L.A. Superintendent Deasy’s Exit Facilitated by Teachers Unions

Published December 2, 2014

John Deasy has stepped down after three-and-a-half years as Los Angeles Schools Superintendent and is facing mixed reviews. Like many reform-minded superintendents, Deasy had a lot of enemies, namely the teachers unions.

Amid criticism for two poorly executed technology rollouts, Deasy’s accomplishments have been somewhat overshadowed. Student test scores, graduation rates, and attendance improved since he took over in 2011. A new classroom breakfast program fed 200,000 students. But Deasy fought for big changes, often butting heads with United Teachers Los Angeles and the school board.

Deasy’s policies involved teacher evaluations, stricter requirements for gaining tenure, and administrative solutions to improve struggling schools, such as creating charter schools and completely replacing staff in some cases.

Reformers’ ‘Short Shelf-Life’

The fate of his policies and what his legacy will be remain unclear.

“I think it depends on who does the remembering,” said Larry Sand, a retired teacher and president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. Sand said Deasy’s departure was really only a matter of time.

“The more reform-minded a superintendent, the more likely they are to have a short shelf-life,” said Sand. “They are sure to run afoul of the unions and school boards, which the unions have a lot of influence on.”

Sand said the union made a strong case against Deasy by stating teachers had not received a raise in six years, claiming testing was overtaking teaching, and that Deasy was too friendly with “billionaire outsiders.” The strategy worked, leading the union members to deliver a vote of no confidence by a margin of 10 to 1.

Dispute Over Accountability

“Deasy’s resignation is a reflection that this top-down, my way or the highway, competition-driven, test-score-fixated way of doing schooling is not working,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview according to the LA Times. “The John Wayne strategy does not work.”

School choice advocates expressed disappointment with the unions’ campaign against Deasy.

“People want accountability within the government education system,” said Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute. “The Vergara [court] decision showed that far from having a ‘John Wayne’ system of accountability, as AFT boss Randi Weingarten claims, the reality is that the system is more like Tammany Hall, with jobs for incompetent and even criminal adults far outweighing raising the learning and achievement of children in the classroom.”

Sand agreed the Vergara decision, which changed teacher tenure and other jobs protections in California, shows the unions have been inflexible.

“Randi is very good talking about collaboration, but typically what the union wants and what benefits kids are two different things,” said Sand. “Case in point: the Vergara case. The unions don’t want to give an inch on tenure, seniority, or the dismissal statutes.”

“Deasy will be remembered as someone who tried to fight the teacher unions but lost out to a more powerful opponent,” said Izumi. “Some of his initiatives were not well thought out, such as giving out iPads to all students, and that detracted from his record. However, his testimony in the Vergara case, explaining how hard and expensive it is to fire a single ineffective teacher, was critical in setting the stage for the judge’s ultimate ruling that the state’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws created classroom disasters that ‘shocked the conscience.'”

Other Reformers Ousted

Deasy is not the first reform-minded superintendent to suffer the wrath of a teachers union and school board. In New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Texas, and other places across the country, superintendents have faced pressures including teacher strikes, lawsuits, and losing their jobs.

Sand said any superintendent who is a reformer will ensure pushback from teachers unions. He said the best and most poignant example was the AFT pushing to get rid of former mayor Adrian Fenty and his schools chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington, DC and eventually succeeding.

Izumi agrees working for real reform puts any superintendent at risk.

“In Washington, DC, the unions defeated the pro-reform mayor who backed reform superintendent Michelle Rhee, and she was then gone,” said Izumi. “It is a sad but all too familiar cycle. Thus, unless the reform superintendent can get big reforms implemented quickly, he or she may be out before they know it. For reformers, time is of the essence.”

Reform, Then Board Takeovers

Without the support of the hiring authority, a reform-minded superintendent like Deasy doesn’t really stand a chance, Izumi said.

Once a reformer is hired, “The teacher unions have a great incentive to take out the reform-minded elected officials in the next election cycle. When Deasy crossed the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the union strongly backed candidates for the school board. Since the unions are often the biggest funders in school board races, their candidates usually win in low-turnout elections,” Izumi continued. “The board changes to a pro-union, anti-reform majority, and the superintendent is then ousted or resigns, like Deasy. This is why reform superintendents often last only a few years.”

“Deasy supported charter schools and wider public school choice,” Izumi explained. “The unions cannot abide giving children an escape ticket out of the regular public school monopoly, so that’s another big reason Deasy was such a target. I hope that Deasy, in light of his treatment at the hands of the unions, uses his newfound freedom to fight to give all parents and their children the opportunity to choose the public or private school that best meets their needs.”

Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of School Reform News.

Image by City Year.