Los Angeles’ new school superintendent, John Deasy, says one of his top goals is to persuade middle-class families, including Jewish parents, to return to the Los Angeles public schools. “It’s one of the major projects I have to deliver,” he said.
I interviewed Deasy last week in his office on the 24th floor of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) headquarters, just west of downtown Los Angeles.
Deasy has been superintendent since January. Before taking the LAUSD job, he was deputy director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major supporter of charter schools. Charters are publicly funded but are run with considerable independence; they also often receive substantial private funds and operate outside of union contracts. Deasy also has served as superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and the Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland.
It was our first meeting. He — or a member of his staff — had checked me out, and he had read my articles on education. Most important for readers of The Jewish Journal, he was on top of the middle-class issue.
He told me he’s been talking with parents about getting private-school students to enroll in public schools, including those on the Westside and in the West Valley, home to many Jewish families. “People are saying they want to come back, but come back with confidence,” he said. “And that’s my obligation. And I think some are coming back because of the huge economic pressures, which are not going to get better soon. And so, while they may be forced back economically, we want them to feel welcomed and comfortable that the decision … can actually better the lives of their sons and daughters.”
Deasy said school board member Steve Zimmer, who represents much of the Westside, sparked the back-to-public schools effort. He said Zimmer was supported in this by Tamar Galatzan, who represents the West Valley. Both are Jewish.
“I have a whole team on this,” Deasy said. “And we’re going to spend some money to incubate programs that are highly attractive for parents to come back to. At the same time, I am … improving the district, so, as students come through these programs, they will continue to matriculate to better and better public schools.”
He said the program would be presented to the Board of Education in autumn.
Elevating the back-to-the-public-school campaign to a top district priority would be a change. It’s been going on for a few years on some campuses, but has depended on the interest of principals and parent groups. Operating with the intensity of a political campaign in some areas, it has worked. “This is about organizing — listening, communicating … [going] to churches, synagogues, neighborhood councils, door to door,” Zimmer told me when I interviewed him a while back.
Parents dealing with LAUSD face a bewildering number of choices, including traditional public schools, magnets, charters and pilot schools, the last of which offer a blend of charter and traditional approaches.
“I would acknowledge that now we make choice difficult for parents,” Deasy said. “We want to make it much easier. … Parents shouldn’t have to figure out the system. We are developing a portal [on the LAUSD Web site], which lays all this out. We want parents not to search but to be fed information. And, of course, [the site will be] in all of our six predominant languages, so that what you are left with is to make a choice, not to wonder how to find something. It is one-stop shopping, how to register, how to transfer, how to learn about choices, how to understand college applications, how to fill out a financial-aid form, immunization rules, counseling and support, after-school options. Up to this point, it has been hit or miss, or, worse, fractured information.”
A major obstacle facing Deasy is the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. The union is opposed to charters, test-oriented teacher evaluations and any easing of seniority rules that would make it easier to fire teachers. All these steps are favored by LAUSD’s critics, who consider them reforms. Deasy’s time as an executive of the charter-supporting Gates foundation makes the union suspicious of him.
The union has a new president, Warren Fletcher, who succeeded the combative A.J. Duffy. Deasy said he and Fletcher “are working on building a strong relationship together. We both have enormous responsibilities on our shoulders, and we both don’t want to make mistakes in our first year. I have met him a number of times now,” Deasy added. “He wants to do the right thing by his membership and students, and so do I. … How we disagree will be the hallmark of our relationship, that it will be a respectful and productive disagreement when it occurs, and a very respectful and productive collaboration when it occurs.”
If that miracle happens, it will change the theatrics of the Los Angeles public-school debate. With the shouting toned down, perhaps the two sides can then get down to substance, and the district can be made into something attractive to all Los Angeles, to become, as Deasy said, “Best in the West; No. 1 in the nation.”