Villaraigosa and Deasy: Stars align for L.A. schools

With a new superintendent who voices a common-sense yet passionate approach to school reform, a mayor refocused on education and a school board aligned with both, things are looking more hopeful for the future of Los Angeles' schools than they have in a long time.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's attention has understandably been absorbed by the city's fiscal problems, but in his State of the City address Wednesday, he returned to a theme that dates to his first campaign for the post: improving the Los Angeles Unified School District. Not that the mayor abandoned the schools over the past several years. He has backed reform-minded candidates for the school board and created the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, through which he is responsible for running 21 of them.

We have our differences with the mayor over various aspects of his education agenda; the board remains heavily politicized, and we believe his stances oversimplify some important issues. But overall his involvement in the schools — including his Public School Choice initiative, under which outside groups can apply to run some of the worst-performing schools — has had a positive effect, putting new pressure on the system to trim its bureaucracy and to combat academic mediocrity. As the mayor's speech noted, according to a draft received Wednesday afternoon, teachers' contracts need to be simplified so that teachers still have reasonable protections but can be freed from onerous union work rules, and so that job performance plays a bigger role in hiring, firing and pay decisions.

Of all the ideas proposed by Villaraigosa, the one he can most easily put into action is a major fundraising initiative for the underfunded district, similar to that in New York City. Too little of Hollywood's charitable giving ends up here at home, and the mayor is the best-placed public figure to change that. We're sorry he didn't follow through years ago on vows to fundraise for schools, but it's good to see him recommit to it now.

The mayor's support for schools and his use of the bully pulpit can be formidable forces for change at L.A. Unified, but even more important will be the person with direct responsibility for running it. John Deasy, who has been gradually taking the district's reins over the past several months, officially assumes the role of superintendent Monday. L.A. Unified presents imposing obstacles — punishing budget cuts and an intractable culture that historically has resisted change. But if anyone can change this, Deasy can. He not only has considerable and praiseworthy experience as a teacher and school administrator, but he combines a passion for improving the lot of disadvantaged students with a nuanced realization that too many simplistic solutions have been pushed into place without much evidence that they work.

L.A. Unified has been prepped for a new era of change by the current board and by outgoing Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who has earned our admiration for cleaning up operations during a time of extreme turmoil. He ushered in a new era of frankness about the district's failings, he ably pared the central-office bureaucracy at a time of fiscal crisis, and he thoughtfully implemented such groundbreaking reforms as Public School Choice.

Deasy, who has thoughtful and original ideas about school reform, said during a meeting with The Times editorial board that the pace of improvement must speed up dramatically. Such words would ordinarily discomfit teachers and their unions. But don't expect Deasy to undertake the type of mass firings that roiled the Washington, D.C., schools a couple of years ago. Yes, he would like it to be easier to fire the worst teachers, and so would we. But he also, and rightly, expresses concern that the reform movement has unfairly demonized teachers, as though they alone are responsible for academic failure. Nor is he a fan of reconstituting or restructuring schools and forcing teachers to reapply for their jobs; he cites the lack of evidence that such reforms work.

How, then, does Deasy plan to carry through on his commitment to "total access to the best teachers and leadership" for all of the 700,000-plus students in the district? Transform the central office from one that micromanages educational policy districtwide into a service-driven operation that monitors results and is agile enough to respond to each school's needs, just as great teachers do with their students. If a school is doing well, find out how the district can help it continue and then get out of its way. Treat underperforming schools much as you would an academically struggling child, with tight supervision and lots of direct coaching for both principals and teachers. He wisely plans to demand more evidence from charter schools that they are accepting special-education students, retaining most of their students and still showing strong results; the school district has been too lax in this regard.

Villaraigosa's involvement in this is welcome, but we hope that at the same time, he will curb his occasional tendency to politicize school reform and cast it in simple us-versus-them terms. Deasy shows every sign of being the right person for the hard job of bringing sustained, across-the-board improvement to L.A. Unified, and the mayor and school board should not attempt to micromanage him while he goes about doing it.

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