We sat down with LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner last week to discuss the state of the district at the start of the 2019-20 school year. The interview was conducted at Utah Avenue elementary school, which houses a new Community of Schools office, where local district and central office employees have been redeployed to serve a group of nearby schools. This is part one of a three-part interview. Part two can be found here and three here.
Speak UP: Why are we here at Utah Avenue elementary?
Beutner: You've heard me talk about how we have to take the Los Angeles School Unified from the top-down, one-size-fits all, 1,386 schools, to build back from school-up. This is how we do that. So this is the East. [Local District] East would be 100,000 students, roughly 75 square miles. To go from South Gate to the District East office is like going to the moon. So what we've done is to say, "Well, we serve communities." We happen to be in the Boyle Heights community. What we've done is move our leaders. So families come here if they have issues. Ultimately, we want to better connect the schools [to families.] So all the supports are in the community. From the family perspective, we’re closer to where you are. There are all kinds of supports we provide, social-emotional support for the family, understanding their paths. From a service side, we have M&O [Maintenance and Operations] teams now centered here. So maintenance is done for this community of schools. More efficient. They'll know the unique needs of the school. So the school might have second-floor plumbing. The same person coming every time says, "Oh, yes, the leaky valve," not some stranger. It gives those who are supporting the instructional work at each school a much closer connection with the school.
Speak UP: Are you doing this in just a couple of the local districts?
Beutner: We're doing this in Local District East and Local District South. We want to do it deliberately, so we learn. I'll use an example of the personalization, multi-tiered system of support for the student or the school. Van Deene Elementary went from 11% chronic absence, beginning of last year, to 3% at the end. In the past, Los Angeles Unified would have had a Local Control Accountability Plan for the district as a whole, but it was never local, and the target for all [schools] would have been 11%. We flipped it on its head and said each school serves a unique community, a unique set of students and a unique set of families. What's the right target or goal for that? If you're at 25%, maybe getting to 22% is heroic. If you're at 11%, can you improve?
The more we can better connect the resources we do have with the unique needs of the students and the schools that they're in, I think we're going to make real progress as opposed to one size fits all from the top. Learning doesn't happen at a school district. It doesn't happen in the local district office. It happens in the classroom. Our goal is to focus on that. The commonality in each of our elementary schools: an experienced principal with the resources and the budget they need to do the job. High-quality instructors in the classroom, social-emotional support for the child and the family. That's the recipe we're trying to replicate in each of our schools. But how you go about it is going to be different.
Speak UP: We’re just starting a new school year. How would you describe the state of LAUSD right now?
Beutner: I'd say we're making progress. We still have opportunities to make more progress and accelerate the pace of progress. Let's put in some context. This past year was the first year in quite a number of years where everything went in the right direction: Attendance got better. We reversed the chronic absence, which had been increasing. It decreased. Graduation rates reached a record level. Reclassification reached a record level, meaning those who were English learners become proficient in English, the highest level since the state started keeping records in 2003. Results in state tests went up in English and math. Suspensions at an all-time low. Everything that we could measure went in the right direction. Sixty thousand people worked awfully hard to make that happen. Now we have to replicate that progress and accelerate the pace of it.
Speak UP: We still have large achievement and opportunity gaps. Do you have a strategic plan to improve student outcomes and close those gaps? There was also one critic of your recent state of schools speech, when you dismissed the idea of dramatic plans or big change, he called you an incrementalist and suggested that you didn't have the urgency to improve student achievement. Do you think that's fair?
Beutner: I seem to miss his solution set. Easy to be a critic, but we have a plan. Our plan is to put the school back at the center where it belongs because that's how change happens. And build capacity and the leaders of those schools. Give them the information, the tools they need to be that instructional leader in the school and help drive change. That's how we're going to see dramatic leaps. There's no answer in the center. Some revolutionary idea, if it exists, hasn't worked anywhere else. Change happens in the classroom, in the school. This is the plan -- to restore the school as the center, make sure all of our resources go into the school, make sure the unique needs of each school are addressed. We'll be bringing professional development for our school leaders closer to the school. We've started to get the bureaucracy out of the way. We're saving their time. Sounds very boring, but it's important. We will save probably a day, on average, for a principal. That's a day they can be in the classroom. That's how you drive change. Would you rather have a principal filling out forms or in the classroom? The maintenance support in school, ask any school principal, "How do you get your air conditioner fixed in the past?" They'll say, "Oh, my gosh, I call this one and this one.” Now they just make one phone call. That will save another day.
Speak UP: When are we going to see this spread to other local districts?
