There are so many dramas and mini-disasters at the Los Angeles Unified School District, they have to take a number and line up for attention. First, a special meeting was called for Tuesday so that the board could set a broad vision from which future policies would flow. Then the board put off the vision thing in favor of a meeting on the more immediate, problem-riddled iPad project. Now it is delaying that discussion to devote the meeting to the topic of Supt. John Deasy, the bold but stubborn school reformer who stunned Los Angeles last week when it was revealed that he is on the verge of quitting the job he has held since 2011.
It’s unclear whether Deasy really intends to resign in frustration or whether, in fact, he expects to be fired at his performance evaluation Tuesday — which would be an astoundingly bad mistake on the part of the board. It’s also possible that he is merely bluffing in order to pressure the board members into toning down their criticism of him.
But what is undeniable is that a crisis is at hand between Deasy and the seven-member board, whose balance of power shifted in the most recent election. Before July, when the new members took office, Deasy was working with a clearly pro-reform, anti-union board majority that, frankly, served as a rubber stamp for his every proposal. Deasy could get even poorly thought-out plans approved with barely a peep from the board.
Now he faces continuing hostility from two strongly union-allied board members, who have been emboldened by the shift in power. There are a couple of more independent-thinking board members who are theoretically in a position to keep things from going haywire, but they are doing more talking than path-setting. And the new board president, Richard Vladovic, doesn’t know how to pull the disparate factions together and create a cordial and businesslike atmosphere in which work gets done on behalf of students.
The result is that Deasy is now blocked by blather and bad feeling at almost every turn. He came to the district to get things done, and he has used virtually every means at his disposal to do so, sometimes impatiently, sometimes arrogantly — but generally with the interests of students at heart. The board majority has not yet realized this important truth: Deasy’s weaknesses — that same impulsiveness and stubbornness that can create problems when employed in the wrong situations — are also his great strengths. When he used legal settlements to reshape the teacher evaluation process, and when he backed charter schools, and when he embraced a law to increase the power of parents to force change at underperforming schools, he propelled the district forward. Test scores and graduation rates have risen. It was also at his instigation that the district changed its discipline policies so that students aren’t being suspended for minor offenses. Attendance rates are up. The district has won a federal waiver from the restrictive No Child Left Behind Act. And Deasy accomplished all this despite the worst financial problems schools have faced in decades.
There is more reason to be optimistic about the future of L.A. Unified’s students now than there has been for many years. This should be the chief measurement of a superintendent’s performance. On balance, Deasy has excelled in a very difficult position, and we hope he’ll stay on.
Not that we have always agreed with Deasy. His requirement that all students pass a college-prep curriculum with a C average in order to graduate may turn out to be a recipe for massive grade inflation rather than a path to better learning. His tone on teachers tends to be too negative, even though they’re the ones delivering on his demands and raising student achievement. Morale in the schools is lower than it should be.
Deasy shouldn’t expect a uniformly glowing evaluation from the current school board. It is not going to approve his initiatives unquestioningly as the previous board did. Take, for instance, his ambitious plan to give an iPad to every student in the district, a plan he oversold to the previous school board. A more skeptical board would have asked sharper questions and ferreted out some of the easily foreseeable problems.
But there’s a difference between a board that honestly strives to shape better policy and one that throws obstacles in the superintendent’s path for ideological reasons. Recently, there has been far too much of the latter, as well as an undisciplined tendency to natter on about issues that could have been resolved more quickly and decisively.
One of the worst examples: the decision about how to spend more than $100 million to implement the new Common Core curriculum. A vote was needed quickly to start the new curriculum early in the year. The board wanted individual schools to have more control over how to spend the money; Deasy preferred more centralized control. The superintendent quickly worked out a compromise that gave schools more say. But the board, instead of neatly approving the new plan or even coming up with a handful of changes it wanted, embarked on a meandering discussion over multiple meetings despite pleas from Deasy and his top deputy for direction on how to spend the money.
Mayor Eric Garcetti was uncharacteristically unequivocal last week in his reaction to the Deasy flap: The board is forgetting its mission, he said. It’s supposed to shape the overarching policies; Deasy’s job is to put those into practice. We couldn’t agree more.
The board is at a crucial juncture. It must back away from micromanaging, and it must stop empowering those board members whose main goal is to return to those imaginary good old days when little or nothing happened without the approval of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union. Those were not, in fact, good days at all for L.A. Unified’s students, too many of whom were reaching high school barely able to read picture books. Given the current crisis, the board’s best move would be to hire an organizational consultant to iron out the friction and help the board understand and carry out its proper role.
This is one decision it should make fast, so that the crises don’t continue to pile up. And then it should reschedule the postponed meeting on creating a common and clear vision for the coming years. That vision should include Deasy at the helm.