Editorial: LAUSD Supt. John Deasy’s resignation is no cause for celebration
For years before John Deasy took over as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, administrators there agonized about high truancy rates and large numbers of dropouts. But the problems seemed close to intractable; change, for the most part, was slow and incremental.
Then Deasy swept in with his take-charge attitude, unflagging energy and determination to improve things at every level, especially for low-income students and for students of color. Students, he decreed, would take college-prep courses. They wouldn’t be suspended for minor offenses, which was one road to dropping out. Schools would call parents to find out why their children hadn’t shown up for class. But at the same time, students would no longer be ticketed by police if they were late on the way to school — a process that had encouraged some tardy students to miss school altogether rather than risk being fined a sum their parents couldn’t afford.
Attendance and expectations rose; unsurprisingly, higher test scores and graduation rates followed. More students took Advanced Placement courses and the tests that went with them.
Of course, it was teachers who made these improvements happen on the ground, even with budget cuts and furloughs. But the teachers had always been there. What had been missing was a sense of urgency from the top and an unwillingness to brook excuses or delays.
So although many people are undoubtedly happy to hear that Deasy has resigned, in truth there is no cause for celebration. More than anything else, Deasy’s departure is a dispiriting sign of a district that is in grave danger of losing its way.
A recent series of bad mistakes on Deasy’s part — the ill-thought-out plan to purchase iPads for every student, the error-riddled student scheduling system, the failure to fix the situation at several high schools where students could not gain access to needed courses — gave his enemies ammunition for a full-on attack. But perhaps his biggest errors were tactical: He repeatedly fell short when it came to building alliances with his overseers on the school board, and he failed to give teachers a voice or the respect they were due. One of his biggest supporters described him as a “reform cowboy,” disinclined to work cooperatively or, in some cases, even to communicate with those whose help he needed to achieve his goals. He wouldn’t listen to critics whose advice might have been valuable. As a result, others’ faith in his abilities faltered and there was no way for him to quickly dispel the cloud over his head when district emails were released hinting at what may have been a too-cozy relationship between Deasy and two bidders for the district’s expensive technology purchase.
Deasy’s unwillingness to communicate with the board sometimes hurt the very students he professed to be helping. During the recent crisis at Jefferson High — in which students were assigned to classes with no content and were refused entry to courses they wanted or needed to graduate — Deasy filed an affidavit in court against the state, decrying what were, in fact, his own failures, instead of working to fix things.
The fiery tone with which his supporters had always defended him grew more tepid over the last few weeks as advocates and school reformers wearied of the continued rancor and missteps.
But make no mistake: L.A. Unified is a district that has long been marked by fever-pitch politics and an overly influential and intransigent teachers union. Deasy has his faults, but the bigger problems, which confronted his predecessors as well, have been the district’s tendency to settle into paralyzing gridlock, and the school board’s inability even to understand its role as elected overseers.
When Deasy first took the job, the political winds were blowing in his favor. He had a reliable board majority that had been backed by his highest-profile supporter, then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But that situation had its own problems. The board regularly rubber-stamped Deasy’s initiatives, even those that were unwise. The one that stands out most clearly, of course, was the more than $1-billion plan to use bond money to equip every student with an iPad pre-loaded with curriculum that hadn’t been completed yet, and to update campuses for the necessary Wi-Fi. Never thought out fully, the program stumbled almost immediately.
Deasy lost his majority during subsequent elections. Tensions grew. Now, instead of approving even his worst ideas with barely a murmur, the board micromanages him and questions his staff’s every recommendation. There are still enough supportive or at least independent board members that Deasy could have built a coalition, but that’s the kind of skill that he was either unwilling or unable to develop.
Deasy’s departure is a shame, but the bigger shame will be if the board selects a new superintendent who lacks his commitment to bettering the futures of low-income students. There are other superintendents who have led large urban school districts to tremendous improvements, without major turmoil and without making teachers feel demonized.
But no superintendent will succeed if the school board can’t figure out its own job — how to act as a rational check on the superintendent without becoming an unnecessary obstruction. Does this board even support continued transformation? During a KCRW radio panel discussion earlier this week, board member Steve Zimmer lauded Deasy as a “catalytic” leader, but said the district was now in a different, transitional phase that called for implementing the changes that had already been adopted rather than pushing for more reforms. This, he said, called for a different kind of superintendent.
What new phase? This is a district of extreme poverty, where student turnover at some schools reaches 50% during the academic year, where the dropout rate is still well over 20% and rotating substitute teachers, many uncredentialed, are still assigned to too many classes. The need for reform is as urgent as ever. No, Deasy’s departure offers no excuse for slowing the pace of reform, no room for complacency. Quite the opposite.
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