Beutner: Each of local districts, East and South, have more than 100,000 students. So it's an enormous undertaking. We want to do it right. We're learning from each other so we don't have to repeat the same mistakes. And we take the same things that worked and replicate those quickly. The goal would be in this coming year we'll plan for the rest of Los Angeles Unified. But just what we're doing in terms of getting back to the school, taking the center out of the way, for more than 200,000 students, that would be the biggest single undertaking in public education in the country, just by itself. So it feels like incrementalism, perhaps. But let's do it deliberately.
Speak UP: You spoke about an education moonshot in your speech. What's your moonshot?
Beutner: My moonshot? I was at an elementary school. I watched the principal welcome everyone who came by name. I saw a 3-year-old in the backseat of the car, excitedly waving and knew the principal's name. Van Deene, where every child has a relationship with someone in the school. So it's not just chronic absence that has been reduced, but each of those students are connected to someone in the school. Now you've got a good foundation to start to learn. That's my moonshot. Everyone feels connected to the school. Educators are all working in the classroom. We have world-class programs available to each of the students. Results will all follow. But you hear me talking about how the work is done, not about some arbitrary mathematical result. If you're learning how to hit a curveball, you don't say, "I want to hit .300 in baseball." That may be a goal. But you get in the batting cage, you practice, you understand what it is to do the work. And the work is making sure students feel safe and welcome. If that 3-year-old in the backseat of the car maintains that enthusiasm until she graduates high school, first part done. If adults maintain the relationship with students all the way through, second part done. If we can teach these standards, maintain the quality of instruction, third part done. And if we can put on top world-class programs for students to find particular outlets that interest them, prepare them for college career life, Grand Slam home run.
Speak UP: In addition to moving district staff closer to the schools, you’ve mentioned that you’re changing the way you create the state-required Local Control Accountability Plans, which are plans to improve schools and student performance.
Beutner: Historically, the LCAP was one [district plan created] in the center. And then you paint the same color across 1,386 schools, which makes no sense. It's not what legislative leaders, not what the governor wanted in Sacramento. The L in LCAP happens to be right here in Boyle Heights, it's local. So we're going to take our fast runners, if you will, in the East and the South, and each of the leaders of their community of schools is going to start to develop an LCAP. And so by the time we get through the course of the year, the LCAP for Los Angeles Unified as a whole will be a mathematical summation of the goals and the specific set of action steps the local community of schools will take to achieve those goals.
Speak UP: So instead of the district telling schools what to do, it will be communities telling the district what they plan to do. Is this the re-imagining plan that so many feared?
Beutner: The artist formerly known as reimagining, yeah. The goal always was the same, which is a school is the center of the community. Restore the school as the center, better connect it with the community, better connect it with those in school who do the work. That always has been the plan. It has not changed.
Speak UP: What are your thoughts on the recent state complaint filed about the LCAP and lack of transparency around the funds?
Beutner: You mean the same people who sue us every year? There is a more authentic way to approach it. We're going to do that. Start with the L in LCAP. If you get the L right, a lot of the pieces will make more sense.
Speak UP: How would you describe the state of the district finances, given the failure of Measure EE in June? And what plans do you have to try to ensure that LAUSD remains solvent?
Beutner: We have an issue at the state level that's not unique to Los Angeles Unified. New York invests $29,000 a year in the student, California about $16,000. And those are the facts. Shocking. Here we are the fifth-largest economy in the world, we boast about the fact California is America’s future. I hope $16,000 is not the future of public education in this country. To put that in human terms, it’s [a] $13,000 [difference], [for each of the] 13 years of K-12. That adds up to just about the cost of a full-time teacher and a full-time aide for a whole year. For every child. So you want to see something dramatic? We could in third grade give each child their own teacher and their own aide for a whole year. Can you imagine what sort of proficiency gains we'd see, what sort of reclassification rates [for English Learners], how fluent children would become in math? Now, I'm not suggesting that's how we’d use those dollars. But that's the human difference.
So those critics who want to see a dramatic plan, go get us 29, and we'll see dramatic changes. We're seeing all of the symptoms of a system starved of a resource. So educators are frustrated. “Class size is too big.” Yes, it is too big. “We need more social-emotional support in schools.” Yes, we do. “We should have a full-time librarian and library in every school.” Yes. Why are we even having this debate? We should have clean schools. There was actually a national standard of what a clean school looks like. We’d need to invest about $350 million to achieve that standard. We're investing about $200 million. It's not a mystery to us that we're not investing enough to keep our schools clean. We don't have the dollars to do it. At $16,000, we will never have the dollars to do it. Period. So those who want to argue about how we could shift around pieces of 16, we should do that. We want to make sure it's as close to the school, as efficient as possible. But the first point, people need to understand there is no way to recombine 16 to make 29. We are being as efficient as we can with every dollar we have, [with] 97% of every dollar spent at a school site. It might be in the classroom, might be a bus driver, might be a cafeteria worker, but it's not spent on bureaucracy.
