Villaraigosa’s game-changing speech

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The most significant speech given by a California politician this year was LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s address to a PPIC conference in Sacramento on Tuesday.

Villaraigosa is a former employee of two giant California teachers’ unions. He is one of the state most important Democratic politicians, and certainly its most prominent Latino one — in a state that is Democratic politically and increasingly Latino. And despite all of that, he gave a speech calling out teachers’ unions as the strongest obstacles to education reform.

This one is worth clipping and saving. It could be a career ender for Villaraigosa. Or it could launch him to statewide office later this decade. Either way, you’ll be hearing about this speech again. The full text of Villaraigosa’s speech is below.

Remarks as Prepared for Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa
– PPIC "California’s Future" Conference – Education Keynote, December 7, 2010

Thank you for that kind
introduction. It is a true honor to address such an esteemed audience. I would
like to thank the Public Policy Institute of California for organizing this
conference and bringing us together. And I would like to congratulate Mark
Baldassre and the entire staff at PPIC for the thoughtful and influential work
they continue to produce every year.

It is more than fitting that we
begin the day on the topic of education reform, because there are few issues
more pressing than ensuring that all Californians have equal access to a
world-class education. When most of us went to school in the 1950s and 1960s,
we were blessed that California public schools were synonymous with excellence.
We were the gold standard, a national model that complemented our State’s image
as a land of opportunity.

But somewhere along the way,
the schools in which we invested so much time, thought, and capital, slowly
began to crumble – figuratively and literally – and we were left with what we
have today:

Schools that consistently rank
in the bottom third among all states. Schools that spend, on average, $2,400
less per pupil than most other states. Schools that are, in too many
instances, more segregated than they were in the 1950s. And schools that are
viewed as so ineffective and irrelevant, that one in every four students drops
out, believing their time would be better spent elsewhere.

Education may be the most
important issue of our time. It is an economic issue, it is a civil rights
issue, and it is the foundation for the common values that bind us as
Americans: the belief in a democratic and free society. A quality education
should not hinge on your ZIP code, or your parents’ tax bracket, or the color
of your skin. Our public schools should be the true embodiment of the American
Dream, a place where people are judged on achievement and rewarded on merit.

But when you consider that
California’s so-called "drop-out factories" are comprised of predominately
Latino and African American students, one has to ask whether we are actively
creating a second class of citizens among a demographic that now represents the
majority of our students.

Even within our storied UC and
Cal State systems, long heralded for their excellence and diversity, we have
made few gains and in some cases, lost ground over the past 25 years. In 1989,
African-American students represented over 5% of the student body at our UC
schools. Today, they are just 3%. And even though Latinos represent nearly 40%
of the population of California, and over 50% of our public school population,
they make up just 20% of our UC students. This is the stark reality.

Sadly, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know to
be true. The question isn’t whether we have reached a crisis point or arrived
at a critical crossroads, the question we must ask ourselves today is:

What is
stopping us from changing direction?

Why, for so
long, have we allowed denial and indifference to defeat action? I do not raise
this question lightly, and I do not come to my conclusion from a lack of
experience. I was a legislative advocate for the California Teachers
Association, and I was a union organizer for United Teachers of Los Angeles.
From the time I entered the California State Assembly and became Speaker, to my
tenure as Mayor of Los Angeles, I have fought to fund and reform California’s
public schools.

Over the past
five years, while partnering with students, parents and non-profits, business
groups, higher education, charter organizations, school district leadership,
elected board members and teachers, there has been one, unwavering roadblock to
reform: UTLA union leadership.

While not the
biggest problem facing our schools, they have consistently been the most
powerful defenders of the status quo. I do not say this because of any animus
towards unions. I deeply believe that teachers’ unions can and must be part of
our efforts to transform our schools. Regrettably, they have yet to join us as
we have forged ahead with a reform agenda.

By partnering
with the Los Angeles School Board, we created the Public School Choice program
that is now allowing non-profits, charters, teacher groups – anyone with a
proven track record of success – to compete to run new or failing schools. By
2012, over 50 low-performing schools will be under new leadership, with a new
chance for success.

UTLA
leadership fought against this reform.

Partnering
with the School Board and the charter school community, we doubled the number
of charter schools in an effort to raise our test scores and alleviate
overcrowding.

Partnering
with the Parent Revolution, we successfully passed legislation here in
Sacramento, empowering communities to shut down, reopen or takeover a failing
school if a simple majority of parents petition to do so.

Working with
LA Unified, I founded the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools to turn-around 21
of the lowest-performing schools.

And partnering with civil rights organizations and the ACLU,
we filed a lawsuit to take a stand against the practice of seniority-based
layoffs, which were disproportionately affecting our poorest schools and
students of color.

At every step
of the way, when Los Angeles was coming together to effect real change in our
public schools, UTLA was there to fight against the change and slow the pace of
reform.

Now let me
pause to underscore the point once again that I come from an organizing
background. I vociferously believe in the fundamental right for a worker to
organize, to have a voice and a seat at the bargaining table. But union leaders
need to take notice that it is their friends, the very people who have
supported them and the people whom they have supported, who are carrying the
torch of education reform and crying out for the unions to join them.

It is no
longer acceptable for those who care about our children and our teachers to
remain the loudest opponent and the largest obstacle to creating quality
schools where teachers are supported, honored, and paid what they are worth,
and where students are engaged and test scores are rising.

