the news when the deal was struck.

“As mayor, I have no formal authority over our schools,” Bass said in making the announcement, “but that will never stop me when it comes to fighting for our children and their families.” 

And there’s the rub. If L.A. Unified could be trusted with this region’s children, mayors would happily give it a wide berth. But LAUSD has a way of failing – its modern lineage of superintendents is an unbroken litany of disappointment – and its politics invariably favor teachers and administrators over students, thanks to the domineering role of the teachers union. That leaves residents, who are often both parents and voters, demanding that someone look out for the kids.

Case in point: Parents across the world have watched their children suffer from the effects of protracted school shutdowns during COVID – shutdowns that were necessary to protect public health but that also came at a cost in terms of learning and socialization. As the pandemic subsided, LAUSD officials proposed tacking on a few school days to make up for lost time. LAUSD staff fashioned a proposal to add days to the school year, which it called “a critical need for students.” 

Superintendent Austin Beutner favored the extra days, but teachers did not. The union opposed the proposal, the board fell into line and Beutner folded. However critical the need was for more education, LAUSD did not deliver. 

That’s the way of many California school districts: strong teachers, a strong union, a compliant board and a weak superintendent. Meanwhile, students suffer.

All of which makes it difficult to resist for mayors, who know that parental anger over schools can rapidly build. Angry parents don’t distinguish between which officials have power and which do not.

Does that mean Bass will soon be clamoring for control of Los Angeles schools? Probably not, but it’s almost certain that she will look for ways to influence them, if not by attempting to control them directly, at least by attempting to assist those who are disappointed by them.

The question, as Sonenshein noted, is how urgent that mission will appear to voters right now, at a time when so much attention is focused on homelessness and crime. The answer, if history is any guide, is that those issues will rise and fall, but mayors will find it difficult to let schools founder.

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Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics....