The way L.A. schools superintendent John Deasy sees it, he could make 100 percent of his high school graduates ready for a four-year college, rid the beleaguered district of lousy teachers, and rescue the most disadvantaged students from a life of poverty. All this in less than a decade. The key? Doing things his way
John Deasy, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, doesn’t walk in particularly long strides. He’s only a shade above average height and, at 51, is past his athletic prime. His cap-toed leather shoes resist the bounce in his step more than they enhance it. Deasy started out as a science teacher, and if he someday has a spare moment, maybe he’ll devise a formula that demonstrates how he covers so many yards in such a brief amount of time.
Well before dawn on September 7, 2011, Deasy begins his barnstorming tour of the nation’s second-largest school district, which will lead him from East L.A. to the City of San Fernando, from South L.A. to Granada Hills, from the south end of Hollywood to Glassell Park, before the afternoon dismissal bell rings. It’s the first day of his first full academic year as the LAUSD’s superintendent, with direct responsibility for 664,000 students spread across 710 square miles. Several of the principals and teachers will greet him as “Dr. Deezy,” and although the actual pronunciation is “DAY-see,” he won’t correct them. To the women he extends a gentle palm; the guys are treated to the signature Deasy handshake—a thrust of the forearm, a vigorous grasp, a single hard pump carrying all the electric force of a defibrillator. He fixes them with pale blue eyes as he thanks them for the remarkable job they’re doing.
Then he’s off, punishing the linoleum of the corridors, his lean form blurring past banks of lockers and trophy cases. Within seconds the welcoming committees have lost ground, catching up only when he flings open the door of a classroom and barges in. “Room to room,” he’ll tell me later, “the students’ experience with the teacher is the single most important factor. That’s why I’m obsessively focused on it—the right to teach, how do we help teachers get better, how do we build the skills, how do we define quality, how do we deal with quality control?” Ducking into his chauffeured Crown Victoria after each visit, he pulls out his voice recorder and in a singsong New England drawl dictates a letter of congratulations to the principal, to be typed up and sent by his assistant.
But his mood sours when he arrives midmorning at South Region High School #2 in South L.A. After picking his way through the disorder of a principal’s office packed with still unregistered students and frustrated parents, he drops in on classes, where he surveys the bare walls and the distracted-looking teenagers with a grimace. The school is one of seven new LAUSD campuses debuting today, funded by a multibillion-dollar school construction bond that voters passed eight years ago to relieve half a century of overcrowding. Marching back to his car, Deasy is fuming. “The general quality of teaching and instruction that I saw in the classroom was less than acceptable and needs your attention immediately,” he dictates, gripping the tiny recorder. “I will look forward to working with the local district to make sure that the amount of support is immediately there, beginning tomorrow.” As he pockets the device, a frown playing across his thin, colorless lips, he says, “No, I’m not a happy camper in that site at all.”
Deasy has already seen seven campuses by the time he dashes into a luncheon photo op at a South L.A. middle school to be hailed by the likes of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and school board president Mónica García. In recent months Deasy has come to be regarded as the last great hope for fixing the LAUSD—at least among those politicians and philanthropists who believe it is broken. “I feel there’s an alignment of the stars right now,” Villaraigosa says, “with Mónica as president and the board majority to support these changes, and with John Deasy, clearly a visionary but also someone focused on results and hands-on.”
Under contract terms that Deasy requested when he accepted the job in January 2011, his bosses on the school board can let him go without notice, and if he grows too dissatisfied, he can put in his resignation, effective immediately. But at this moment García is talking about staying power. “I can tell you without doubt that the LAUSD board chose John Deasy to lead us in the next decade,” she says, laughing. “He doesn’t know he signed up for ten years.”
Toward the end of the school day, Deasy’s car scuds past warehouses, shipping yards, high-tension wires, and the convergence of two freeways near the Long Beach border. Amid the industrial squalor, Rancho Dominguez Preparatory School, another newly built campus, pops like a diadem, its blue glass atrium and ocher facade untouched by graffiti or wear. Bounding up a flight of stairs, Deasy opens the door of Michael Dempster’s seventh-grade world history class and navigates his way to the back of a room packed with 50 students.
Mr. Dempster has passed out photocopies of a map of North and South America and instructed the students to fill in as many place-names as they can. One boy stares at his blank sheet with knit brows, looks up, as if he might find an answer there, and sees the LAUSD superintendent. Deasy introduces himself and takes a seat next to him.
“So,” Deasy asks, spreading his hand over North America, “what’s the whole continent called?”
“Los Angeles, right?” says the boy, who is not an English-language learner.
“That’s the city,” Deasy explains, marking L.A. on the map with his pen.
“OK,” Mr. Dempster warns the class. “About 30 seconds.”
“If you think about it this way,” Deasy says, “California, the state we live in—what country is it a part of?” His fingers circle the United States.
“Mexico?” the boy asks.
“No,” Deasy says patiently, “we don’t live in Mexico. Do you know what country we live in?”
The peal of the teacher’s timer signals it’s time to put pencils down.
With a smile Deasy says good-bye to the boy. The school day has ended, but the superintendent has to run. A long afternoon and evening of debriefings and strategy sessions await.
