Public schools are at a critical point all over the country, and L.A. is no exception. We have the second-largest school district in the country, but are so financially strapped that California “pays” for part of our meager funding with IOUs. (Seriously, we spend $5,200 a student compared to New York’s $18,618.) Two upcoming ballot measures in November could dismantle the school system entirely if they don’t pass (translation: vote for them). Yet superintendent John Deasy believes we can fix the problem (and, as a mom with an 8-year-old in our public school system, so do I). I sat down for a Q & A recently with Deasy over breakfast at the Roosevelt Hotel, just catty-corner from my alma mater Hollywood High School, for one of the magazine’s “Breakfast Conversations.” Our talk was pegged to the magazine’s profile of Deasy in the September issue, in which writer Ed Leibowitz tracked the superintendent during his first year on the job. At our talk Deasy sounded off (in his strong Rhode Island accent) on a range of topics. Here was my takeaway on five salient and provocative points he made, plus related video clips of the discussion:
Takeaway No. 1: It’s not just about money; we don’t believe in our kids.
Deasy says he doesn’t think that the school problem can be fixed by merely throwing more cash at it (though people of Los Angeles, more money can’t not help; see Takeaway No. 5 below). He believes Angelenos have lost their faith in L.A.’s kids and have distanced themselves from the district. “It’s a fundamental disbelief that actually all students can achieve at high levels,” Deasy said. “We have all sorts of multiple issues that come to affect that. Students can’t achieve because they don’t speak English. Speaking English has got nothing to do with whether you can compute trigonometry. It just means you can’t speak it to me.”
Takeaway No. 2: If you don’t have kids of your own, you’d better care anyways.
Why? Because they may be only 20% of the population now, but they are 100% of the future population and you want that population to be educated, especially since they’ll likely be taking care of you one day. “I want one of them putting a needle in my arm when I’m in a nursing home who knows what they’re doing,” said Deasy. “I would like one of them to be able to flip the signals on the Metro when I’m riding it, who knows what they are doing.”
Takeaway No. 3: Those propositions No. 30 and 38? You may or may not have heard of them, but FYI: If they don’t pass, we are sunk.
“If California decides we are not going to fund public education through either of those—[and I am] not a huge doomsday person—we will not have a public education system,” said Deasy. “I for one hope we do not do that. I for one hope that we reverse three decades of public disinvestment in public education. This is not an accident. This is not about this recession. … we’ve chosen policies in this state. This has been a willful issue. We build prisons, not preschools. We’ve chosen an incarceration state.”
Takeaway No. 4: Until we start compensating our teachers at least as much as we do those chicks on Two Broke Girls, we’ll never attract talent.
Of course this isn’t just an L.A. problem—teaching should be the most iconic profession in the United States and it clearly is not. But we do live in an incredibly costly city, so it exacerbates the search. “This is not a Chicago thing,” said Deasy. “I don’t want to slam Chicago, but our teachers are not making what Chicago makes. This is not New York. Our teachers are making a pathetic salary and so is everybody else in LAUSD. And they are trying to live in a very expensive place in the planet. And so, if we want them to stay here they have to be able to afford to do this job, do this job well, actually without having to take jobs at night just to have a kid in their family.”
Takeaway No. 5: You can do something now to help, but you’re probably not. That doesn’t make you unusual.
A year ago Deasy helped set up, with Megan Chernin, the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education to raise $20 million for the district. Being that this is one of the least philanthropic cities in America, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are far from their goal. “Take a look at like New York, or Boston and D.C. and it’s like $14, $17, $19,000 per student,” said Deasy. “And we don’t actually get all that money because California is in such fiscal peril.” Want to offer some immediate help? Donate to the fund now, and make plans to mentor a student soon. The kids need you, the district needs you, and the future of this city depends on you.
Photo courtesy Jennifer Fujikawa Photography