A funny thing happened on the way to John Deasy possibly stepping down as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District: The resignation never materialized. Reformers in the City of Angels and the rest of the nation managed to force the traditionalists who control the district’s board to back down from their effort to force out Deasy, and instead, led the district to extend his contract for another three years. Over the last weekend, reform outfits such as Students Matter and Communities for Los Angeles Student Success, along with the Southern California branch of the United Way and city leaders such as Police Chief Charlie Beck issued calls for L.A. Unified’s board to keep Deasy on board. Grassroots pressure, along with declarations from the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Times and Daily News, also put L.A. Unified’s traditionalist-oriented majority on the defense, especially as they seemed willing to ditch the best person the district has had in the top job in decades while also being reluctant to formally censure board president Richard Vladovic for allegedly harassing current and former staffers.
By Monday, L.A. Unified board member Steve Zimmer, a longtime Deasy foe who is one of the big five controlling the district’s board, announced that the board wanted to keep Deasy on the job. That’s when the real work began. Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had helped put Deasy into the top job two years ago, pulled Deasy and Vladovic together to work out a deal. By yesterday, as reformers, including former L.A. Unified board president Caprice Young stood outside the district’s headquarters, Villaraigosa managed to get the board to strike a contract extension that will keep Deasy in the top job, at least for now.
For traditionalists, both in L.A. and the nation, Deasy’s retention isn’t sweet news at all. They won’t have another symbolic victory against systemic reform after effectively winning control of the nation’s second-largest district earlier this year. Not that it would have been anything real; as Dropout Nation noted on Saturday, it would be hard to find anyone close to Deasy’s talent, be they reform-minded or traditionalist, to run one of the nation’s most-dysfunctional school operators. The attempt by Vladovic and company to force Deasy out of the job may have actually backfired on them and their traditionalist allies by revitalizing the efforts of school reformers in Southern California laid low by both the traditionalist victory in the election this year as well as successful efforts at the state level to weaken accountability and systemic reform. The movement may actually heed some of the lessons offered by your editor earlier this year after the L.A. Unified board elections.
Deasy’s retention also isn’t good news for the American Federation of Teachers’ local, United Teachers Los Angeles, which issued a public statement last Friday calling upon the board to sack Deasy and bring in new leadership that will be servile to its interests. This is, in part, the local’s own fault. By issuing such a strong call on the board majority to sack Deasy instead of keeping quiet and letting things take its course, the AFT local once again reminded Angelino families that the union is more-interested in flexing its influence and protecting the array of deals between itself and the district that is the source of their power, than in building brighter futures for children now forced to attend the district’s failure mills and warehouses of mediocrity. The fact that the statement came amid an earlier threat by AFT local president Warren Fletcher that the union may attempt a work stoppage against the financially-strapped district in order to win even more generous pay raises alongside the free healthcare coverage their members receive, also belied the union’s talking points about being concerned about children and families served by the school system. Reformers now have target upon which they can focus their efforts to recapture control of L.A. Unified over the next four years.
The AFT may also pay a price for the ham-fisted tactics of Vladovic and his allies to push Deasy out: Because the board majority aroused so much public ire, it has effectively neutered their own efforts on behalf of the union for the foreseeable future. Now the AFT has to tangle with a Deasy who is both secure in his job for at least the next year and also has a freer hand (or as free as one can get given the leanings of the board majority) to pursue at least some of his reforms. This is especially bad news for Fletcher, who may now face a tougher-than-expected campaign to keep his seat as AFT local president, as both moderates and hardcore traditionalists within the union are equally dissatisfied with the results of his bellicose rhetoric.
As for L.A. Unified’s traditionalist board majority? At least for now, they are on the defensive. Deasy can now oppose their $1.2 billion wish list — including plans to hire more teachers that favors the goals of the AFT local — which has already come under fire for being unrealistic. With a school reform movement revitalized by their failed attempt to oust Deasy, the majority now have to worry about losing what comedian Mel Brooks would call their phony baloney jobs. Vladovic, plagued by scandal, will likely face a reform-minded opponent when he attempts to run for a third term in 2015; same is likely true for the AFT’s favorite board member, Bennett Kayser, who barely won his seat two years ago against Luis Sanchez, a protégé of Villaraigosa and Vladovic’s predecessor as board president, Monica Garcia, by a mere 600 votes.
Meanwhile Zimmer’s penchant for playing both sides of the proverbial street — a reason why neither reformers nor traditionalists supported his bid in July against Vladovic for the board presidency — was once again on full display when he came out with his statement that the board wanted to keep Deasy on the job. No one has forgotten that he is among the players who helped foment the effort to oust Deasy in the first place. Expect Zimmer to face opposition from both AFT- and reform-backed challengers in four years when his seat comes up for re-election.
But is Deasy’s retention good news for the futures of L.A.’s children? Maybe. But it depends on both Deasy and reformers in L.A. taking advantage of the current victory to make bolder steps that advance systemic reform.