There is no better monument to the immovable object that is the Los Angeles Unified School District than its downtown headquarters. In classic 1970s style, the 30-story tower is sheathed in acres of black glass. Pressed against the sooty perimeter of the 110 freeway, it squats along a two-lane street so narrow that the protesters who gather outside during board meetings have almost no room to march. For the past 20 months, on the 24th floor of that tower, Deasy has been running the school reform equivalent of NASA’s Apollo Program. He has set a goal that seems the present-day approximation of a moon shot: 100 percent college and workforce readiness for every graduating senior in the district, beginning with the class of 2016. To get there the superintendent has directed the rapid development of such data-driven systems as the Academic Growth over Time index and the Response to Instruction and Intervention framework, which track student achievement levels at all schools.
In certain ways what Deasy is doing is in line with the No Child Left Behind Act. Passed during the George W. Bush administration a decade ago, it seeks to identify failing schools, imposes timetables for improvement, and prescribes corrective action if those timetables aren’t met. At the end of his presidency, Bush declared No Child Left Behind a piece of civil rights legislation. Both Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, have proclaimed curing what ails public education the civil rights issue of our time, and billionaire philanthropists Eli Broad and Bill Gates, whom Deasy has worked with in recent years, have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to school reform based on that assumption.
During the speeches Deasy delivers—and they are many—he paints the image of a district mired in segregation, where destitute students of color are pushed into remedial classes instead of the rigorous courses that could lift them out of poverty. “All our youth deserve orange juice,” he likes to say to the audience, “not just orange drink.” He usually ends his address by quoting from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” beginning with the impatience of black people denied their equal rights in a nation that is “creeping at a horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at the lunch counter.” As his speech reaches a crescendo, he’ll say, “It isn’t so much the cup of coffee at a lunch counter anymore, but it is an AP course and it is a college counselor and it is college knowledge and it is algebra for real and it is equal reading classes at third grade—that is the cup of coffee waiting still empty for most of the kids in the LAUSD. And that is why I draw strength from the fact that we’re just not going to wait.”
The district’s challenges would overwhelm a leader attempting merely to keep it afloat, let alone one who has set out to be an emancipator. Almost 80 percent of LAUSD students live below the poverty line or slightly above it, and only 62 percent are likely to graduate. Close to 30 percent show up for class without command of the English language. Seventy-five percent of students are Latino, 10 percent are African American, and 4 percent are Asian. The less than 9 percent of the student body that is white disproportionately attends the district’s charter schools, which pull funds from the LAUSD but operate without its direct oversight or, for the most part, unionized teachers.
Over the past decade, the district has become a relative pauper. The State of California provides it with $5,800 per student, only $3,700 of that in cash. So money starved is Sacramento, it delivers the rest in IOUs. By comparison, New York City’s school system receives $18,618 a year in state and local funds for each student. Before 1978, property taxes for Californians rose along with the market value of their homes, providing stable or growing revenues for public education. That year Howard Jarvis—a real estate lobbyist and onetime candidate for U.S. Senate, mayor of Los Angeles, and the LAUSD board—won the passage of Proposition 13. The referendum limited tax increases for new or existing home owners to 1 percent a year, whether their property retained its value or quintupled in worth. Through the 1970s, California consistently ranked among the top ten states in pupil spending. By 2009, according to a survey by the National Education Association, it had fallen to 47th, behind Mississippi and Arkansas. In teacher-to-student ratio, it’s dead last. Deasy is pushing for total transformation at a time when the district’s finances are the worst they’ve ever been. He’s already cut back $390 million for the 2012-13 school year, and if Governor Jerry Brown’s tax increase initiative does not pass this November, he’ll lose another $255 million, bringing the budget to just above $6 billion—$800 million less than it was four years ago.
When Deasy accepted the job, he knew money was tight. So he did what a lot of politicians and charitable foundations do: He lined up wealthy supporters. In addition to Eli Broad, there’s Megan Chernin, wife of former News Corp. president Peter Chernin. And there’s Casey Wasserman, who runs a sports management agency as well as the family foundation established by his grandmother and grandfather, the late MCA/Universal chief Lew Wasserman. Together he and Broad have helped fund the six-figure salaries of Deasy’s executive team, something the district itself could ill afford. Last fall Wasserman invested $4 million in L.A. classrooms. For him the issue speaks to the long-term viability of the city. “You cannot have the dislocation of an entire generation of kids in Los Angeles,” he says, “and not have it have a profound economic effect over a long period of time.”
But among L.A. elites as a whole, a public education system in free fall hasn’t spurred the same spirit of generosity as, say, the construction of a concert hall or museum. When the superintendent and Chernin launched their charitable-giving program, the Los Angeles Fund for Education, last September, Deasy spoke of reaching a $200 million target by 2016. Chernin says that many of the prospective donors she’s contacted have little awareness of the district’s predicament. “You never ever have to see how seriously grave it is,” she says, “and the dire circumstances of some of these schools and the lack of resources the teachers have to teach.” As of this past summer, Chernin told me, only $10 million had been raised. “By definition we’re talking about the poorest kids in the most economically challenged communities,” Wasserman says of the LAUSD. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy on some level that it’s going to get the least amount of support in Beverly Hills or Brentwood because it’s an issue that really doesn’t directly affect them or their kids.”
