In a groundbreaking trial over teacher job protections, Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy was the early star witness — for both sides.
The case, Vergara vs. California, challenges a set of laws that affect how teachers are fired, laid off and granted tenure. Advocates contend that these regulations hinder the removal of ineffective teachers, diminishing the quality of the teacher workforce — an effect, they say, that disproportionately hurts low-income and minority students. This outcome make these laws unconstitutional, they contend.
Deasy spent three days on the witness stand last week helping to make this argument. He testified that he is simply unable to remove all "grossly ineffective" teachers and that taking action against them has proved prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.
"Dr. Deasy doesn't engage in speculation," said plaintiffs' attorney Marcellus McRae, who called Deasy as the first witness. "He has his hands on the steering wheel. And he's telling people life as it really is."
In cross-examination, however, Deasy's testimony also demonstrated a school system's latitude under current law. The issue comes down to the choices and competence of management, not the constitutionality of current regulations, said attorneys for the state and teachers unions.
"Dr. Deasy's testimony affirmed the point that we made in the opening argument: that whether a district is well managed makes a huge difference," said attorney James M. Finberg, who represents the California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers.
The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on behalf of nine students and their families, is being pursued by the group Students Matter, which is funded by a Silicon Valley executive and other donors. The state Department of Education and teachers unions are opposed to the lawsuit. They have countered that it is not the laws but poor management that fails to root out incompetent instructors.
Deasy's testimony began with friendly questioning from McRae. The superintendent said that firing an ineffective teacher requires "volumes of documentation," can consume several years and is "challenged at every step by the teachers union." The typical cost can be about $350,000, he said.
The difficulty of the process ends up harming student achievement as well as teachers' morale, which is pulled down by working alongside an ineffective colleague, Deasy said.
The superintendent added that an independent panel can reinstate a fired teacher. He repeatedly cited the case of a teacher who got his job back even after the panel concluded that the instructor probably cheated to improve students' scores on state standardized tests.
"We who hire cannot make a judgment to fire," Deasy said.
Attorneys for the other side, however, then brought forward data in which Deasy has taken pride: the increasing number of teachers fired or forced out.
In 2011-12, L.A. Unified fired 99 tenured teachers. This compares to 10 in 2009-10, before Deasy became superintendent. In 2011-12, 122 teachers resigned in lieu of being terminated.
The district also barred the transfer of teachers with poor performance reviews and gave principals the right to refuse jobs to instructors who lost positions at other schools.
Deasy also criticized rules that force principals to decide whether to grant the job protections of tenure to a teacher after 18 months. A longer trial period would result in fewer bad teachers, he said.
But Deasy also noted that he doubled the number of teachers who were refused tenure and thus were dismissed after their second year. As far as making good tenure decisions, "I believe we have done a good job at accomplishing that," Deasy testified.
Attorneys defending the laws were inclined to agree.
"Well-managed districts don't grant tenure if the teachers have not established that they're effective," said Finberg.
Deasy also offered fodder for both sides on the issue of basing layoffs on the amount of time a person has worked. Seniority rules meant that some terrific younger teachers lost jobs, while some ineffective instructors with more experience remained, he testified.
He added that certain schools, with less-experienced staffs, have been decimated by layoffs. The resulting instability especially hurts students who lack a nurturing environment outside of school.
Attorneys for the other side suggested the problem was district practices that allowed less-experienced teachers to be clustered at particular campuses. Better management could avoid exposing a school to massive layoffs, they asserted. They also pointed to instances in which Deasy had found ways to exempt teachers from layoffs or to protect certain schools.
Deasy did not deny it but countered that the teachers union had opposed him every step of the way.
State Deputy Atty. Gen. Susan Carson asked about another Deasy milestone: a new, more-stringent performance review system. Under it, 2.8% of evaluated teachers received an overall rating of "below standard." It was unclear how many of these were considered poor enough to warrant dismissal.
For Carson, this was evidence that L.A. Unified can manage its teachers and act when necessary — and that there's no massive "bad teacher" problem.
Plaintiffs' attorney McRae suggested that this information was irrelevant. McRae, echoing his witness, said that state law should not abet even one grossly ineffective teacher in remaining before a classroom for an extended period. Deasy, said McRae, is being thwarted from doing all he can to help students.
Former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who endorses the lawsuit, called the participation of Deasy — who heads the nation's second-largest school system — "symbolically important" in the ongoing effort to fight for students' civil rights.
For some critics, Deasy's involvement in this lawsuit — and in other litigation over teachers' rights and responsibilities — symbolizes something negative: They perceive an ongoing campaign to limit the rights of teachers and blame them disproportionately for shortcomings in student achievement and to turn over public education to the private sector.
"Vergara is an attack on our profession, an attempt to deprofessionalize teachers," said Gregg Solkovits, a vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers union.
Solkovits is running to unseat incumbent Warren Fletcher, but on this point they expressed solidarity.
For the purposes of the arguments in the trial, however, Deasy got a rare compliment from the union side.
"LAUSD is becoming better managed," said attorney Glenn Rothner, who is defending the state laws. "I'll give Deasy that."