From where your editor sits, Deasy’s reputation as a bold reformer is belied by his actual penchant for half-measures that are anything but. Two years ago, Deasy stood by as L.A. Unified’s board put the kibosh on an effort began under predecessor Ramon Cortines hand over 200 of its traditional public schools into charter school operators and grassroots groups; before that move, Deasy rejected an effort by one group to take over one of L.A. Unified’s existing schools. The deal Deasy struck last year with the AFT local on a teacher evaluation plan, will also do little to improve teacher quality. This is because school-level performance data will be used in measuring teacher performance instead of longitudinal data on individual work teachers do with children in their classrooms even though the district has the capacity to do the latter; as a result, laggards can still keep their jobs if they happen to work in schools with improving performance.
Certainly the fact that Deasy has gone from working with a reform-oriented board led by Monica Garcia to one dominated by traditionalists explains why Deasy has been less than bold in advancing systemic reform. But strong leaders figure out how to take bold steps even in tough political environments; this includes building political capital, especially among business leaders and the grassroots, in order to blunt traditionalist opposition, leveraging the advocacy (and use the cover given) by reform allies, and being savvy with the media in order to gain public support from citizens not normally concerned with education issues. It isn’t as if Deasy is unskilled at these things. But he hasn’t been willing to push more boldly on reforms. And this is unacceptable.
With the board majority now on the defensive, Deasy has an opportunity to tackle how L.A. Unified recruits and manages teacher performance. He has already angered the AFT with his unilateral move to implement new tiers for evaluating teaching performance as well as determining that objective test score growth data for all the students in an entire school will account for 30 percent of overall performance measurement. Deasy should go further by using student-level test score growth data for all students in each classroom taught by individual teachers in evaluations, which would actually provide real information on how well instructors are doing in improving the achievement of kids in their care. Moving more aggressively to cast out laggard teachers, especially new hires before they attain tenure within two years as required under California state law, would also do plenty of good for kids.
Deasy should also work to revive L.A. Unified’s effort to hand off 200 of its existing schools to families, community groups, teacher cooperatives, and charter school operators, and in fact, expand that effort to include more schools. Considering how poorly L.A Unified has done in operating these schools, moving the district away from its dysfunctional and bureaucratic operational model to some form of what Dropout Nation calls the Hollywood Model of Education would allow families and other individual school operators to improve teaching, curricula, and school cultures for kids. [This, by the way, would also spur what should be the long-term goal of reformers in L.A. Unified: Breaking up the district altogether.] Deasy has already embraced the use of California’s Parent Trigger law by families within the district to take control of L.A. Unified’s failure mills; he should convince the board to abolish a rule passed in July that aims to kibosh those takeovers by tangling families up in more paperwork. Eliminating the district’s zoned schooling policies to allow for real intra-district school choice would be another step that would help children served by L.A. Unified’s worst-performing schools escape failure — and spur the district to do more to expand the supply of high-quality schools in every neighborhood it serves.
Meanwhile reformers who have helped Deasy stay in his job should hold him accountable for advancing strong reforms. Particularly on the teacher quality, school choice, Parent Power, and district transformation fronts, reformers should only be willing to give Deasy further cover if he aggressively moving on those fronts. Reformers must also demand Deasy to be more-disciplined in how he runs L.A. Unified’s operations; traditionalists are right to call out Deasy for mismanaging the district’s ambitious effort to provide every student with an Apple iPad tablet, for not addressing the underlying information technology issues that are plaguing the initiative, and for bungling an expensive effort the district can ill-afford to screw up. Ambitious goals are worth nothing if the efforts developed to achieve them are not executed properly. And no one will support bold reforms if you can’t get the basics handled properly.
Reformers must also build upon their success in rallying support for Deasy in order to sustain their efforts for the long run. It’s not just about winning two seats on L.A. Unified’s board two years from now. Each and every day, the cadre of reformers working within the district and in Southern California must continually build grassroots support. This includes 350,395 single-parent households, the 80,916 grandparents caring for children under age 18, and the 3 million foreign-born residents who live in Los Angeles County, many of whom must send their children to L.A. Unified’s schools. It also means rallying support from the middle-class families on L.A.’s Westside, who are often just as dissatisfied with shoddy teaching and curricula the district offers; this includes concretely connecting the problems of L.A. Unified (and that of the nation) to the other local issues that are also of immediate concern.
Given that L.A. Unified covers much of Los Angeles County, reformers must also target countywide elections, including that for each of the five supervisors who run county government. Unlike City of Angels Mayor Eric Garcetti, who, like predecessors such as Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan, must also deal with the jealousies of other mayors whose cities are served by L.A. Unified, county commissioners have the standing to force long-term changes upon the district.
The move by L.A. Unified to keep John Deasy in the chief executive post may be great news for the futures of the children served by it. But only if Deasy and reformers sustain bold efforts to transform a dysfunctional school operator that has tossed the futures of so many children into the abyss.