Structurally the LAUSD seems the work of a madman, although its grotesque shape and inconsistency are more a result of historical accident than anyone’s design. The district is not contiguous with the City of Los Angeles but spreads amoeba-like into unincorporated areas and towns and cities—even fragments of towns and cities—in L.A. County. In charge of this beast are seven school board members, each elected to a four-year term to represent a geographic segment of the district. Their constituents rarely know anything about them; they’ve won their seats in large part because of support from United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s most powerful union, or from get-tough education advocates like Villaraigosa and Broad in elections with as little as 7 percent voter turnout.
In big-city school districts such as Chicago and Atlanta, the board is appointed and relegated to an advisory function, rubber-stamping policies set by the superintendent and the mayor. In the LAUSD school board members represent an area larger than a congressional district, oversee a multibillion-dollar budget, decide on programs that affect hundreds of thousands of students, and hire or fire the superintendent. Yet they are classified as part-timers and paid $24,000 a year, half of what an average teacher brings home. “Right now we have the worst of two systems rolled into one,” says board member Tamar Galatzan, who represents more than 100 schools from Van Nuys to Chatsworth while serving as a prosecutor with the L.A. city attorney’s office in Van Nuys. “I think we either decide to make being a school board member a full-time job, with an appropriate pay scale, or we make it an appointed job with a much more advisory role.”
In 2006, Villaraigosa persuaded the California legislature to pass a bill establishing a “Council of Mayors” to have a say in district budgetary matters as well as the hiring and firing of the superintendent. As the mayor of the city with the largest LAUSD population by far, he would dominate the panel. A state judge voided the law, saying that by giving Villaraigosa so much power, it violated both the state constitution and the L.A. city charter.
Even before Deasy began his job in the summer of 2010 as the LAUSD’s second in command, his appointment to the top spot by the board seemed preordained. Then-superintendent Ramon Cortines moved out of his spacious corner office to a smaller one so that his new deputy could occupy it. When Cortines announced his early retirement, Deasy was presented to the LAUSD board as the sole candidate, with strong lobbying from Villaraigosa and civic backers like Broad. Only board member Steve Zimmer, who represents an area stretching from Woodland Hills to Venice, abstained from the voting, not because he disapproved but because there had been no talent search—at least by elected officials. “We actually recommended him,” Broad says, speaking of his foundation. “We thought of all the people in America and thought that John would probably be the most effective.”
It’s accepted wisdom in many education policy circles that New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein transformed that city’s schools and that Arne Duncan did the same as Chicago’s school chief before becoming President Obama’s secretary of education. Los Angeles represented the last available opportunity to enact change on such a nationally significant scale. Nevertheless Deasy says there were “moments of very sobering reflection” before he accepted the job. “Given the district’s structure,” he says, “and history of moving slowly, and the state’s fiscal situation, which has only gotten worse—it’s a tough place to work.”
The school board’s instability was also a consideration. Because of the part-time pay and full-time commitment, some LAUSD board members decide they can’t serve more than a single term. Within a year or two a board majority that hires a superintendent can be replaced by one not so enamored with him. Last year Yolie Flores, one of Deasy’s strongest advocates, left and was succeeded by Bennett Kayser, who has emerged as the superintendent’s nemesis. The board’s balance could tip as early as next year, when Nury Martinez, one of Deasy’s most ardent backers on the board, is expected to run for the Los Angeles City Council.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Klein, who served eight years as chancellor under New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. “You don’t do big changes in two-and-a-half years. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a ridiculous, ridiculous thing because it’s all about politics, and it’s all about adults.” Klein, who is CEO of the education division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., considers Deasy a “bold innovator” and a friend but has spelled out to him that in his current position, velocity and decisiveness won’t be enough. “What I said to John when he took the L.A. job is, ‘I sure hope you can stay there for at least eight or ten years because that’s how long it’s going to take.’ ”
Every weekday at 3:15 a.m. Deasy steps off the tiny porch of his Westchester home for a morning jog. In the darkness the bungalows on his street blend into one another as he glides by. He chose the neighborhood because his wife, Patricia, travels a lot as a nursing executive and she wanted to be close to LAX. With two bedrooms and two bathrooms, the home is beyond modest for a big-city school superintendent making $330,000 a year. Deasy gets as far as Loyola Marymount University, then turns around to complete his three-mile loop. Around 4:30 a.m. his chauffeur picks him up for the drive to LAUSD headquarters. Typically he won’t return home until 10 or 11 at night.
Deasy was a sprinter on the Saint Raphael Academy track team in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and he can still tell you his best time in the 330-yard relay hurdles. At Providence College he studied biology and chemistry, subjects that satisfied his desire for certainty. “There’s a beauty and an elegance and a crispness to those subjects,” he says. “Causes of war can be debated. Four plus four is going to be eight no matter how you figure that out.” His mother was a kindergarten teacher; his father, a high school history instructor who later taught college. After graduation, Deasy landed a job teaching science at a military academy in Long Island, but he wasn’t about to restrict his influence to one classroom. By 28, he was principal at Lake George High School in upstate New York, where he introduced a program through which most high school seniors completed 9 to 12 college credits. Seven years later Deasy was appointed superintendent of the Coventry School District in Rhode Island. It wasn’t the largest district in the nation’s smallest state, but the gumption with which he implemented Rhode Island’s nascent school reform program won him national recognition. Under his aegis, Coventry received one of the first grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—for $3 million—and Deasy began spending the money by hiring a teaching coach for every school.
