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Fernando Espuelas

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The Man Who Will Save Los Angeles

Posted: 09/15/11 04:34 PM ET

The second largest city in America has the public education system of a poor, sub-developed third world nation.

Los Angeles' public schools are factories of failure, despair and poverty. The kids who survive this system, the students and parents that somehow transcend the culture of dysfunction to graduate, are like survivors of a ship wreck -- innocent victims of a captain with a knack for crashing into icebergs.

The stats are stark: only 50 percent of LAUSD's students ever make it to their graduation ceremony. Some estimates point to fewer than 15 percent of those kids finishing a 4 year college. Forty cents of every dollar LAUSD spends feeds its humongous bureaucracy, funds that could be better invested in improving educational outcomes.

And then there is the high school diploma Big Lie. Some of the diplomas issued by LAUSD are not recognized by the University of California system as valid for admission into our universities -- they are literally worth as much as the paper on which they are printed. They are rewards for not dropping out, unrelated to actual academic achievement.

This squalid reality represents a present and clear danger to the economic and social fabric of Los Angeles. The spiral of poverty that LAUSD's failure spawns has immediate consequences -- the flood of non-graduates and under-educated kids hitting an anemic job market every year, the opportunity cost of so much wasted human capital, the collective lost earnings of families who will never climb into the American middle class, stuck in low-paying jobs and unfulfilled lives, a depressing list that goes on and on.

This is the societal wreckage that the LAUSD has created. Over decades of incompetence and malfeasance, this broken system has failed our society. But now, in 2011, as America faces one of its most challenging historical moments, a time where at home and abroad there is talk of "national decline," the LAUSD has a hope.

Call him the "Great Boston Hope." He is John Deasy, the new Superintendent of LAUSD. Effectively, the new CEO of the nation's second largest school district. If you were waiting for Superman, he's arrived.

OK, maybe not Superman, but he is impressive. Aside from his sterling credentials, and a history of success, Deasy has both a vision and a mission -- and unlike the usual small-bore leaders of the LAUSD, his vision is broad, comprehensive and ambitious. Ambition tied to talent can be a powerful engine of change and growth even in the most broken of organizations, like LAUSD.

Deasy wants to restore LAUSD's education system so that it actually serves the kids and not the special interests that hold these students hostage as the ship sinks. He wants our schools to educate effectively, graduating the best students in the country. And he wants to do it fast.

I recently met Deasy. He is a compact, fit man, projecting energy and enthusiasm, sporting a military hair-cut that lends intensity to his words. He speaks with a marked Boston accent that reminds me of Tip O'Neill. And like the former Speaker of the House, Deasy delivers powerful, unsettling messages with a smile.

And behind the smile, steely determination. An unrelenting focus on the mission -- educate kids to compete globally, to succeed, to contribute to our society. Everything else is irrelevant, noise, unimportant and to be ignored. This is a man with a focused mission.

By this point, most Angelenos know that the Board of the LAUSD, specially since Yolie Flores stepped down in apparent disgust, is controlled by hacks: teachers' union mouth-pieces and Mayor Villaraigosa's hand-picked mediocrities, minor politicos making a pit stop at the LAUSD Board on their way to their next political sinecure.

This Board is politically and financially motivated, largely paid and bought for by special interests and chronically unable to improve the objective conditions of the the LAUSD's dismal performance.

Examples of the Board's mismanagement abound. One of the senior LAUSD executives in charge of the district's school construction program was indicted for allegedly directing construction contracts to his own consulting company. The former LAUSD Superintendent, Ramon Cortinez, was caught moonlighting -- for a LAUSD contractor, Scholastic Inc. And it was also discovered that the LAUSD was paying some $200 million dollars in salaries to people that no longer worked for the district.

Can Deasy then really make a difference? Can one man change the course of history and give Los Angeles a world class public education system? I mean, really, can this rotten education system be fixed?

Yes.

Every once in a while, history produces a man or woman that stands above the rest. Moments of crisis -- and our education system has been in crisis for years -- create opportunities for those leaders who are determined to make a positive impact, fix what's wrong, drive profound change and have the guts to take the heat.

I think that Deasy is that historical figure. And the Latino community, making up some 80 percent of the kids in the LAUSD system, should support Deasy.

As he faces what will inevitably be fierce resistance from the Board and the teachers' union, Latino parents must help Deasy by pushing change at the school level.

Rather than remaining passive and waiting for someone else to solve the problem, parents must organize and mobilize to demand educational accountability from their principals and teachers -- everyday.

Only by executing this pincer movement -- from the top of the command chain, change pushed by Deasy, and from the field, the schools, by parents equally sharing Deasy's unrelenting drive to properly educate our kids -- can victory over systemic failure be won.

The recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey of education achievement across the globe finds the United States lagging the shock-inspiring educational outcomes of formerly underdeveloped nations like China and South Korea, nations once better known for their vast poverty than producing world-class students.

This dismal ranking is as much a wake-up call to the nation as it is proof that failure in the Los Angeles public education system is not option.

 

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