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Opinion: Definition of strange: John Deasy lauds ruling confirming his failures

Los Angeles schools Superintendent John Deasy weighed in on behalf of a lawsuit against the state, contending rightly that students were unconstitutionally assigned to do-nothing classes instead of the academic courses they needed. His action would be wholly appropriate if the state ran the schools where this was happening. But as it happens Deasy runs those schools. Or at least, he was supposed to.

“I can’t think of a better gift to give this school district than to expose this indefensible practice,” he said in a declaration in support of the lawsuit.

By indefensible practice, was he referring to his not having taken concrete steps to resolve the problem? Was this an admission of incompetence? A request for the state to take over schools that he and the school board could not manage properly?

I called Deasy to ask these questions last week before a judge ruled that the state of California had to step in and get the situation ironed out at Jefferson High School. A combination of a shortage of teachers and the fouled-up student tracking and scheduling system that Deasy oversaw had led to o an educational crisis.

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Deasy’s responses during our conversation covered a range of rationales. The problem was the school board — even though he conceded he hadn’t raised this with the board, offered suggestions to them or asked for guidance. But he was concerned that they would not do what was needed to fix the problem. Maybe he’s right, but it seems to me that not talking to them is a guaranteed way to make sure they don’t fix the problem.

It was local autonomy for schools that was to blame, he said, even though Deasy is one of the biggest proponents of that autonomy.

It was lack of funding, even though the district got a big increase in funding this year but chose to spend the money on other items. (No, not iPads — bond money cannot be used to increase the number of teachers.)

Of course the additional funding doesn’t restore the schools to pre-recession levels. Things are still far too tight. But the district beefed up many other programs while leaving students in an untenable predicament at various high schools, not just Jefferson. It’s not that the district spent money on unimportant things. But there is simply nothing more basic than teaching students. Teaching them, not assigning them to sit in the auditorium or worse yet, go home for a period or two.

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Under a judge’s ruling last week, the state is supposed to make sure that L.A. Unified toes the line. The state was ordered to offer guidance and support and, if the district doesn’t have enough money, provide additional funding.

After the ruling, Deasy certainly sounded as though money was what he expected. “We look forward to meeting state officials to explain the new resources needed,” he said.

That’s not precisely how things are working out. Teachers have come up with useful proposals and, reportedly, the district has hammered out a plan to lengthen the school day. So far, the state is saying that the “new resources” will be coming from the district, not the state.

And that sounds about right. California recently moved to a fairer funding system under which school districts are given more money for disadvantaged students, and will get bigger financial help for those students over the next few years. They also have more autonomy over how they spend their money. If L.A. Unified doesn’t know how to spend the money where it’s most needed, then it might have to have expenditures dictated to it; the state can’t just keep giving more money to districts that decide to spend their funding elsewhere.

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Deasy also blames the bell schedules at some schools for the problem, saying that under the teachers’ contract, individual schools get to set their own schedules. Some schedules are more conducive to offering adequate courses than others.

Deasy wants to change this in the contract, and he’s not necessarily wrong. It’s reasonable for districts to decide how many class periods their students need each day. But Deasy is the one who has pushed hard to empower schools to make more of their own decisions. Why not say to them: Look, if you can get all the students all their necessary coursework with whatever bell schedule you have, more power to you. But so whatever you have to for them to have the classes.

And if they fail to do so, enforce whatever is called for under the local-autonomy plan — which should mean depriving them of some of their autonomy. The deal is supposed to be, more independence for better performance.

But Deasy wasn’t sure he could do that. Maybe he can’t, but this raises the question: If there’s no real accountability under the autonomy plan when it’s most needed, why is the district bothering with it?

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While Deasy has been busy supporting the lawsuit, what he wasn’t busy doing was improving the situation for the district’s students. His reaction to the judge’s ruling sounded as though he had won a victory. Yet, though the ruling was against the state because it was the only party named as a defendant, the judge reserved perhaps his harshest words for Deasy, saying the superintendent wasn’t acknowledging his responsibilities for knowing about Jefferson’s problems and hadn’t thought of a way to fix them, much less actually taken action.

The students who were enrolled in Jefferson’s sham courses will see improvement now, but a real victory would have been for Deasy to take charge starting back in August. Two months into the school year, it will be a miracle if students catch up, even with extra tutoring. It will be interesting to see how this is explained as a victory to the school board when it looks at the improvement plan on Tuesday.

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