In 2001, after five years at Coventry, he left to lead Santa Monica-Malibu Unified. Deasy helped pass two parcel taxes to mitigate the damage caused by state education cuts and waged his first major civil rights battle as a superintendent. At the time, parents in Malibu were giving as much as $1,000 per pupil to support their local public school, while Santa Monica’s most disadvantaged campuses were receiving as little as $17. Deasy’s idea was to collect 15 percent of school contributions districtwide (or 15 percent of the market value of donated computers and other equipment) and redistribute the money largely to the district’s poorest schools. Deasy called his “equity fund” a “proposed solution to one of the most vexing issues we face: the inequitable distribution of resources available to the school community.” Over the shouts of irate parents—“It looks like a tax and smells like a tax,” said one Malibu mom—Deasy won the board’s approval by a narrow margin.
During the spring of 2004, while at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified, Deasy managed to earn his Ph.D. in education from the University of Louisville. One semester was all he needed to enroll, complete a research course for nine credits from out of state, and submit and defend his dissertation. Robert Felner was dean at the university’s College of Education and Human Development as well as Deasy’s adviser and the chairman of his dissertation committee. He granted his student a series of waivers. One enabled Deasy to apply 77 credits he’d taken at other schools—including 44 he’d earned studying under Felner back in Rhode Island—toward his degree. Felner had also been a beneficiary of Deasy’s: During the three previous years, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified had paid $375,000 to a research center headed by Felner to conduct surveys of parents, students, and teachers, on the superintendent’s recommendation.
Armed with his doctorate, Deasy accepted a job offer from Prince Georges County School District, Maryland’s second largest, in 2006, and for the first time in his career the majority of his students were nonwhite inner-city poor. Prince Georges was struggling—77 of its schools were on the state watch list, having fallen short of performance levels mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. Deasy sent platoons of support staffers to Prince Georges’s most challenged campuses, expanded advanced placement courses in all high schools, and launched a pilot program to award bonuses to high-performing teachers. In the summer of 2008, Maryland released its statewide school assessment exam results. Prince Georges students in grades three through eight attained their best scores since the testing program was implemented five years earlier. Students living in poverty, English-language learners, and those enrolled in special education programs showed more progress than the district average, improving their English and math scores by double digits in some grades. “I think we feel confident we’re on the right track, but we’re not cocky,” Deasy told a Washington Post reporter in late July. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.” Nevertheless that September he resigned from Prince Georges to become deputy education director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he would oversee the Microsoft founder’s $335 million investment in developing more effective ways to evaluate teachers and boost their performance.
Between the test score victories of summer and his resignation from Prince Georges in early fall, Deasy had been faced with questions about possible improprieties in his own education. The University of Louisville had initiated an investigation into Robert Felner’s financial misdoings as well as into the legitimacy of the doctorate Deasy had been awarded under his supervision. Felner would plead guilty and serve prison time for defrauding the university as well as another higher-learning institution of $2.3 million. But after the eight-month investigation, Deasy’s Ph.D. was upheld. When I ask Deasy about the controversy, he tersely focuses on outcomes. “I have a doctorate, given to me by the university,” he says, “and two additional ones since then—albeit doctors of humane letters, of course. I’m remarkably proud of my work.”
Late one December morning Deasy leads me into his corner office, its windows filled with expansive views of downtown. Behind his desk are framed portraits of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. As the superintendent sits at the head of his conference table—the Barack Obama of Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster glimpsing a better tomorrow over his shoulder—Deasy’s jubilation threatens to get the better of his empirical sense. A few weeks ago United Teachers Los Angeles president Warren Fletcher had agreed to his plan allowing potentially all teachers, principals, and parents the same freedoms to shape their students’ instructional path that only charter schools and a handful of district pilot schools had been permitted. “They were as nervous about making sure it goes well as we were,” Deasy says of his once and future union adversaries. “When you make huge leaps like this—a vast leap forward—you need a buildup of trust. We didn’t have any, so there was a giant blind trust on both sides. We both agreed that the past behavior of blame and shame and fighting was getting us nowhere, absolutely nowhere.”
To reach the pact, Deasy agreed to exclude charter school operators, which are mostly nonunion, from the competition to take over any schools until at least 2014. In exchange Fletcher waived union rules that force district schools to accept “must-place teachers”—instructors who may be returning to work after an illness or after being let go from another school due to unsatisfactory performance. Instead the local initiative campuses, as they are called, will be permitted to select staff based on merit alone. “In three to five years,” Deasy predicts, “people are going to look back and say, ‘Oh, what the hell happened? This is just stunning.’ That’s what I believe is going to be the outcome.”
