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Mistakes Were Made: The John Deasy Years

Bill Raden

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The symbolism of last Friday’s press conference by the recently embattled and newly ex-superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, John Deasy, couldn’t have been more explicit. Speaking for the first time as a private citizen, Deasy spoke to reporters on a conference call hosted by Students Matter.

The Silicon Valley-backed, Menlo Park nonprofit has paid the legal bills for the Vergara lawsuit, which challenged teacher job protections in the state earlier this year by successfully suing the California Department of Education and LAUSD. Deasy became a star witness — for the plaintiffs — when he testified against the state and his own district’s teachers.

For a man who had been brought by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa from the Gates Foundation in 2010 to LAUSD as the top deputy to then-superintendent Ramon C. Cortines, and who was a graduate of the training academy financed by billionaire education privatizer Eli Broad, the Students Matter conference call seemed to signal Deasy’s hope that Vergara would be the enduring legacy of a contentious three-and-a-half-year tenure. It was a term marked by political squabbles with the LAUSD’s Board of Education and an increasing hostility toward the district’s union workforce.

United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) president Alex Caputo-Pearl, who often found himself at loggerheads with the superintendent over Deasy’s penchant for blaming teachers for outcomes beyond their control, described Deasy’s philosophy to Capital & Main as “basically an adherence to a corporate-turnaround style of school improvement.”

Ironically, Cortines took office on Monday as LAUSD’s interim superintendent — his third time in the city’s top education post — while the board begins the process of finding a long-term successor.

[tabs type=”horizontal”][tabs_head][tab_title]LAUSD’s Apple iPad Agreement[/tab_title][/tabs_head][tab]Part 1;  Part 2;  Part 3;  Part 4.[/tab][/tabs]Deasy’s resignation last Thursday and Cortines’ return this week capped a dramatic month that saw lingering questions over the debacle of Deasy’s $1.3 billion iPad procurement from Apple and the education curriculum giant Pearson — the so-called the Common Core Technology project — threaten to boil over into a full-blown scandal. (See documents in box, above.)

It also comes on the heels of the former superintendent’s disastrously premature August rollout of the district’s MiSiS student data computer system, which gave students the wrong classes and continues to threaten student college admissions. Making matters worse, Deasy took the unusual step of again testifying against the state this month without the board’s knowledge or support in Cruz v. California, after attorneys added the MiSiS-plagued Jefferson High School to the list of defendants in a class action lawsuit alleging the state has ignored its responsibility to give all California students an adequate level of instruction.

For his part, the ex-superintendent appeared to admit during Friday’s press call that the impatience for change represented by such missteps might have come at a cost to LAUSD students.

“I wish I could have found a better balance,” he reflected, “between my feeling of urgency in my observation of overwhelming peril and poverty for kids and the ability to have built a more unified will to move quickly to do that. And I was not successful at that piece. I think I own a great deal of that. You own that and you own the results.”

Deasy, whose separation agreement with the district forbids him from ever working for Los Angeles Unified again, also said he is mulling over a possible run for public office.

LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, for one, agrees that Deasy’s laudable concern over the students most in peril in the district was too often offset by his obliviousness to the importance of consensus-building and the precipitate speed with which he attempted to implement controversial policies.

“Dr. Deasy was moving with a velocity that had the effect of alienating the foot soldiers who would need to complete the mission that he was so urgently leading,” Zimmer told Capital & Main. “So the result in some way was less impactful than the announcement. Announcements can be very important, as are changes in policy, but what really changes lives and outcomes is the implementation on the ground, and that takes everybody working collaboratively together.”

Teachers union president Alex Caputo-Pearl gives the ex-superintendent high marks for cutting student suspensions and expulsions, and for backing initiatives like the Arts Equity Index, a tool to identify impoverished schools most underserved by arts instruction. On the deficit side, Caputo-Pearl also cited Deasy’s taste for policy headline-making without following it up with what was needed for proper implementation – and a reliance on standardized tests and attacks against educators and the union.

“You had him supporting this community movement that had been brewing for about 10 years around positive behavior support and restorative justice,” said Caputo-Pearl, “but he didn’t invest resources into the staffing, training or school reform that would be needed to really bring those things into practice.”

The task now, Caputo-Pearl and Zimmer agree, is to correct the lack of transparency and inclusion of all stakeholders that marred the 2011 search and interview process which resulted in Deasy’s superintendency in the first place.

“I believed it damaged Dr. Deasy’s superintendency to not have had a full search and interview process,” Zimmer said.

This time around, he promised, “There will be a comprehensive search the likes of which have not been done in this district for at least a decade.”


Photo: Elliot Haney/City Year

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