So as
California welcomes a new leadership team to the statehouse, I call on the
teachers’ unions to join the reform team again; to join students and parents,
business and non-profits groups, charter organizations, higher education, and
school district leadership; join us all at the reform table, ready with ideas,
excited for change, and willing to say "yes!"

There is no
better way to once again make our State the promoter of progressive change than
by tackling two of the biggest problems facing our public schools: Our unsound,
unstable and insufficient school finance system and our lack of a meaningful
evaluation system to ensure an effective teacher in every classroom.

Now, it seems
like every tired discussion on education reform starts with money, but when
California has gone from a frontrunner in per pupil spending to 47th in
the Nation, and when we spend less per pupil than each of the largest 10 states
in this country, and when we spend nearly $6,000 less per student than New
York, it is hard NOT to talk about money. As I have said over and over again,
California taxpayers will never increase their investment in education until
they are convinced they will see a return on their money.

So while the
funding we provide to our schools is not nearly enough to meet our educational
goals, how we send that funding to our local districts is so complex and
restrictive, it is creating gross inequalities in our classrooms. Put simply,
the way California funds its schools is both inadequate and inequitable.

The reason? Funds are not distributed by need, but instead by
opaque and antiquated formulas that don’t really tell us who is getting the
money or how much they are getting.

The result?
It’s impossible for us to track exactly why a school in Watts receives less
money than a school in Brentwood. Schools in the most challenged neighborhoods,
with the greatest need, is where we should be investing our education dollars.
And we can change this. We can guarantee no school – and no child – is pitted
against one another, and no school district receives less funding than it is
receiving now.

This change
starts with making structural reforms to our school financing system. By
increasing transparency, flexibility, and equity, we can create a system where
each local school district receives a base level of funding for every child,
plus additional funding for students with special or high needs. Principals
would be given more flexibility on how to spend these dollars. And, to protect
all students and local districts, we could set targets for base funding now and
phase-in the new financing system over time. This way, no district would have
to fear losing precious dollars.

Now is the
time to make this change. These lean budget years provide a critical window of
opportunity to create a new framework for school financing, so when new money
does become available, we have a system that is transparent, coherent, and
responsive to student needs.

But even when
we are finally – and fairly – funding our schools, these reforms won’t be
complete unless we ensure a quality teacher in every classroom. Study after
study has shown that the single most important factor to a child’s academic
success is a quality teacher. But we don’t need studies to tell us this. Which
one of us doesn’t to this day hold a special teacher dear in our heart? Which
one of us can’t look back and remember that one teacher who turned it around
for us? Unfortunately, we do precious little to support and reward these great
teachers, and, conversely, even less to hold accountable the unsuccessful ones.

Let me give
you a snapshot of the current system: Nearly every new teacher-over 97%-is
automatically tenured after two years. Let me ask you this: If the tables were
turned and they were giving out "A’s" to nearly every student, wouldn’t an "A"
lose its meaning?

Current tenure
and evaluation practices aren’t just meaningless for parents and districts,
they are equally meaningless for the dedicated teachers seeking to grow and
improve. My own school district in Los Angeles put together the Teacher
Effectiveness Task Force chaired Dr. Ted Mitchell, who joins us today.

The findings told us that evaluations are one-dimensional and
do very little to improve teacher quality or increase learning in the
classroom. This evaluation system is serving no one.

California has
the opportunity to adopt a new system, one that is meaningful and based on a
clear definition of teacher and school leader effectiveness. And we must start
by making data on student performance – and student growth- a key indicator. To
be meaningful, evaluations must include multiple measurements: Student growth
over time, in-class observations, and reviews by students and parents, supervisors
and peers.

With a
rigorous and relevant system, new and struggling teachers or administrators
would be given the support and training they need to improve and succeed, and
quality teachers and principals would be honored and rewarded.

And once we
have a meaningful system in place, we cannot continue to automatically
guarantee lifetime employment to all teachers, nor can we make decisions about
assignments, transfers and layoffs solely on the basis of seniority. Tenure and
seniority must be reformed or we will be left with only one option: eliminating
it entirely.

When it comes
to important decisions regarding where teachers are placed, we must factor in
performance and create career ladders for our most successful teachers. When it
comes to layoffs, we must ensure that they are not disproportionately affecting
our most challenged schools. And when it comes to tenure, principals should
have to proactively affirm that a new teacher is deserving.

Tenure should
be a meaningful accomplishment, not an arbitrary mile-marker. To give districts
and principals more time to make an informed decision about this permanency, we
should increase the observation time to four years. Two years is simply not
enough time for new teachers to meet performance standards.

Finally, we
must amend the Education Code to streamline the dismissal process. For example,
those who are consistently unsuccessful in the classroom should be dismissed,
period. This is not just in the best interest of our students, it is in the
best interest of the excellent teachers who are dedicated to their profession.
No more years of waiting for a case, months-long hearings, or endless appeals.
That is in nobody’s best interest.

This isn’t
just about doing away with the "Dance of the Lemons," it is about chopping
down the trees that grow bad lemons. It is about changing an entire system, a
system that fails to fund our schools adequately, that doesn’t recognize when
students achieve, and doesn’t value committed, quality teachers.

It is time we start honoring excellence. It is time we
recognize that we have reached that critical crossroads. If anyone can turn
indifference into action, it is California. We must all join forces again,
ready with ideas, excited for change, and willing to say "yes!"

Thank you very
much for giving me this opportunity today.

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