To him, the agreement was all the more remarkable given the union’s antagonism toward the rest of his agenda. In a speech to the membership last year, Fletcher warned that “the purveyors of these phony reforms share two overriding beliefs—one, that teachers should have no voice and that teachers’ unions must be either subjugated or eliminated.” UTLA sued to block the voluntary small-scale deployment of Deasy’s Academic Growth over Time index, which factors in the feedback of parents and principals, along with test scores of students under a given instructor. The current evaluation system mandated by the UTLA contract excludes the use of such test data and yields exceedingly positive results. For the 2009-10 school year, 99.3 percent of all LAUSD teachers received the highest scores possible, and 79 percent were shown to need no improvement in any area of their work.
Months from now a California Superior Court judge will hand down a decision that the existing system violates the state’s 41-year-old Stull Act—specifically, a 1999 amendment requiring that test results be incorporated into teacher assessments. The judge’s ruling in Doe v. Deasy will be in response to a lawsuit launched on behalf of unnamed LAUSD parents by EdVoice, a Sacramento group bankrolled by Broad and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. Though named as a defendant in the case because he is LAUSD superintendent, Deasy readily testified against himself.
The way he describes it, LAUSD educators who want change as much as he does—including more meaningful evaluations—have been silenced by the dogmatic mentality of their union. “It’s politburo-like,” Deasy says of the UTLA leadership, “so therefore I think teachers get discouraged. At least they say that to me. ‘What’s the point of discussing this? We’re never going to see this as an option to talk about.’ And there’s a lot of fear. It’s not so grandiose a statement to say there’s inordinate pressure on the current leadership in these negotiations to not give anything away.”
In almost every regard Fletcher’s differences with Deasy seem irreconcilable. About the only area where the two men converge is in how they characterize each other. I meet with Fletcher at UTLA headquarters in Koreatown, where files litter the tables and chairs of his office. His thick eyebrows forming an isosceles triangle above steel-rimmed bifocals, he sums Deasy up. “You know, in the ’20s and ’30s in the Soviet Union, millions of people died of starvation,” he says, “and essentially what happened was, ‘This is how we will proceed. This is the Soviet vision of how we will proceed.’ People who had been agronomists since the days of the czar said, ‘But that’s not how wheat grows,’ and they were told, ‘This is the new era.’ I am very concerned that in the current environment in the LAUSD there’s a mind-set that’s very similar—a belief structure that’s hermetically sealed. Anyone who agrees, loves kids, and anyone who disagrees, doesn’t.”
Not much is going to get done in this climate in which each side is an existential threat to the other, so the superintendent has exerted control in those limited areas where he doesn’t need the union’s agreement. When Deasy arrived, about 98 percent of eligible teachers were granted tenure. Now the approval rate is less than 50 percent. “As far as I could imagine what used to happen,” Deasy says, “you got tenure because you weren’t fired. It was automatic. You just breathed another year, and you got it.” Today principals must approve a tenure decision in writing; that way, if the teacher turns out to be undeserving, there’ll be a paper trail.
Of course, since 99 percent of the district’s teachers already have tenure, it will take years for his strictures to have much of an impact. And although Deasy has unilateral control in hiring, he lacks money to tap into the surplus of recent college graduates who remain unemployed. “We have the hottest job pool that you could imagine,” he says, “and we’re laying people off rather than dipping into it.”
Five months into the school year, and despite the setbacks posed by UTLA opposition and the state’s ongoing budget crisis, Deasy has eked out some additional reforms. Even before statistics from the U.S. Department of Education revealed that African American students in the LAUSD were suspended more than those in other districts, Deasy ordered principals to try to refrain from sending kids home simply for being defiant, one of the main reasons for dismissal. The rate will be cut in half before the school year is over. He’s also set to announce a new policy that limits the amount of homework teachers can assign, a move intended to placate parents who complained that the amount had become excessive and counterproductive.
However, during much of the spring semester, the superintendent’s working hours will be claimed by a scandal that begins with revelations about the alleged sexual crimes committed by Mark Berndt, a former third-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary in South L.A. Soon after, at least ten other LAUSD teachers and aides will be arrested on lewd conduct charges, and the scouring of district files will uncover hundreds of additional misconduct allegations. Back in October 2010, a CVS photo technician alerted Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies to dozens of images Berndt was said to have taken documenting the molestation of young students, who are shown blindfolded, allegedly being fed the teacher’s semen on a blue plastic spoon or spread on cookies, or with a giant Madagascar cockroach crawling across their faces. A blue plastic spoon found in Berndt’s classroom tested positive for his DNA. Although Berndt had been removed from Miramonte more than a year before, district officials had informed parents only days ago. The reason for the delay, Deasy will explain to me, was to avoid compromising the sheriff’s department’s long investigation.
As Deasy braces himself for what may be the most crowded press conference of his career, his face looks gaunt. “I’m a dad and a teacher,” he begins on this evening in early February, “and I can’t imagine anything more horrible than the trust that was violated of our students. I try to think about what I’d say to my own child, and you struggle for words.” In a somber voice he announces a decree—soon to be criticized by some parents and by UTLA for being too severe—to relocate Miramonte’s staff to a high school that’s still under construction. “We are talking in this case the entirety of the staff, and that would be custodian to secretary to teacher to administrator,” he adds. The idea is to give stressed teachers time to come to terms with the events and to avoid having sheriff’s deputies question faculty in the presence of students. Besides, he says, “I can’t have any more surprises at Miramonte.”
