In this town, we claim to admire restraint, politesse and, above all, consensus-building. But the thunderous reception greeting John Deasy on Monday suggests that we actually crave a bit of blunt talk.
Deasy, the controversial and unapologetic superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, was in Seattle speaking at a fundraiser for Stand for Children, a pro-charter school organization with whom he has ties. Afterward, he stopped by The Seattle Times for a less formal chat, in which he was forthright about his belief in both the importance of good teachers and the need to loosen regulations that hinder districts in firing bad ones.
This battle is at the crux of Vergara v. California, a lawsuit in which nine Los Angeles students allege they received an illegally lousy education because it was too hard for L.A. to get rid of lackluster educators. Deasy (pronounced like daisy) was a star witness for the students’ side, and spoke about the years of paperwork necessary to remove poor performers.
The case is now in a judge’s hands, and it could have significant implications for any state in which the right to a quality education is constitutionally protected. Like, for instance, Washington.
At the same time, Deasy insists that he is passionately “pro-teacher.” Los Angeles has seen steady upticks in its high school graduation and third grade reading scores in recent years — none of which could have happened without powerful classroom leaders, he said.
“These improvements are solely because of them, because it actually is rocket science to have a third grader learn to read. The notion that anyone can just do that is crazy.”
For his belief in overhauling teacher tenure rules and his support for using student progress as part of job evaluations, Deasy has often been demonized by union leaders. He fired 99 educators during the 2011-’12 school year (another 122 resigned), and in a recent referendum, 91 percent of those who cast ballots voted “no confidence” in his leadership. (Deasy quickly points out that only 27 percent of the membership actually participated.)
Los Angeles, of course, is not Seattle. Deasy is running a district 14 times larger than ours, in which nearly all of his 700,000 students are either low-income or speak a language other than English at home. But he is adamant that the struggles with which he contends in southern California are relevant to everyone.
“L.A. is America — only sooner,” he is fond of saying. “And we are coming to a hometown near you, so we had better figure this out.”