John Deasy is a blunt man with little use for nuance. At times, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District seems to enjoy getting in people’s faces. As Doug McIntyre observed in the Los Angeles Daily News, “Even Deasy’s supporters acknowledge he can be prickly, humorless, stubborn and thin-skinned.” Others describe him as bull-headed and impatient. School board member Steve Zimmer observes that Deasy often used a sledgehammer—sometimes joyfully so—when a scalpel would have sufficed. Deasy’s deficit of politesse drew the ire of the teachers’ union from the beginning of his three-and-a-half year tenure and eventually cost him friends and allies on the board. Sensing his days in Los Angeles were numbered, he tendered his resignation on October 16.
Deasy’s record is mixed. He had some success in bringing teacher evaluations into the twenty-first century. He championed charter schools. He supported California’s parent-trigger law, which empowers parents at an underperforming school to force a change of governance. After the Miramonte Elementary School sexual-abuse case in 2012, Deasy enacted a zero-tolerance policy that led to the dismissal of more than 100 teachers for misconduct and the resignation of about 200 others in lieu of termination. He also testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, the class-action lawsuit in which Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the state’s archaic seniority, tenure, and dismissal statutes were unconstitutional.
Reformers give Deasy credit for the district’s improved test results. Even though test scores did go up somewhat under his tenure, it’s difficult to attribute that improvement to Deasy. A recent Brookings Institution study found that superintendents on average account for just “0.3 percent of differences in student achievement.” Deasy’s supporters also say he reduced the district’s dropout rate, but their argument relies on some fuzzy math. In April 2013, LAUSD reported a 66 percent graduation rate. Last month, the district proudly announced its graduation rate had improved to 77 percent. That higher rate was made possible by excluding students in “alternative schools”—where the graduation rates can be as low as 5 percent—and so-called “invisible dropouts,” who leave during or after middle school. They don’t count as high school dropouts because they never dropped in.
Deasy undercut his successes with expensive, unforced errors. A wildly ambitious, $1.3 billion plan to put Apple iPads into the hands of every district student was a debacle. Last year’s rollout began amid confusion. Would the students be allowed to take the devices home? Who would be responsible for tablets that were lost or stolen? Many students breached their iPads’ security locks and used the devices for non-academic purposes. Deasy halted the program in August after e-mails revealed he had discussed a possible contract with Apple before the official bidding process began. The “MiSiS crisis” followed on the heels of the iPad scandal. The district launched an online school-information system that was nowhere near ready, resulting in thousands of students starting the school year without class schedules. The new system also couldn’t generate transcripts that seniors needed for college applications.
The superintendent’s ambitious reforms and high-profile failures made him an easy target for the United Teachers of Los Angeles. In April 2013, the union launched a “Whoopsie Deasy” campaign with the goal of ousting him. The UTLA encouraged teachers to give the superintendent a “no-confidence” vote, listing ten reasons it considered him a menace to the teaching profession. These included a six-year salary freeze; the allegation that “testing was overtaking teaching”; and the assertion that Deasy was too cozy with “billionaire outsiders.” The effort resonated with the union rank-and-file, who obligingly delivered the no-confidence vote by a roughly ten-to-one margin. But the UTLA regularly savaged Deasy for the same reason the reformers cheered him on: He came to the job seeking to shake up the sclerotic system, and viewed the union and its cronies on the school board as impediments to his pro-child agenda.
Overseeing the second-largest school district in the United States is a thankless and difficult job even for managers with less appetite for reform than Deasy. Consider the parade of L.A. school superintendents over the past 14 years. Former New York City schools chancellor Ramon Cortines held the job briefly in 2000, before former Colorado governor Roy Romer replaced him in July of that year. Retired Navy admiral David Brewer succeeded Romer in 2006. Cortines returned for two years in 2009. Deasy replaced him in 2011. Now the octogenarian Cortines is back for a third stint, this time as “interim” superintendent. How long he’ll stay is anyone’s guess.
Deasy’s departure raises the question of whether LAUSD is manageable by anyone. Is a district encompassing 31 cities, covering 720 square miles, with 655,000 students speaking 87 languages, taught by 32,000 teachers, and aided by a support staff of 35,000 simply too big to succeed? Wouldn’t it make more sense to break up the district? It’s not a new idea. The San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles tried to secede from the city in 2002, in part over dissatisfaction with the schools. Voters outside the valley overwhelmingly opposed the secession referendum, so it failed. In 2004, former state assembly speaker turned mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg promised he would lead “a task force of teachers, parents, principals and other experts to come up with a plan to create smaller, community-based districts.” Hertzberg lost. Two years later, state Assemblyman Keith Richman introduced a bill to split LAUSD into more than a dozen smaller districts, overseen by a commission of mayors, university professors, and the state superintendent of public instruction. The bill didn’t pass. Most recently, Marc Litchman, who unsuccessfully challenged veteran Democratic congressman Brad Sherman to represent a district in the western San Fernando Valley, promised his first bill would be aimed at splitting up L.A. Unified. “The schools have to perform,” Litchman said. “They’re not performing to the level we all hoped they would. In Los Angeles, the biggest barrier to that is the school district.”
If the district is the biggest barrier to student success, it is also the biggest barrier to dissolution. Former state senator Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat, told me that splitting L.A. Unified “would be the messiest, most costly divorce ever.” She says the various laws and regulations governing the district are “written in such a way, with so many twists and turns and back alleys to navigate, that even those who control that dysfunctional maze . . . probably [couldn’t] find a way out.”
Absent a change in the law or a radical shift in public opinion, L.A. Unified students and families likely will remain stuck with business as usual. And it’s difficult to imagine the school board hiring another provocateur as Deasy’s permanent replacement. As National Council on Teacher Quality president Kate Walsh told L.A. School Report after Deasy’s resignation: “I don’t know a single person on earth who would want that terrible job. It won’t be a change agent. It will be a status quo candidate who will make life pleasant for himself by enjoying all the wrapping of the superintendency and being smart enough not to try and change a thing.” That might be a politically savvy move—but a complete disservice to L.A.’s kids.