He’s got quite the résumé.
Austin Beutner, the new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, has been, among other things:
— Clinton administration appointee assigned with helping Russia transform from a centralized to free-market economy
— Successful investment banker
— First deputy mayor of Los Angeles, overseeing 12 city agencies
— Publisher and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune
— Major philanthropist
Now he is chief of the second-largest school district in the country. Experience in the classroom? Zilch. Operational experience in education systems? Nada.
The L.A. school board made its choice — in relative secrecy and without what some critics said was sufficient vetting — believing that educational experience isn’t required to fix problems that have festered for decades and that seem intractable. Educators have been in charge in the past, after all, and they didn’t fix the problems, so why not try a new approach?
Well, that would be a reasonable question if it hadn’t been tried before and failed. Numerous districts — either schools boards or mayors with power to make the decision — have tapped business executives, or retired generals, or, in New York’s case, a former federal prosecutor (Joel Klein) to run schools. (Can you think of another profession in which a leader would be selected with no internal experience, except, possibly, politics?) If you don’t remember ever hearing of a brilliant turnaround of a district, that’s because there wasn’t one.
Why? Because the keys of education restructuring that many of these leaders championed — standardized test-based accountability and school choice — aren’t designed to fundamentally address the drastic problems facing many school systems. Educators told reformers that but they didn’t listen. Testing is based on a notion that it’s an effective evaluation tool for high-stakes decisions — but assessment experts say it isn’t. School choice — in the form of charter schools and voucher-like programs — has not proved to be a systematic solution.
Charter schools — publicly funded but privately operated, often by private companies — are a good example of the problems school choice has created in the state. California has more than 1,200 charter schools enrolling some 630,000 students — about 10 percent of students in the state — and L.A. Unified has the most.
Charters have been a controversial topic in Los Angeles ever since a plan by housing and insurance tycoon Eli Broad to transform half of the city’s schools into charters was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. Beutner was chosen as superintendent by a charter-supporting majority of the L.A. school board. For several years, the board was dominated by members who supported traditional public education. But in 2017, charter supporters, including many from out of state, turned the race for school board into the most expensive in the country — spending nearly $9.5 million, according to governing.com. Two new pro-charter members were elected, changing the focus of the board.
Comparing charters and traditional public schools is in many ways an apples-and-oranges game, given that they don’t operate in the same way and aren’t funded in the same way. But it is a common game in education, even though standardized test scores are a questionable way to judge the performance of a school or district. Statewide in California, traditional public schools generally do better than charter schools. But in L.A. Unified, charters do better than the district schools, though not better than public magnet schools, which some believe is a better comparison.
A 2017 study titled “Spending Blind: The Failure of Policy Planning in California Charter School Funding,” found that public funding for California charters “is almost completely disconnected from educational policy objectives, and the results are, in turn, scattershot and haphazard.” It says:
Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent each year without any meaningful strategy. Far too much of this public funding is spent on schools built in neighborhoods that have no need for additional classroom space, and which offer no improvement over the quality of education already available in nearby public schools. In the worst cases, public facilities funding has gone to schools that were found to have discriminatory enrollment policies and others that have engaged in unethical or corrupt practices.
Meanwhile, as in other states, charter schools are costing some districts needed resources. A recently released reported on California’s charters, “Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts,” found “neighborhood public school students in three California school districts are bearing the cost of the unchecked expansion of privately managed charter schools.”
In 2016-17, charter schools led to a net fiscal shortfall of $57.3 million for the Oakland Unified School District, $65.9 million for the San Diego Unified School District, and $19.3 million for Santa Clara County’s East Side Union High School District. The California Charter School Act currently doesn’t allow school boards to consider how a proposed charter school may impact a district’s educational programs or fiscal health when weighing new charter applications. However, when a student leaves a neighborhood school for a charter school, their prorated share of funding leaves with them, while the district remains responsible for many costs that those funds had supported. This intensifies fiscal pressure to cut core services like counseling, libraries, and special education, and increase class sizes at neighborhood schools.
(In 2016, I published a four-part series about problems in California’s charter sector, which can be summed up by the title of the first piece: “How messed up is California’s charter school sector? You won’t believe how much.)
There is no reason to think that the new L.A. superintendent is not a competent man with experience in various realms. But if he is relying on the same tried and failed school revamp efforts that those who hired him support — and the signs are there that he is — there’s no reason to think he will be any more successful than his predecessors. There are also things that professional educators have learned that can inform their decisions better than those of people who are coming from the outside.
Some charter schools are indeed terrific schools. But what the charter movement has created in many cases is simply a set of schools with some triumphs but many problems. These schools are now drawing resources from ailing traditional public schools that educate most kids, including more of the most vulnerable.
Critics of school choice believe some of the people behind the charter movement are bent on privatizing the public education system, believing the private sector can run schools like businesses and get better results. It’s not clear why they think that, given that fraud and abuse are hardly exclusive to government entities, and that about 50 percent of businesses survive four or five years. Charter supporters say it’s much easier to close poor performing charters than failing traditional public school. But in many places the oversight is so lax that many are allowed to stay open. And few people ask about the consequences to young people of being forced to move from school to school, especially those whose lives have a high degree of instability.
None of this is to suggest that L.A. Unified doesn’t need major changes. A new report by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the University of California at Berkeley, titled “Report Card Progress in Los Angeles Schools: Rigor, Fairness, and Engaging Families,” found the district was not using millions of dollars on what it was meant to be used for: helping the lowest-achieving students. Another report released last month by a task force of the L.A. school district, titled “Hard Choices,” pointed out other problems in the system. Those included too much principal turnover, though critics say that report cherry-picked data and used a flawed analysis of “peer” districts to compare expenditures.
But signs suggest L.A. Unified, with its new superintendent, will embark on changes that would expand alternatives to traditional public schools at the expense of the district. It hasn’t worked in the past. Why would anybody think it would in the future?
(This post has been updated)