Amid the roomful of journalists, many of them angry at being barred from an earlier parents’ meeting, one reporter asks whether Deasy intends to seek the dismissal of another Miramonte teacher who had been arrested after Berndt for alleged child molestation. The superintendent refers her to the district’s legal counsel and tries to move on, but the reporter persists. On her third attempt to extract an answer, Deasy loses it. “I have enough struggle in my life,” he tells her. “I’m not going to argue with you. I’m just not going to.”
Days later Deasy is still trying to get his head around what he calls Miramonte’s “culture of silence.” In the early 1990s, two girls reported to a guidance counselor that they had seen Berndt as he appeared to be masturbating behind his desk. The counselor told them to stop making up stories. Given the scope of Berndt’s alleged crimes, there should have been recent signs as well. “Because the school was so large and so troubled, there were more adults on the campus,” Deasy tells me, shaking his head. “Dozens and dozens and dozens of aides, classroom assistants. Its teacher-pupil ratio was one of the lowest in all of the LAUSD. It makes it all the more hard for me to understand what was taking place there for years.”
Ramon Cortines had tried firing Berndt in February 2011, the month after the sheriff’s department presented the school district with the photos. Under state law, however, any tenured public school teacher can appeal his or her dismissal before a panel composed of an administrative law judge, a representative from the district, and an advocate selected by the teacher. Filing Berndt’s demand for a hearing, his attorney argued that he was “fit to teach” and that the charges against him “fail to state any facts and are inconclusive in nature.” In exchange for Berndt’s voluntary resignation, the district agreed to cover attorney’s fees and compensate him for lost earnings since his suspension. He would also get to collect his pension.
“I want to be very careful to check my emotion around this issue,” Deasy says. “Do I share people’s frustration? It’s more than beyond frustration. But I’ve taken that anger and moved it toward legislation.”
Weeks from now, with Deasy’s support, state senator Alex Padilla will introduce a bill empowering California public school boards to unilaterally fire educators accused of sexual abuse, violence, or drug use with students, following an advisory recommendation from an administrative law judge. The bill will pass the state senate, but in late June the Assembly Education Committee will let it die. Fletcher, opposed to the bill from the outset, will argue that the district had another option to remove Berndt—namely, by referring his case to the state teacher credentialing commission, which could void his California teaching certification. To the union leader, Padilla’s bill is exploiting a tragedy. “Miramonte has taught us that when education politicians start playing to the cameras,” Fletcher will write in a letter to his members, “actually finding the truth and actually protecting and nurturing children take a backseat to political expedience.”
Throughout the school year Deasy rarely allots himself more than four hours of sleep, but by spring the schedule and the sex scandals and the financial setbacks are clearly wearing on him. His blue eyes have lost their luster, and the sandy crew cut that so powerfully evoked the confident project manager of Apollo moon landings now seems the badge of a beleaguered ’50s accountant forced to pore over books that can never be balanced. It’s a fair argument that that’s what Deasy’s job has come to.
He asks the board in March to consider cutting the LAUSD’s entire elementary school arts program, its adult school program, its academic decathlon, and as many as 1,800 teachers, administrators, and support staff. The decathlon and the arts programs will be saved, but the adult school will be decimated, and 1,550 K-12 teachers will be laid off. The $390 million budget deficit Deasy is wrestling with for the 2012-13 school year is an improvement over the previous month’s projection. Before he learned about a windfall from state lottery earnings, the deficit had been pegged at $557 million. Deasy pressures UTLA to accept furloughs to close the gap, prompting another court battle.
In the predawn hours of a Tuesday morning—a board meeting marked by drastic proposed cuts and shouted invective ahead of him—Deasy is castigating the media. He’s irritated about the fuss recently made over the journey of a 340-ton boulder from a pit in Riverside to its new home at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will be the centerpiece of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass. “This whole week we’ve watched you all cover on the news this fascination of this rock being moved from the quarry to the museum,” he says to a KTLA reporter. “I mean, I like art, too, but I like art teachers better, and a fraction of the money in moving that rock could have saved elementary art for many, many years.” It couldn’t, of course. The total cost of moving the boulder, setting it up, and paying Heizer was about $10 million, while the district’s art budget for 2012-13 is about $18.6 million. But Deasy can hardly cloak his disgust at the largesse demonstrated by wealthy Angelenos for the artwork, largesse that has been in short supply for the LAUSD.
Not even the half-day Sunday he cordons off from work each week is exactly pressure free, as the LAUSD’s amoeboid tentacles reach into the backyard of his Westchester bungalow. That’s where I find Deasy one late afternoon in a V-neck T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, standing beside his gas grill, seasoning some eggplant medallions. Liz and Emily, his daughters, have stopped by with their significant others, and Deasy’s son, Patrick, who recently graduated from college and lives at home, is riffling through a magazine. As the superintendent presses down the spatula, the jagged ends of tattoos on both biceps peek out from his shirtsleeves. When I ask what they are, the best he’ll give me is a glimpse of a Chinese character on his left pectoral as he pulls his collar aside. Later he’ll tell me, with some reluctance, that it’s the symbol for courage.
