It was only a matter of time before the Los Angeles school chief was run out of town.
John Deasy is the latest to exit the fast-moving revolving door known as Los Angeles School Superintendent. The job – really an impossible one – saw Roy Romer replace Ray Cortines in 2001. Romer in turn was replaced by David Brewer in 2006, who was replaced by Cortines in 2009, who was replaced by Deasy in 2011. Now the octogenarian Cortines is back for a third stint as chief – for how long is anyone’s guess. Deasy is the fourth California superintendent in the last two years to be driven from a job that has the shelf life of homogenized milk.
Since his resignation on October 16th, much has been written about Deasy, who wore his good and bad traits on his sleeve. He admittedly had little use for political niceties, and at times seemed to enjoy getting up in people’s faces. As Doug McIntyre wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News, “Even Deasy’s supporters acknowledge he can be prickly, humorless, stubborn and thin-skinned.” Others have described him as bull-headed and impatient. School board member Steve Zimmer pointed out that he frequently used a sledgehammer – sometimes joyfully so – where a scalpel would have sufficed. Deasy’s heavy-handedness is exemplified by the Miramonte fiasco. Mark Berndt, a veteran teacher, was removed from the classroom after feeding his second graders cookies laced with his semen. At the same time, a colleague at the school was accused of inappropriately touching a female student. Instead of launching an immediate internal investigation to ferret out other possible miscreants, Deasy further destabilized the school and angered parents by removing every teacher from the campus, without any indication that others were in any way involved.
Deasy had other troubles. There was the wildly ambitious and ultimately bungled $1 billion iPad program in which he sought to put a computer in the hands of every student in the district. The rollout began amid confusion over whether or not students would be allowed to take the devices home and who’d be held responsible if they were lost or stolen. Then, upon receiving the computers, many students easily breached their security locks and began using the devices for non-school-related purposes. Additionally, many were outraged over the program’s bloated billion-dollar price tag. Deasy mercifully halted the process only after emails revealed he had discussed a possible contract with Apple before the bidding even started.
Then there is the “MiSiS crisis,” which came about when an online school information system was rushed into place prematurely, resulting in thousands of students being left with no class schedules. It’s hard to make the Obamacare rollout look good by comparison, but somehow Deasy and LAUSD accomplished it.
The United Teachers of Los Angeles was especially brutal toward Deasy. In April, 2013, it mounted “Whoopsie Deasy,” a campaign that sought to get rid of the controversial chief. The union encouraged teachers to give the superintendent a “no-confidence” vote, listing 10 reasons it considered Deasy a menace to the teaching profession. Their case included the fact that teachers had not received a raise in six years, that “testing was overtaking teaching” and that the superintendent was too cozy with “billionaire outsiders.” The poll clearly resonated with union members who delivered the no-confidence vote by a margin of 10 to 1.
But the real reason that UTLA regularly hammered the superintendent and his policies was the same reason the reformers supported him. He wanted to shake up the sclerotic system and viewed the union and its cronies on the school board as impediments to his pro-child agenda.
Deasy’s supporters quickly brushed the negatives aside and pointed to all the good he did for the district. He tried to bring teacher evaluations into the 21st Century. He championed charter schools as a way to let kids escape from district failure factories. He was a supporter of the Parent Trigger, which empowers parents to force a change of governance if a school is underperforming. He testified for the plaintiffs in the Vergara case, where Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the state’s archaic seniority, tenure and dismissal statutes were unconstitutional, adding that the evidence submitted “shocks the conscience.”
Reformers also give Deasy credit for the district’s improved test results but this argument is problematic. The test scores did go up a little, but it’s difficult to pinpoint just what factors led to the small increase. A recent study by The Brookings Institution showed that superintendents on average account for just “0.3 percent of student differences in achievement.”
Deasy has also been credited with a lower dropout rate. But again, it’s hard to know what the truth is. In April 2013, LAUSD reported a 66 percent grad rate. Then earlier this month, the district proudly announced it was up to 77 percent. Sounds impressive, right?
Well, not really.
It is 77 percent if you don’t include the students who couldn’t hack a district school and were placed in what are euphemistically called “alternative schools” where the grad rate can be as low as 5 percent. This is tantamount to saying that Joe Smith’s batting average is .300 – if you don’t count the 50 times he struck out. Also not included in the data are the “invisible dropouts” – those who never set foot in a high school. They are not counted as high school dropouts because, well, they never dropped in. Nevertheless, they are dropouts. Hence, we need to seriously rework the way we measure graduation rates before we can attribute credit to anyone for better numbers.
Devil or angel, Deasy’s troubles are not unique. Big city superintendents have faced similar daunting tasks and invariably wind up quitting or getting fired within a few short years of accepting the job. The most dramatic example of this pattern was the fiery three-year stint of reformer Michelle Rhee had in Washington D.C. In fact, referring to the LA superintendent position, Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told LA School Report, “I don’t know a single person on earth who would want that terrible job. It won’t be a change agent. It will be a status quo candidate who will make life pleasant for himself by enjoying all the wrapping of the superintendency and being smart enough not to try and change a thing.”
The question then becomes, “Is LAUSD manageable at all?” Is a district that includes 31 smaller cities covering 720 square miles with 655,000 students who speak 87 languages, taught by 32,000 teachers (plus a support staff of 35,000) too big not to fail?
One possible solution is to break up the behemoth district – hardly a new idea; it’s been floating around for years. The northern part of the city, the San Fernando Valley, tried to break away in 2000. Then, in 2004, mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg said that his first priority, if elected, would be to lead “a task force of teachers, parents, principals and other experts to come up with a plan to create smaller, community-based districts.” In 2006, state Assemblyman Keith Richman introduced legislation to split “the 727,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District into more than a dozen smaller districts, with the break-up overseen by a nine-member commission of mayors from the 27 cities that the district serves, the state superintendent of public instruction and university professors.” Most recently, Marc Litchman, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Brad Sherman for the 30th Congressional District in Los Angeles, said the first bill he would introduce would be to split up L.A. Unified. “The schools have to perform, and I think we’ve all been through this for quite some time. They’re not performing to the level we all hoped they would. In Los Angeles, the biggest barrier to that is the school district,” he said.
The problem with the dissolution idea is that it would result in power being ceded by those currently in charge. The LA school board and the teachers union will fight tooth and claw to keep the mammoth school district intact – no matter how unmanageable and dysfunctional it is.
Another change scenario is underway in New Orleans. Last month, the city became the country’s first all-charter district. Charter schools are public schools, funded by taxpayer dollars but run by largely independent boards. These schools get to avoid most of the red tape and union influence typical in a district contract. Teachers unions don’t have much of a presence in NOLA. The United Teachers of New Orleans, which had 5,800 members before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has dwindled down to 530. The small size and independent nature of charter schools is a disincentive to labor organizers. “The same amount of effort that it takes to negotiate a contract with a district, you spend on one school,” a union leader in Louisiana said. Of course, teachers could exercise a “local only” option which would give them greater control over their own destiny, be more child-friendly and excludes costly membership in a state and national affiliate.
Unfortunately, without a cataclysmic act of nature wreaking havoc on Los Angeles, this scenario too would run up against massive resistance from all the usual suspects. It would take a herculean effort by maverick legislators or a well-funded ballot initiative to make an all-charter district a reality.
So until then, we will suffer along with a yet-to-be-named superintendent who will either be a Deasy-type provocateur, burning out after a short time or, more likely, we will be treated to a make-nice type who will not rock the LAUSD boat. The losers, as always, will be the children who could have better but for the self-serving demands of the grown-ups captaining a ship that is constantly taking on water.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.