Superintendent Austin Beutner emphasizes kid-centric vision for LAUSD

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On Tuesday, Austin Beutner was named LAUSD’s new superintendent. He’s held high-profile jobs at City Hall and the LA Times. He did very well in private equity before that. But he does not have deep experience in education. Press Play talks to him about being an unconventional choice, possible plans for charter schools, the district’s financial troubles, and more. 

Interview highlights

On the public’s concerns that he is not experienced in education

Austin Beutner: The magic happens in the classroom. My job as superintendent is to make sure the resources are there to support great teachers in the classroom… I’m not a teacher. My job is to make sure there are great teachers in the classroom. And there will be. There are today, and there will continue to be, and we support them.

But the connection to the broader enterprise is budgets aren’t just a bunch of numbers on a page — they’re a reflection of values. They’re a reflection of values of the organization, they’re a reflection of values of the community. And one of the issues this district wrestles with is articulating what those values are, making sure the community is understood, and making sure these resources are going to support those great teachers in the classroom.

On what needs more funding

Clearly $15,000 a student is not enough. We’re gonna have to work at the state level and local level, and see what we can do to raise that figure to have more resources. At the same time, we’re going to have to look more carefully at where we are spending resources. And cuts aren’t just some abstract thing. What LA Unified does is hire great people to help support kids, and we have to make sure these resources are going directly into the classroom like that parent wants. And everything else has to be looked at carefully to say ‘is that the priority or not?’ And in due course, we’ll figure that out.

On budget comparisons: LAUSD has a $9 billion budget for 700,000 students and 60,000 employees. The city of LA’s budget is slightly more than $9 billion – for 4 million people.

You’ve got an apple and an orange. Because what the city does and what the school system does are a little bit apples and oranges. Cities use money to pave roads, they buy asphalt to put on the roads, and things like that. They operate a utility system that provides water and power to homes. They house homeless. They employ law enforcement, public safety officers.

School districts in a certain sense are a little similar in that everything exists to support the student, and to support the learning and inspiration that happens in the classroom.

On whether LAUSD should have a bigger budget

I do think it should be more. And one could look at $15,000 per student and compare it to New York, which is an excess of $20,000 a student, and say okay if we want to achieve, if we want to do more, we want to close the opportunity gaps that do exist, we’re going to need more resources for sure.

On his time commitment as superintendent

My commitment is to make sure we put the plans in place, and stick around to make sure they get executed.

…Where districts have made progress and LAUSD has made some progress — we need to make more. We’re going to look back in five years, and I hope we’ve made a lot of progress. And in 10 years, we will have made more.

But look at things like what LAUSD has done to increase the overall graduation rate. That’s taken 10 or 15 years. So there’s going to be no overnight change. But over time, I do know things will improve. And over a longer period of time, more will improve.

On criticism that the graduation rate might be inflated with easy remedial online courses for seniors

There is value in every student graduating. That gives them a path to a life. A student who doesn’t graduate immediately starts in a different path, so there’s value in that.

But we do need to build on that, and say okay, if students are graduating now, how well prepared are they for a career? How well prepared are they for further study? And that’s a differing set of numbers, and we need to make that more transparent to the community, and have an open conversation about that. But the fact that more students are graduating, that is a good thing.

On the public’s suspicions that he might funnel more resources away from traditional schools, and give them to charter schools

My mom was a teacher. I understand where the magic happens. I’m here to make sure the teachers have the resources they need to do their job, and do their job well.

The whole issue with charters — I think is a little bit of a false choice. Today more than a half a million kids will get up, go to school in a traditional public elementary school. Let’s start there, let’s make sure those teachers in the classroom have the resources they need to help inspire those students, and help them achieve.

On plans regarding charters

At the moment, I have no plans regarding charters. My view would be let’s focus on where we are today. Issues as to charters is a policy issue. We’ll continue to take direction from the board. But I don’t come into this with a preconceived notion that that’s the entire solution set. I don’t come into it with a preconceived notion that that’s where the problem resides. I come into it with a notion which is: every teacher in the classroom — we should support, make sure they have the resources they need.

On pensions and retiree health costs eating up a large amount of the budget

It is the existential threat to what happens in the classroom. And I think it’s important every stakeholder understands that. Parents need to understand it. Students need to understand it and realize it’s going to impact the quality of education they do receive. And our labor partners are going to have to work with us and see what solutions we can develop. Because the path one district may go down, where an increasing portion are allocated there means less is allocated somewhere else. And that’s not necessarily a benefit to those who are working in the district. It’s not a benefit to those in the classroom. It’s not a benefit to the parents who entrust the district to educate their child.

It’s something we have to sit down. We have to better understand what are the factors at work? Are there other ways we can manage those costs? Are there other ways we can find additional revenue to help offset some of those costs?

On his vision when it comes to good education policy

My vision is that every child who goes to school feels safe, feels secure, feels empowered, is inspired by the teachers that they are working with, and reaches their fullest potential. That’s where I start. This is a kid-centric view. This is not some top-down view. It’s not about me. It’s about the we helping make sure those kids are inspired and reach their full potential.

Photo: Austin Beutner / courtesy LAUSD