Shoehorned at the head of a table that consumes almost the entire dining room, Deasy can’t help picking up his iPhone when it alerts him to yet another e-mail in a carpet bombing campaign by a charter school operator itching to expand, but, he tells me, “it ain’t gonna happen.” Tomorrow he’ll be making a joint TV appearance with Warren Fletcher. That, he says with a smile, “will be a laugh riot.” Over forkfuls of grilled chicken and vegetables, he tries to lose himself in the details of his kids’ lives. Liz talks about her job directing a camp in Glendale. Patrick talks about his gig tutoring math. “It’s really hard sometimes,” Patrick says, “to get a kid motivated.” Deasy laughs. “Try figuring out how to do that,” he says, “when you’ve got 660,000 kids.”
By 8:30 p.m. the meal is done. Deasy jumps up from his seat, rinses the dishes, loads the dishwasher, pulls out the two leaves from the table, collapses the table into its smallest configuration, positions two satin runners across its surface, and centers two decorative lamps atop them. Then he excuses himself. He needs to get back to work.
When Ramon Cortines retired and Deasy stepped in, Casey Wasserman realized that the LAUSD board had chosen a leader who wasn’t much interested in the art of the possible. “Obviously Ray had been through a lot of wars,” says Wasserman, who has been closely involved with both superintendents. “He was working in a world where he could assess what could get done and couldn’t get done and would focus on the things he could get done, trying to do those well. I think Deasy takes the opposite approach, which is, ‘I’m not going to worry about whether people don’t think I can get them done. I know what I need to get done to fix the problem, and I’m going to go after it all.’ ”
Despite his scientific faith in statistics, number crunching, and data-driven reform models, much of what Deasy has attempted reveals the soul of a gambler who is convinced that his own instincts and beliefs will trump odds that are clearly not in his favor. Board member Steve Zimmer has been struck—even spiritually moved—by the superintendent’s sense of moral obligation and certitude. “John has as firm a sense of ‘Caucasian-ness,’ of white privilege, and how it affects children and poverty, as anyone I’ve ever witnessed in my 20 years of doing this,” he says. “I believe that forms a sense of righteous conviction that is undeniable—whether you agree with his tactics to bridge the achievement gap.” A growing segment of the board, however, has begun to reject Deasy’s tactics, along with what it regards as his monopolistic claim on virtue.
In May Deasy places his biggest bet: making college readiness the price of a high school diploma. To be considered for admission to the University of California or the California State University systems, high school students must pass a series of preparatory courses known as the A-through-G curriculum. In 2005, the district voted to adopt A-through-G for its students by 2012 but laid no groundwork to implement it. What Deasy is recommending now is the reaffirmation of A-through-G, except with real consequences. Four years from now only students who complete those courses with at least a C average can graduate. Kids who fall short will have to retake A-through-G courses until they pass.
The most influential critic of this notion of increasing student achievement through categorical demands is Diane Ravitch. A professor of education history at New York University, Ravitch is a former U.S. assistant secretary of education and author of the best-selling The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which she attacks many of the get-tough educational reforms of the past decade—charter schools, standardized testing, the No Child Left Behind Act—with the heat of an apostate. When I ask her about Deasy’s impatience for change and his tight timetable for making every student college ready, a stern tone creeps into her voice. “We will judge him by his record in three or four years,” she says, “but I think patience is a virtue. It’s one thing to say that people who are black should have their rights as citizens immediately. But we’re talking about children, and children don’t change from being non-English speaking to English speaking overnight, and they don’t go from being nonreaders to proficient readers overnight. Anyone who thinks that believes in magic.”
At an LAUSD board meeting, before an audience heavy on UTLA activists, the superintendent advances his proposal. It’s in these settings, when Deasy is taking on the most intractable issues of our day and appealing for what he calls simple justice, that his gift for oratory shines, but as he once again invokes Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as justification for adopting his proposal right away, his opponents groan. An African American union activist seated behind me whispers, “How dare he!” One more time Deasy insists that poor and minority students being served the educational equivalent of orange drink finally receive their orange juice. To those who argue that he’s setting the bar too high, Deasy says, “Nothing I’ve ever seen in any school—in the LAUSD or elsewhere—leads me to believe that any youth in LAUSD is screaming to have a lower bar.” And to those who argue that the district lacks money, he says, “This isn’t a budgetary issue. It’s a ‘will’ issue. It’s an issue of belief in students.”
During the hours of debate at the school board session, Bennett Kayser, the board member representing northeast and southeast L.A., homes in on Deasy’s penchant for inspirational language. “You know, I appreciated your quote before about orange drink and orange juice,” says Kayser. “I just want to make sure that I have the choice of V8.” As the activists chuckle, Deasy shakes his head. “My comments were made in the frame of youth human rights,” he says. “Not humorous.”
The board passes Deasy’s policy by the slimmest of margins. The 4-to-3 victory underscores how the body has changed since hiring him without a single no vote 20 months ago. After next March’s elections, the balance could turn against him. But, says Deasy, “the biggest political unknown is not the board seats. It’s that building over there.” He nods out his window in the direction of City Hall, which Villaraigosa, L.A.’s self-styled “education mayor” and Deasy’s strongest political supporter, will be vacating. “That’s up for transition in March as well, and that’s huge.” None of the leading candidates to replace Villaraigosa have offered specifics on what they would do to reform L.A.’s public schools. “So far,” Deasy will say, “I can’t get an educational platform from anybody.”
