School & District Management Opinion

Let’s Look First at the Hand L.A.'s John Deasy Was Dealt

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — October 15, 2014 5 min read

John Deasy wasn’t dealt a winning hand. He’s a very smart guy, so I think he knew it from the start, but he wanted to play the game as superintendent of Los Angeles Unified so badly that he picked up the cards anyway.

Now, it looks like he’ll fold. According to usually reliable sources, he has authorized his attorney to negotiate his resignation as the head of the country’s second largest school district.

There is sure to be much commentary about whether Deasy has been a success or failure, and what his tenure and departure, if there is to be one, means for public education. I want to start elsewhere: examining the cards he was dealt and asking whether anyone with such a lousy hand could be successful.

When Deasy came to the superintendency, the Los Angeles Unified School District was reeling from the great recession. It was a cold fiscal welcome, and most of the pressure did not abate as the economy improved. When enrollment declines, attendance-based revenue falls faster than costs. And in the last decade, enrollment fell by more than 135,000 students as the population of the city aged and immigration slowed to a trickle. LAUSD is expected to lose another 72,000 students over the coming two school years, marking 12 straight years of decline.

The district estimates that 44 percent of the decline can be attributed to students attending charter schools, which continue to grow.

Even as enrollment-driven revenue declines, costs for special education continue to increase, $200 million a year in the last decade, and health care and pension costs continue to rise.

In Learning from L.A., an institutional and political history of the district, we found that every reform effort in the last 40 years was hobbled because grand ideas mixed with hard fiscal reality. School board elections or a mayor’s ministrations won’t change that reality.

Less Fiscal Reality And More Political

But it is less the fiscal reality than the political one that makes it hard for Deasy or any other superintendent in Los Angeles to succeed. Deasy is both the product and the victim of trench warfare between two coalitions. One is anchored by former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the United Way of Los Angeles, and venture philanthropist Eli Broad, who pays a lot of the bills. The other is anchored by United Teachers Los Angeles, the fractious local union affiliated with both the NEA and the AFT.

The two sides have fought one another to political gridlock for more than a decade, leaving Deasy without a reliable majority on the seven-member school board, beset with the need to cajole a fourth vote.

No one can fault his energy or work ethic. He is famous for putting in 20-hour days, and in that regard he follows in the footsteps of many of his predecessors--Harry Handler, Roy Romer, and Ramon Cortines come to mind--who found sleep a distraction.

What distinguishes Deasy, is his willingness to put on the Superman cape. Like Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC, Joel Klein in New York, and Paul Vallas in Chicago, Deasy cultivated a larger-than-life public persona that cast the superintendent in the title role from the documentary Waiting for Superman. Although, as the film makes clear, there is no Superman, that hasn’t stopped a league of superintendents from aspiring to the role.

Speculation about the end of Deasy’s superintendency rightfully signals reflection on the limits to the Superman model of leadership. Or to put it a different way: how much is it reasonable to expect of a single leader?

Regeme Stability Counts

As the evidence of urban school reforms based on the Superman model accumulates, it is becoming clear that most have been unable to turn a single superintendency into a continuing regime: a lasting organization that continues after the high profile superintendent leaves.

In some cities, such regime stability can produce a lasting institution, creating fidelity to a set of ideas about how to reorganize schools. But in this millennium, the politics of LAUSD have utterly failed to create such stability. Instead, it has produced toxic, expensive, and ineffectual battles resulting in much carnage but no lasting winners.

The last substantive success in creating stability took place in the 1990s when LEARN, a classic big city coalition of civic, government, union, and school district leaders created a reform program to radically decentralize the district and increase the capacity of schools. LEARN garnered over $100-million in private support, about half of it from the Annenberg Foundation, whose challenge grant program operated in metropolitan L.A. as well as other cities.

LEARN’s Big Ideas

Like reforms that came before it, and most of those that have come after, LEARN sought to bring four ideals to reality:

  • Decentralize: move decisions over instructional program, budget, and personnel to the school level.
  • End bell-curve expectations. Create universal high standards and transparent, helpful assessments.
  • Increase parental engagement, both as advocates for children and as their “first educators.”
  • Increase the variety of educational offerings and create choice among them.

Unfortunately, LEARN was organized around the politics of forging agreement for a plan, not the long-term problem of implementing it. After months of negotiations led to agreement on a reform plan, the reformers discovered that the district did not have the will or capacity to implement it. (The capacity problem continues, most notably in LAUSD’s inability to create a working student information system or even create a student schedule at Jefferson High School.)

The political system that created LEARN could not sustain it. The bureaucrats balked, United Teachers Los Angeles broke into factions, and the business/philanthropic community saw charter schools as a faster way to get results.

Everyone underestimated how hard the job would be, and no one organized politics around a long game plan. LEARN collapsed into the political gridlock and permanent crisis that has lasted for a decade and a half. Neither Deasy nor his successor will be successful until it is resolved.

Changing the politics to give Deasy or his successor a winning hand requires a grand bargain agreement. Either form a new built-to-last civic coalition to fiscally and organizationally rebuild the district, or break it up into smaller operating units where such bargains are more possible.

A version of this post also appeared in the Hechinger Report.

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