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The Two Faces of L.A.'s School Superintendent

Court testimony shows the LAUSD schools chief siding with those who are suing the district. Could the push for privatization be the reason why?

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Last week’s testimony in the Vergara v. California trial raised many an eyebrow when Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John E. Deasy testified on behalf of plaintiffs in a lawsuit whose defendants had originally included LAUSD.

Despite its supporters’ protests to the contrary, Vergara is widely seen as a frontal attack against statutory guarantees of due process and seniority rights for state teachers. The suit is the brainchild of Students Matter, a Bay Area nonprofit created by wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch and partly financed by L.A. billionaire Eli Broad.

Under friendly direct examination by plaintiff attorney Marcellus McRae, the superintendent offered testimony that supported the suit’s contentions that the way in which teachers are fired, laid off and granted tenure has an adverse impact on the overall quality of the teacher workforce and illegally discriminates against low-income and minority students.

At one point Deasy’s apparent eagerness to anticipate McRae drew an instruction from Judge Rolf M. Treu for the superintendent to wait for the question before supplying the answer.

Deasy readily agreed that due process laws complicated dismissals of “grossly ineffective teachers” and damaged the morale of the profession. “Morale is absolutely affected,” Deasy insisted, before attacking the state’s teacher seniority policies.

He also denied any connection between student performance and poverty. “I believe the statistics correlate,” he said, “but I don’t believe in causality.”

Deasy’s performance as a friendly witness should not have come as a complete surprise, however. The day after the suit was originally filed against the state and the L.A. school district in 2012, then-defendant Deasy took the unusual step of issuing a press release endorsing the lawsuit’s aims. (Deasy, through a spokesperson, declined to comment for this article.)

For the city’s public school teachers and longtime education policy observers, the spectacle of the L.A. school chief siding with a lawsuit against the very system he is paid to uphold has become a familiar feature of Deasy’s fractious, two-and-half year tenure.

Vergara is merely the latest in a series of major lawsuits that include Reed v. California and Doe v. Deasy , and that have been described as a “ new front” in the efforts by education-privatization forces to sidestep the state legislature and pry open L.A. and California public schools to market-based restructuring.

Together, these suits have succeeded in putting LAUSD, its teachers union and the state education code in front of a legal and political blowtorch, with Deasy himself often providing the fuel.

It is a dynamic that many find disturbing.

“We’re substituting the knowledge of professional educators [with] the chance knowledge of professional lawyers,” asserts former school board member David Tokofsky. “It makes no sense to solve complex educational challenges by going [to even] really good lawyers for really difficult educational issues.”

The suits began with Reed v. California , filed in February, 2010 and which, like Vergara, took aim at the state’s policy of laying off teachers with the least seniority. A key difference is that Reed confined its scope to three inner-city middle schools that the district had inexplicably packed with young, low-seniority teachers who faced dismissal during the last recession.

Not only was Deasy a key witness for plaintiffs and the district in Reed, the then-newly installed deputy superintendent’s fingerprints could also be found on the suit’s most controversial aspect.

After an injunction was eventually issued exempting the three middle schools from seniority layoff rules, the sides were ordered to the settlement table. When that settlement was announced, however, nobody was more surprised than United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the city’s teachers union, to learn that the original exemption from seniority rules had somehow grown to include 45 schools.