© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

LA Schools Superintendent To Leave After iPad Controversy


Next we have the first interview with the man forced out of leadership of the Los Angeles schools. John Deasy was superintendent of the LA Unified School District for three and a half years.


He built a national reputation as he pushed to change a district with 650,000 students. Then this week, Deasy agreed to resign, ending a battle with teachers unions and the school board.

INSKEEP: We're going to talk about it with him now. He's on the line. Welcome to the program, sir.

JOHN DEASY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: First, I have to ask if you were forced out.

DEASY: We reached a mutual agreement to part ways so that the work could continue and the board could find leadership that it could best work with.

INSKEEP: Which sounds like someone concluded that you could no longer be effective in the job.

DEASY: Well, I think that it is the best way to continue the work in LA.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that work, though, because you could make a case for yourself. Student test scores were going up, graduation rates improved, but you faced a lot of criticism nevertheless. What happened?

DEASY: It was a historic period of time unlike any other in the work of LAUSD, where achievement rates were the highest that they had ever been, graduation rates moved from the upper 50s to 77 percent, a historic high. Every indicator actually had never been better, including probably the one I am most proud and that is we really began ending the criminalization of students. So we took suspensions from about 48,000 a year to just less than 8,000 a year.

I think the way I look at this is I certainly am responsible and consequential for my style of leadership and my agenda, which was students' rights first. And that definitely made some adults uncomfortable. When you advance an agenda where - that the primary reason for the work is to advance students' rights, you do come across other agendas. And some of those were, what about adult and political agendas? And that did clash. And I certainly received criticism over that. But at the end of the day, Steve, students are vastly better off in LA than when we started.

INSKEEP: Well, it's interesting because the Los Angeles Times, in an editorial about your resignation, gives you credit for a take-charge attitude, unflagging energy, but they also say, in a different way, really the flipside of what you just said in praise of your time there. They say that you failed to give teachers a voice or the respect they were due. When you talk about standing up for students, is that part of that?

DEASY: I probably don't agree with that statement. They have made other criticisms which I do agree with. You know, I certainly could have developed a style and adjusted my style to have worked with my bosses better. I absolutely acknowledge that. I mean, the board at the end really did support a lot of my work, although I think my pace and the way I went about it is very open to critique. But respecting teachers, I actually don't agree with that whatsoever. I mean, I think teachers from day one have been at the heart of why we saw the improvements.

INSKEEP: You know, as I'm talking to you, I'm thinking about a story in Washington, D.C., where there was a troubled school district where there was a leader, Michelle Rhee, in charge of that school district, who gained a national reputation for a time for pushing for very, very rapid reform, very dramatic reform. And she was also forced out after a few years. Is there a time limit when you move into a big-city school district and try to make big changes?

DEASY: I think there is. I think that's a worrisome trend in America. I mean, I think we're watching that happen. It does concern me. I think there's always the delicate balance of how slow you're willing to go, and then you have to square that with looking youth in the eye and say, well, it's not your turn this year. And that's difficult to do.

INSKEEP: One other thing I want to ask about.


INSKEEP: Possibly your signature move, at least on the national stage, was an effort to put an iPad in every classroom. It's something you've talked about on this program in the past that ran into trouble in recent months because of the way the contract was led. You were criticized for your communications with the contractors. The contract had to be suspended, and there was not yet an iPad in every classroom. It was in a pilot stage. Now that you're gone, is that program dead?

DEASY: I don't believe so, and I certainly hope not. I just actually returned from a recent learning trip to Korea. And if it's dead, we're doomed. You walk around any Korean school, you would realize - and that's just what one country - we have a long way to go in a very short time if we're going to be competitive internationally, let alone nationally.

INSKEEP: And I suppose we should clarify. I said an iPad in every classroom; it was an iPad for every student.

DEASY: And every teacher, that is correct. I think criticism is baseless, and it was politically motivated in terms of trying to slow this down. And to be quite frank with you, Steve, this is yet another emblematic issue. When you direct resources solely to students, that means those resources are not available to go to adults. And I believe that that was part of the issue that took place in this case.

INSKEEP: Well, John Deasy, thanks very much.

DEASY: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: John Deasy left his job this week as head of the LA Unified School District. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.