The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has been in the spotlight a lot this year. First there was a contentious teachers’ strike that shut down LA schools for six days, and resulted in a 6% pay raise for teachers. Then there was the hastily thrown together ballot measure that would have imposed a parcel tax to address the District’s long term funding problems. It failed, but there’s talk of another measure in 2020.
LAUSD is struggling. During the strike and leading up to the vote on the ballot measure people weren’t shy about offering their opinions on the subject. Some people see the District as dysfunctional, and many in that camp lay the blame on the School Board. Others say the District is getting hammered by larger societal changes that it has no control over. I think there’s some truth in both arguments.
You can certainly point to a number of mistakes the District has made. The botched rollout of two highly touted tech initiatives, iPads for all students and a new student accounting system, both under former Superintendent John Deasy, were costly and embarrassing failures. Recent revelations regarding serious problems within LAUSD’s Office of the Inspector General haven’t improved the District’s image.
But at the same time, LAUSD is facing problems that are crippling school districts across California. The biggest threat may be declining enrollment due to lower birth rates and a drop in immigration. Because schools are funded based on student attendance, this means shrinking revenues. At the same time, pension obligations are ballooning, making it increasingly difficult to balance the budget. And since many of the District’s schools were built decades ago, maintenance costs are becoming unsustainable.
So when Austin Beutner took over as Superintendent last year, he certainly had his work cut out for him. I’m not Beutner’s biggest fan, but I do respect him for taking the job. Honestly, I don’t think anyone else wanted it. The District’s financial difficulties are so severe that, if they’re not resolved, the situation could result in a State takeover.
Recently the LA Downtown News ran an interview with Beutner where he talks about the challenges ahead. It’s worth reading. The Superintendent’s agenda is nothing radical. In fact, it’s just common sense.
“I think I have a pretty good understanding, and I think the people here do, of what works: an experienced school leader with the budget they need,” [Beutner] said. “A high-quality teacher in the classroom, colleagues to help support the social-emotional needs of the child. It’s not a secret.”
A lot of Angelenos may think that, because they don’t currently have kids enrolled in LAUSD, they don’t need to worry about the District’s future. Anybody who believes that is dead wrong. If we’re not giving kids the reading and math skills they need, if we’re not teaching them about this country’s history, if we’re not making them aware of what’s going on in the world around them, this city will only sink further into chaos and dysfunction. It may be a cliché, but it’s absolutely true: These kids are our future.