Quality teaching, more equitable funding, a focus on the most disadvantaged students and making it easier for parents to volunteer. These were among the top policy priorities that LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner outlined during a speech in the library of Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools Thursday.
“Low-income students, students of color, English Learners, LGBTQ youth, children who lack healthcare, students exposed to violence in their neighborhoods or homes, and students with special needs are being left behind at an alarming rate,” Beutner said. “These students are not provided with the same opportunities as their peers in different neighborhoods and communities where families earn more money.”
Beutner called for a change to the way states fund schools based on student attendance rather than enrollment, saying it hurts the kids who need the most help. “In Watts, the kindergarten population is chronically absent almost one quarter of the time, which means that those schools are getting less funding than a school might in Beverly Hills where chronic absenteeism is less than ten percent. We need to fix a funding system that is not equitable and penalizes the very students most in need.”
Two weeks after United Teachers Los Angeles members authorized a strike, Beutner also encouraged teachers, parents and the district to come together to push for more state funding. “We want smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers, and additional counselors, librarians and support staff in every school – but we will need more money to pay for it. We can only spend what we have,” he said. “Instead of fighting each other, we should be fighting together to increase funding for our students. $16,000 per pupil is simply not enough.”
Without that collaboration, his prognosis for the district was bleak. “We’re facing a fiscal cliff. It’s not theoretical and it’s not debatable. If nothing changes, we are headed for insolvency in the next two to three years,” he said. “If that happens, a fiscal advisor will be appointed by the state and we’ll no longer have local control over our schools. Budgets will be slashed, class sizes will rise, and decisions won’t be made in the best interest of our students and families. Los Angeles Unified is not too big to fail, and no one is coming to save us if we do.”
Despite that ominous tone when discussing the finances, Beutner’s overall message was what he called a “true progressive vision” for education. He reached out directly to parents, touching on much of the Speak UP platform, including quality teaching, equity, transparency, accountability, collaboration and responsiveness to parent concerns.
He tackled the number one priority of Speak UP members surveyed: making sure we have effective teachers in every classroom, saying we need more support, professional development and pay for hard-working teachers. LAUSD wants to create a new evaluation category recognizing highly effective teachers so they can become models to help their fellow teachers improve.
“Our best teachers are literally changing lives. We need to make sure they feel appreciated, are rewarded, and are committed to a long career at Los Angeles Unified,” he said. “They need more support. We need to pay our teachers more and provide necessary support so that every teacher has the chance to develop and truly excel in their classrooms.”
Beutner expressed his support for teacher tenure but said he wants to find a way to make sure students are not stuck with teachers who are “not up to the task.”
“The reality is that a few people in the teaching profession are not helping students succeed,” he said. “An ineffective teacher can cause students to lose more than a year of learning, which is setting students up for failure. While more than 80 percent of effective teachers maintain standards for good attendance, more than 40 percent of ineffective teachers do not. We need a transparent, efficient, and fair process to manage ineffective teachers out. In the same way that we need to support teachers, we need to support students and make sure that they have great teachers in their classrooms.”
Speak Up parent Rosa Elena Andresen, who attended the speech, appreciated Beutner’s focus on teacher quality. “As a parent, this is exactly what I want to see,” she said. “I think we should reward those great teachers. We have great teachers in our district. But then again, we need some consequences for teachers who are no longer performing because they are affecting our children’s education. It’s not fair to students to have a teacher not performing where they need to be.”
Beutner also said he wants to make it easier for parents to volunteer in schools – an issue that Speak UP member Paul Robak has been pushing LAUSD to change. “A family member shouldn’t have to pay the state $57 to volunteer at their child’s school,” Beutner said. “They shouldn’t have to make an appointment and come downtown to be fingerprinted and fill out forms. And they shouldn’t have to go through the steps of getting a cashier’s check or money order so that they can pay. This creates burdens on parents who have less time and less disposable income.”
He also emphasized school accountability and expansion of schools that are serving students well. “We need clear performance expectations for every school and our progress toward those goals should be reviewed, often,” he said. “If schools don’t meet fair expectations, they should be held accountable, and if schools are doing a great job, we should help them serve more students.”
Beutner called on LAUSD to be more transparent when it comes to funding and contract talks with labor unions. “It’s not acceptable that we are negotiating a 400-plus-page labor contract that the students and families most affected by it never see,” he said. “There should be less negotiations in secret and more conversations in public.”
Andresen left the speech feeling that Beutner has the best interests of students at heart. “I was very excited and was very hopeful about all his expectations for our students and schools and parents and teachers. I was very emotional. I feel that he has a lot of great ideas to help our children succeed in school.”
Andresen was especially happy to hear him focus on the most disadvantaged students, like her daughter with severe special needs who attends Pacific Blvd. in Board District 5.
“That hit my heart. I really liked that he included all the groups, English learners, children going through violence and different situations at home that affect their education, our children with special needs. I was also very excited about him wanting to sit down and fix the issues that the teachers have, to be able to come to a resolution of any strike that would affect our children.”