Antonio Villaraigosa worked for Los Angeles' teachers union for eight years before embarking on a political career that took him to the Legislature, to the speakership of the state Assembly and then, eight years ago, to the Los Angeles mayor's office.
Unions and other elements of the education establishment strongly backed his steps up the political ladder – until he became an advocate of charter schools, parental empowerment, modifying teacher seniority and tenure and other reforms that the establishment despises.
That experience has given Villaraigosa, now within weeks of leaving the mayoralty, a unique perspective on California's troubled education system. And on Tuesday, he called for a "grand bargain" to raise schools from "the bottom rungs of the education ladder" in both spending and academic achievement.
Villaraigosa, speaking to the Sacramento Press Club, bragged a bit – maybe a bit too much – about his efforts to change Los Angeles schools, which shredded his relationship with the teachers union.
But his prescription – connecting better financing to better outcomes – nevertheless resonates.
"We need our leaders in Sacramento to step up to the plate" and make sure that all of the state's 6 million K-12 students have "a good school with great teachers," he said, adding, "We've got to tie money to results."
Pointedly, he said that with fellow Democrats now holding all the reins of Capitol power, "there's no excuse this time" not to better finance schools, nor to provide schools with more flexibility, reform tenure and seniority policies, and implement teacher evaluation systems based on fair student testing.
Villaraigosa's prescription closely parallels what other Democratic education reformers have been advocating, and he made his appearance just a block from the convention hall where those reformers were denounced at a weekend state Democratic Party convention at the behest of the California Teachers Association and others in the establishment.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who was in China and thus missed the convention, falls somewhere between the warring Democratic Party factions on education policy.
He has embraced an overhaul of education financing to put more money in schools with large numbers of poor and English-learner students – which Villaraigosa also endorses. But Brown, who received major financial support from the CTA during his election campaign in 2010 and his tax increase campaign last year, has been leery about other elements of the rebel Democrats' reform agenda, such as teacher evaluation, tenure and seniority.
If there is to be the "grand bargain" that Villaraigosa advocates, a prominent Democrat would have to become its champion.
Brown's not volunteering, and Villaraigosa soon will lose his bully pulpit.