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Deasy blames LA school district politics for blocking 'reforms'

File: Former L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy talks to reporters at South Region High School #2 in Los Angeles in February 2012.
File: Former L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy talks to reporters at South Region High School #2 in Los Angeles in February 2012.
Krista Kennell/AFP/Getty Images

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The day after John Deasy announced he was stepping down as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, he declared politics thwarted "student-centered" education reforms nationwide. 

"It does concern me," Deasy told NPR's Morning Edition Friday. "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."

Deasy's supporters have long painted the Los Angeles Unified's divided board as dysfunctional.

The board is ideologically split: on one side, members are elected with the help of the teachers union, which pushes for lower class sizes and decries the emphasis on testing. On the other are those backed by self-described education reformers, who advocate test-score-based accountability, charter school expansion and changes to teacher tenure. 

But board member Steve Zimmer said he sees it less as an ideologically divided board, and more as ideologically diverse.

"When we have our hearts and minds open to all voices, we create better policy," Zimmer said. "The problem has been the idea that it has to be one group of voices over another.”

The education community is split on whether the board or Deasy himself is to blame for the resignation. 

“Everyone has known the relationship between the superintendent and members of the school board has been deteriorating in the last three to six months," said Shane Martin, education professor at Loyola Marymount University. 

Board members supported Deasy's iPad program, but they later probed the purchase and rollout and recommended a slower expansion. Members are now criticizing the launch of a new student data system that failed to schedule student classes, record attendance and track students with special needs.

UCLA education professor John Rogers said the debate over whether politics are to blame is, in itself, political.

“Powerful actors always try to shape how the story is told," Rogers said. "Whether those powerful actors are superintendents, labor leaders or members of strong community groups, that’s their role."

The board's decision may have less to do with the political climate, or even Deasy's actions, and more to do with an economic shift underway, according to Rogers.

Deasy came aboard in 2011, when the California schools were reeling from budget cuts. 

"We are at a different time now when the problem isn't getting rid of teachers, the problem is trying to incorporate new teachers and then try to improve the overall quality of teaching across the teaching force," Rogers said. "The paradigm, in effect, needs to change."