California Forum

Viewpoints: We must stop pushing out student-focused district leaders like Deasy and Raymond

For supporters of pro-student education policy in California, recent events provided another lesson in the deeply dysfunctional politics of education in our state.

John Deasy, the reform-minded superintendent of Los Angeles schools, was forced to the brink of resignation before the city’s civic leaders and student advocates rallied behind him and the school board voted to keep him in his job. Jonathan Raymond, the student-focused leader in charge of Sacramento’s public schools, was not so fortunate. After facing four years of constant opposition from the local teachers union and its political enablers, Raymond announced he will resign in December.

California’s dysfunctional politics are no longer just hurting our kids by trapping the most vulnerable in an arcane and stagnant system – the political standoff is forcing out student-focused leaders and stymieing hope for future progress as well.

As superintendents, Deasy and Raymond have worked incredibly hard to improve public schools in their districts, especially the schools that serve minority and low-income kids. They have refused to accept the popular premise that poor kids can’t learn and that pushing for systemic change is pointless because poverty is insurmountable. Instead, they have worked to introduce innovative reforms and pilot new approaches to boosting student learning. “Business as usual” is simply not in their vocabularies.

In both districts, the results have been impressive. Under Deasy’s leadership, the dropout rates in Los Angeles schools have decreased while test scores have increased. More L.A. school kids are ready for college and applying to college. The district’s administration has supported transformative initiatives like the parent trigger process, introduced a groundbreaking new teacher evaluation system and implemented a nationally recognized breakfast-in-the-classroom program.

In Sacramento, Raymond has made real headway lowering the achievement gap between non-minority and minority students. He has made the district’s lowest performing schools a top priority and secured for them more stable funding and staffing. Thanks to his efforts, school suspensions and dropout rates have declined dramatically. More kids are going to school, staying in school and learning more.

Deasy and Raymond have pushed for greater accountability in their schools – and not just for teachers in traditional public schools but for principals and charter management organizations as well. Both superintendents firmly believe that those who help students learn should be valued and empowered, and those who hurt students or infringe on their rightful opportunity to succeed in school should be removed from the system.

Yet, for their own successes, Deasy and Raymond have been rewarded with increasingly noxious political environments. In Los Angeles, the newly elected school board members have taken to second-guessing and micro-managing their superintendent, forcing him to fight tooth and nail for even routine items. Despite the clear and steady progress Deasy has made for students, L.A.’s powerful teachers union last year staged a nasty viral campaign against him and declared a 91 percent vote of “no confidence” in his leadership among its membership. In Sacramento, Raymond faced a teachers union so openly hostile and a school board so resolutely obstructionist that he has decided to take his talents elsewhere.

The moral of this story is clear. The politics of education in California are broken. Pro-student leaders – despite their obvious commitment to students and despite their demonstrated successes – will face implacable opposition from groups who care more about protecting their entrenched power and the interests of adults than fighting for the rights of students.

For this reason, the organization that I founded, Students Matter, has chosen a different route to reform via impact litigation in the courts.

On behalf of nine California public school students, we are sponsoring Vergara v. California. This lawsuit seeks to strike down the state’s obsolete and unconstitutional teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws. These laws have created an employment system that guarantees a lifetime job for bad teachers, especially if they end up in underserved Latino and African American communities.

We have chosen the courts because these kids deserve to have their voices heard. They deserve to stand as equals with the adults who are actively defending a failing system.

In court, it will be facts and legal arguments that will carry the day. Students Matter’s attorneys – among them, former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson – have built a case that will win.

A win will not just be a victory for the nine plaintiffs and their families. A win will also be a victory for forward-thinking, student-focused leaders like superintendents Deasy and Raymond because a win will bring a better dialogue around education in California.