It was widely presumed that Judy Burton someday would become superintendent of the L.A. Unified School District, given that she rose from star teacher to star principal to leader of internal reform efforts. But timing and a near-fatal illness worked against her and instead she became the founding leader of the region’s largest network of charter schools.
Burton died in Los Angeles on Friday from complications of liver failure. She was 69.
Over a career that spanned 45 years, she was a loyal, accomplished L.A. Unified insider, a savvy outsider competing with the school district and something of a roll-up-the-sleeves revolutionary wherever she landed.
Within the nation’s second-largest school system, she headed the district’s central reform effort of the 1990s. Then she became founding director of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, which has grown to 28 schools educating 12,500 students.
“Improving education for kids in Los Angeles was her life’s work, and probably every education reform movement that LAUSD has embarked upon, Judy has been involved in,” said attorney Virgil Roberts, who also was involved in many of these efforts.
The students she reached “got something better,” Roberts said. “But the fact that she could not change the system from within is one of the things that caused her to become involved in the charter movement.”
Burton was born July 11, 1947, in Fort Worth, Texas, the second child of Ardie Ivie, a railroad cook, and Mable Halliburton Ivie, who became part of the Great Migration, escaping the segregation of Texas for better economic opportunity in Los Angeles.
In L.A. Mable, who worked as a housekeeper in Beverly Hills, became the family rock, according to Burton and her younger brother Rickey Ivie, a Los Angeles attorney.
Mable — and later her eldest son, Ardie Jr. — insisted that all the children would be top students and graduate from college.
“I don’t remember conversations about good teachers or bad teachers, but that we were expected to do our best and behave,” Burton recalled. “And life would come to an end as you know it if you got sent home for being in trouble.”
At Washington High, Burton became a student leader, even though at least one club did not allow black members. She got little attention from college counselors.
“I remember feeling there was an assumption that you weren’t going to go to college,” she said later.
She followed her older brother to UCLA, where she majored in Spanish and minored in French, with thoughts of becoming of translator, until she tried her hand at teaching in L.A. Unified’s most challenging campuses.
In 1987, Burton became a founding principal in the Ten Schools Program, which restarted low-performing schools with new staffs and extra resources.
At King Elementary, she led a hiring committee, including parents, that re-interviewed all current employees — keeping about three of 50 teachers. “People who applied were adamant that they had a right to their old jobs, but the district did hold firm,” Burton said. Over half of the newcomers were district mentor teachers who wanted to be part of something special.
“We were bound and determined, by hook and crook, we were going to get those kids to achieve,” Burton said in 2012. “We had more money and worked year-round. Every school had a psychiatrist, a psychologist, an attendance counselor. We had resources every school should have.”
The schools notably improved, but still fell short of the national average, based on the standardized tests of the time. And the district’s attention flagged, undermining the experiment.
In 1993, Supt. Sid Thompson handpicked Burton to lead LEARN, which stood for Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now. The goal was higher student achievement through local control at schools.
As always, Burton threw herself into the job, said former teachers union Vice President Becki Robinson. One night, Robinson and friends were on their way home from a baseball game at 10:30 p.m. when they saw a light in Burton’s office.
“To try to stop her from working so late, the district turned off the AC, but it didn't faze her at all,” Robinson said. “She was sitting there, in shorts and a tank top, her hair in a ponytail, with a fan blowing right on her, working away.”
Three-quarters of teachers had to vote yes to make their schools part of LEARN. Administrators had to learn to make spending decisions and govern by persuasion and the district had to let go of control.
The last part never really happened, and another effort began to fade away.
In the middle of it all, one day in 1996, Burton felt what she thought was stomach pain. She stayed home three days, gradually turning yellow, then went to the hospital to learn that she had a week to live if doctors could not find a liver to transplant.
A new procedure that allowed a donor’s liver to be split between two patients saved both her and a baby girl.
In 2003, she made an extraordinary move for a senior L.A. Unified leader. She accepted the top job at Alliance, then a new venture, headed by some of the same people who had pushed for LEARN a decade earlier.
“We weren’t going to do this if we couldn’t hire her,” said philanthropist Gayle Miller, who talked about Burton in an interview in 2015.
Burton operated with the skill and impatience that life and L.A. Unified had taught her.
“In the back of my mind is: Don’t put things off,” she said. “If you’re going to do it, do it today. Keep moving. You don’t have time to waste.”
“In school, if you lose five years you’ve ruined a kid’s life,” she added. “I would rather go ahead and do something and make a mistake than dillydally around until it’s perfect.”
Alliance opened small schools in low-income, minority areas, offering a longer school day, a longer school year and a summer bridge program for incoming students. There’s a full-time parent engagement coordinator and all students must pursue a college-track schedule.
Teachers have annual contracts rather than tenure and are evaluated in good part by measurable student achievement.
Burton left Alliance in 2015 amid pressure from above and below. Some board members were quietly suggesting it was time for new leadership, and teachers had begun a unionization drive.
L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines immediately scooped Burton up to head a technology task force in the wake of the district’s disastrous iPads-for-all venture. But she had to surrender this post when her health rapidly declined.
Two of her marriages, to Kenneth Seaton and Ellis Burton, ended in divorce. Her family describes Burton’s third husband, Samuel Ramirez, an L.A. Unified principal, as the love of Burton’s life. Ramirez died in 2005.