Speak UP: Two years ago and again last year, during board presentations on the healthcare, we were told that about 30% of the budget was going to retiree pension and healthcare, and that it's going to go up to 50 percent in the next 12 years.
Beutner: Let's separate retiree from overall benefits. At a school, that teacher in the classroom has a pension and is provided with a health benefit. That resides at a school. So let's separate the bureaucracy and the scope and size of the bureaucracy from what's a fair wage for those who work in schools. So 3% of all the dollars we have is not spent at a school so 97% is spent at the school.
Speak UP: And you're counting retirees as being part of that school, those who had worked at schools in the past and who are now retired?
Beutner: Thirty percent would be [all] health and pension for everybody, the vast majority for current employees. Now we made the 97% bigger by reducing the central [office staff] by about $100 million this past year. Pretty dramatic. We laid off people. We're not proud of it. We did not fill open positions and asked the folks working with us to work harder. We reduced the cost of providing health benefits by about $100 million. Part of it was we provide the benefit for out-of-state retirees differently. We saved almost $50 million dollars on pharmaceuticals. So the dollars we have, we're trying to be as efficient as possible. And incrementally things like moving maintenance workers closer to schools will save us because they'll spend less time in the car. We'll actually deploy those dollars into schools so schools will be cleaner.
Now, we've got a lingering mismatch between what we take in and what we spend. So if we take in about $16,000, we're spending about $17,000. That is what is depleting our savings or reserves. And since I started, before the strike, after the strike, and as of today, that same math is roughly true, which is in about two years, we run out of savings. We are spending about $500 million dollars more a year than we take in. That's a thousand dollars times 500,000 students. There's your $500 million, right? Relatively straightforward math. That hasn't changed. And if 97% is at the school, where are you going to cut? We're not going to cut at a school.
So we're heading towards this precipice. And the point I'd like to make to those who think public education is vital, which I do, is we’ve got a choice. Which is to adequately fund schools and avoid cuts, and actually do more in schools, which is needed, or we're going to be looking at cuts. This year, we’ve got enough savings, next year, hmm, more or less. That third year, we don't. That hasn't changed. What we're trying to do is to better explain to the community as a whole what our needs are.
This organization has undergone an enormous amount of trauma over the last decade. Trauma doesn't help. Those who are trying to lead the institution need stability. They need to trust each other, trust the direction they're headed and to do it consistently. Consistency matters.
Speak UP: Why did Measure EE fail?
Beutner: I overestimated the support our community as a whole had for public education or underestimated the skepticism, the lack of trust. I'm a proud product of public education. My mom taught in school. So I'm a believer. It's clear to me, not everyone in the communities we serve is a believer. If you look at some of the polling, in January, 80% of people said, "Better pay for those in schools,” and 69% said, "I'll pay for it." Now less than half those who voted were willing to pay 75 cents a day. So maybe there was some disconnect, or maybe there's a lack of trust. I think the majority of people in each community like their school, but they don't like the school system. We're going to address it by becoming more transparent. That's where it has to start to build trust. To show where the dollars go, we will publish in September, for the first time ever, a report that shows where every dollar goes. So it will tell you that we spend $12 million on music instruction in elementary schools. That’s about $39 a kid. It will tell you that if we were to provide music instruction for every child in every elementary school, it will cost X dollars more.
Speak UP: Can we see a school-by-school budget and comparison of every school?
Beutner: We're going to get there. First, we start with the system as a whole.
Speak UP: Why not do the reverse? You’ve talked about how it's all about the school, not the central district.
Beutner: There's some complexity in that. That'll take a little more time, but it will come during the course of this year. So the system as a whole and then what's being spent at that individual school. So as that community is building up their LCAP, the Boyle Heights community will want to know, "Well, how much do we have to work with here? What's being spent in these communities?" It will show 3% goes off the top. We have accountants, lawyers, we have to comply with federal law and all those things. You’ve got 97 cents left. It'll show you: It costs this much for the buses, this much to provide a series of meals at the schools. And then you have this much in a classroom, and the communities can weigh in on if they wish to reallocate or have a different set of priorities. Transparency will help build trust. I think some continuity and clarity of mission will help build trust. When you have such a politicized system, and the narrative is about fighting and infighting, Hatfields and McCoys, hard to trust, hard to buy into that. And you wonder, "Why are all the adults fighting all the time when it should be about serving the needs of kids in schools?"
— Jenny Hontz and Esmeralda Fabian