Many people do not expect the child of a single mother from East Los Angeles to go to college, much less one day become mayor of his city. But from this background, Antonio Villaraigosa graduated from UCLA and built a career in organizing, civil rights, and politics, becoming the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in 130 years. On Friday, October 25, he spoke to a full room of over 130 HLS students about what makes great cities. Mayor Villaraigosa’s answer: the same thing that makes great societies — equality of opportunity.
Central to equality of opportunity, Mayor Villagairsa said, was quality public education. Education is both the civil rights and economic issue of our time, Villaraigosa stressed. Great neighborhoods are anchored by great public schools, so a great city must likewise be anchored by a great public school system.
Drawing on statistics and his experiences in office, Mayor Villaraigosa spoke of the need for innovation in the public school system. For example, Mayor Villaraigosa discussed charter schools and noted that although not every charter school is effective, he welcomed high-performing charters opening in high-need, low-income areas like East Los Angeles. These high-performing charter schools have Academic Performance Index (API) scores of over 800 (California’s goal is for all schools to be above 800), and sometimes above 900. Villaraigosa discussed how his administration focused on the lowest performing schools, such as Markham Middle School in Watts, Los Angeles – a challenge that many people would rather not take on, but one that is at the heart of civil rights and economic issues. In spite of the challenge, the number of arrests occurring on Markham’s campus has plummeted, while test scores have risen.
Expanding the discussion of education from schools, Villaraigosa also discussed the necessity of empowering parents, by making them aware of their rights and their responsibilities. Parent trigger laws, he said, had their start in Los Angeles as a result of parent unions’ organizing efforts. The mayor also discussed the need for high expectations in the classroom for students of all backgrounds and income levels, the need for collaboration among teachers and schools, and developing leaders out of faculty and students alike.
While these changes were occurring in education, the city was increasing equality of opportunity in other areas as well. It expanded its public infrastructure, instituted environmental protections, and increased its safety. Los Angeles has built new light rail lines, signed onto the Kyoto Protocol and dramatically decreased its emissions and smog levels, and implemented safety programs and policies for communities that brought back businesses and the middle class.
During the Q&A session, the mayor expressed frustration with the federal government’s lack of willingness to compromise. The only place where politics is working, he said, is in cities, where both sides are willing to collaborate and compromise. Citing the Conference of Mayors, he said that mayors unanimously agree that comprehensive immigration reform is needed. Mayor Villaraigosa raised other key issues like Simpson Bowles and entitlement reform as areas that the government should consider, but refuses to. To get things done, the mayor suggested that both left and right need to be willing to get to what he calls “the radical center” in order move the country forward.