It’s early June—graduation time—and John Deasy is nearing the end of his first school year with the LAUSD. What began as a sprint has turned into a grinding marathon. Sitting in his office, I remind Deasy of Mónica García’s comment on the first day of classes, that she was anticipating his remaining at the helm for ten years. “I’d like to be here ten more days,” he says, laughing. “I think I have said very publicly that I think the work I’m hoping to lead is an eight-year piece of work. That’s very consistent and hasn’t changed, but thinking seven years out is becoming more a stretch of the imagination. It’s not a stretch of the will.”
Even if city hall and the board continue to back him, Deasy will be pressing forward with his compulsory college-readiness curriculum in circumstances beyond adverse. The LAUSD’s guidance counselor-to-student ratio is 850 to 1. Though the dropout rate is almost 40 percent, only 14 campuses offered the most recent remedial summer high school program. Students will have 10 less days of learning in the coming academic year than they did in 2011-12, and 18 fewer than they would have had four years ago. They are being packed into ever larger classes—not for lack of space but because of teacher layoffs. The district has no funds to maintain the personnel levels of this past year, let alone invest heavily in the kind of high-level support services that already struggling students will need in order to pass the A-through-G courses. “You can’t do it on the cheap,” Ravitch tells me. “You can’t say ‘I believe in children but I’m not going to pay to educate them, and if they can’t clear a four-foot bar, I’m going to raise it to six feet and see how they do.’ If all you can give them is rhetoric, that’s not giving them much at all.”
“Should we just not do it?” Deasy says, answering his critics. “I can’t be there. I can’t be on the side of the argument that we can only do it when we have the money to do it, because then we’d have to say ‘OK, you guys are losers—you’re going to lose in this deal—and you guys are winners.’ ”
I tell Deasy about a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with Michael Dempster, the teacher of the seventh-grade world history class at Rancho Dominguez Prep we visited on the first day of school. Fifty percent of his pupils flunked the course. He would have required some of them to take it over again or even tried to hold some of them back. But that would have gone against the district’s policy, which advances all middle school students to the next grade no matter how many classes they fail. The LAUSD simply can’t afford to have them repeat an academic year. Given this reality, how is the student whose best guess was that California is in Mexico going to be able to pass the algebra courses of the A-through-G program and earn his diploma? “Well, first of all,” Deasy says, “I’m not sure knowing where Mexico is and being able to do algebra are at all linked. I would argue they’re not. I don’t think that’s a precursor to whether you can actually do linear equations.”
There’s a pause. “Yes,” Deasy concedes, “a dispassionate person who only wants to take a look at the pluses and minuses would say that things are overwhelmingly stacked against laudable goals. This equation doesn’t balance. But it’s not mercury and lead we’re working with here. It’s human beings.”
That evening at Dorsey High School in South L.A., Deasy removes his sport coat and pulls on his doctoral robe with blue velvet stripes across the chest, which he’s wearing for the commencement of the class of 2012. As usual, he shuns the doctoral cap because it’s floppier than a mortarboard. “It looks like a bit of a Mafia thing,” he says. When Deasy enters the gates of Jackie Robinson Stadium, the R&B song blaring from faraway speakers segues to Edward Elgar’s graduation march. The superintendent holds himself back to keep time with the procession as he advances along the stadium’s regulation running track.
He addresses the graduates from a plywood dais. “Good evening,” he begins. “Buenas noches, estudiantes, gradoados familias y amigos, de l’escuela preparatoria Dorsey dos mil doce. We look forward to your leadership in this city and in this state and in this country.” As he builds, his voice grows as hearty as a New England pastor’s. “You’re going to take a number of great things from Dorsey,” he says. “Obviously a good education, respect, but the most important thing you’ll take away is the quality of integrity. It will always set you apart; it will be the quality that will mark the rest of your lives.”
Fewer than 44 percent of freshmen who enrolled at Dorsey four years ago have arrived here in emerald cap and gown. There’s a common theme among the speeches being delivered by student government leaders and the 4.3 GPA overachievers: thanks to God for getting them through poverty and the deaths of friends and family members, and proving wrong the naysayers who told them they would never make it to this moment, that the odds were just too remote, and they just weren’t good enough to beat them.
By the time the last diplomas are handed out, the superintendent is beaming, the balls of his feet nearly lifting him from the ground, his hands grasping and pumping with defibrillating gusto. It’s pushing 8:30 p.m., and he has another graduation ceremony to attend tonight. Unrestrained by pomp and circumstance now, he’s burning up the track. “Isn’t this nice?” he says to me, his eyes bright with emotion. “This is why we do it.” Hurtling toward the parking lot, Deasy sees a small opening in the crowd and darts through it. His agile figure pulls away until, swallowed by a pulsating crush of emerald polyester, screaming air horns, and bobbing Mylar balloons, it disappears entirely.
Ed Leibowitz is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles. His last piece for the magazine, a profile of radio hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, appeared in the May issue.
This feature was originally published in the September 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine