By Jay Mathews
Monday, October 13, 2008
John E. Deasy always emphasizes the positive. He is the kind of person who sees a downpour as good for the flowers. He is the only school superintendent I have ever met who enjoys talking to union leaders. I was not surprised, therefore, when he announced late last month that he was leaving his job in Prince George's County without any complaints.
But people who know Deasy well are convinced that there is somewhat more to his move than the reason he gave: an irresistible offer from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to bring his talents for raising student achievement to a national level. It is not anything Deasy said, but the circumstances of his departure cast doubt on his story. None of the nine Prince George's school board members served on the board that hired Deasy on a four-year contract in 2006. None made any great effort to change his mind about leaving early. He made no secret of his opposition to their decision to spend $36 million to move school headquarters when the money might have had real impact in classrooms.
Board members I have spoken to deny with some vehemence that they wanted to name their own superintendent. With Deasy, Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs said, "we had a great relationship."
But superintendent-board relations are tricky. There is always some friction. In 26 years of talking with superintendents, I have learned that they love venting about their boards, as long as it's off the record. They sound like education pundit Chester E. Finn Jr. of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who once said a typical urban school board consisted of "three unlovable sorts: aspiring politicians for whom this is a steppingstone to higher office, former school-system employees with a score to settle and single-minded advocates of diverse dubious causes."
That is grossly unfair to the conscientious people, including the ones I know in Prince George's, who do good work on many school boards. But the number of bad-acting boards has been enough to make them in many big cities as popular as smog alerts and rush-hour traffic. Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York and the District have put their school boards under mayoral control or reduced their powers to the level of ribbon-cutting and speaking to the PTA.
Despite Deasy's refusal to say anything bad about the Prince George's board, and despite the board's outspoken commitment to raise what are generally the second-lowest student test scores in the state, its members are on notice that they had better not mess up. Those I talked to acknowledged that previous boards in the county left a sorry record. One board tried to fire a superintendent, then was itself dissolved by the state. Schools chiefs have come and gone like kitchen remodeling contractors, four in just seven years. One former superintendent was convicted of wire fraud, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice.
Many educators think elected school boards are no longer worth their politically inspired policy changes and frequent ignorance of what helps impoverished children learn. Supporters of elected boards say that without them, voters would have no say on schools, but that argument takes a beating every election. In some cities, less than 20 percent of the electorate show enough interest in school board members to vote for them.
School boards often get rid of productive superintendents, or at least hector them into quitting. Eric J. Smith's success in significantly raising the level of high school courses in Anne Arundel County did not impress that school board. He is now the Florida state education commissioner. The Miami school board recently fired Rudy Crew, former schools chancellor in New York, even though his programs made the district a finalist for the third year in a row for the $2 million Broad Prize for Urban Education.
If you were a board member, would you let Deasy slip away without a fight? Under his direction, elementary and middle school test scores improved at every grade level in the past school year. The number of Prince George's schools on the state watch list for poor performance dropped from 76 to 58. Standards are higher. At Crossland High, the number of Advanced Placement tests taken rose from 164 in 2007 to 433 in 2008.
Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, said Deasy's departure should not taint Prince George's or other systems with elected boards. Denver, Houston and Seattle have made good progress. Most Broad finalists have elected boards that do not dismiss superintendents just before the winner is announced.
We can have our own contest, a reality show in the making. The Prince George's board has to find a leader -- Deasy recommends his deputy, William R. Hite Jr. -- to compete with the zeal and determination of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, who is running a school system under mayoral control. Who wins? We should be rooting for both, but the betting line on Prince George's might slip a bit without Deasy.