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Opinion

Editorial: Words of wisdom for our old boss, Austin Beutner, L.A. Unified’s new superintendent

LOS ANGELES, CA AUGUST 11, 2014 -- Austin Beutner, the civic leader and former Wall Street investme
Austin Beutner on August 11, 2014.
(Los Angeles Times)

Some people — maybe a lot of people — will see the appointment of Austin Beutner to be superintendent of the L.A. Unified school district as a victory for charter school supporters and a loss for the teachers union.

They aren’t entirely wrong. Beutner certainly has ties to charter schools and a close relationship with billionaire school reformer Eli Broad. But it’s more complicated than that. The fact is that L.A. Unified is in for some rocky times in the years ahead — and the next superintendent, regardless of ideological bent, will face problems that go well beyond the traditional union-versus-charters divide.

Even with all the additional funding from the state for at-risk students, the district faces a pool of red ink in a couple of years unless it reins in the costs of its healthcare and pension obligations. Any further avoidance of that fact — and the district has been avoiding it for years — won’t be good for teachers or students. Meanwhile, enrollment is declining even faster than predicted, which means less revenue. Beutner, to his credit, has been raising concerns about the looming financial cliff for a long time.

The district is struggling academically as well. Despite years of effort, test scores have flatlined for its more than 600,000 students, most of them low-income students of color. Only 30% passed the English portion of the state’s Common Core-aligned tests in 2017.

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The real question facing Beutner is not “which side is he on” so much as whether he can marshal his significant strengths — including brains, self-confidence and a clear-eyed recognition of the depth of the district’s problems — to bring about change. Can he be politic and open-minded at the same time that he presses for smarter fiscal policies and desperately needed educational improvements, all while juggling the bitterly divided factions within the district?

Beutner was our boss. He served as publisher of The Times for a year. So we know a little bit about how he works.

If nothing else, the past couple of decades should have taught all of us that in order to have a lasting positive impact at L.A. Unified, a superintendent must earn trust among teachers, and Beutner faces a couple of obvious obstacles on this front. In addition to his ties to the charter movement, he is not an educator, which immediately raises suspicion among those who have devoted their lives to the classroom.

But teachers, too, should keep in mind that Beutner isn’t spoiling for a fight. He’s repeatedly said he hopes to overcome the ideological divide by taking steps that benefit everyone: improving student health, because illness causes too many lost days of school. Reducing truancy, because chronic absenteeism costs the district serious money that it badly needs.

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Beutner is not a career educator, but he has a wide range of experience. Not only was he a successful investment banker, but he worked for the State Department during the Clinton administration. As deputy mayor of Los Angeles under Antonio Villaraigosa, he made some progress toward creating a more business-friendly environment, although his tenure was brief. He tried running for mayor himself, but his candidacy did not gain traction.

Beutner has been interested in local education for a number of years. In 2012, he founded a nonprofit called “Vision to Learn” that provides L.A. Unified students with eye care and, if needed, glasses. (Recently there has been a dispute between L.A. Unified and the group over the services provided.) He also led a task force that, in cooperation with the district, has been examining various aspects of its operations. Its first report pointed out that chronic absenteeism among 80,000 L.A. Unified students was both feeding the problem of academic failure and costing the district millions of dollars a year, because state payments are based on student attendance. It found that although the district had tried several programs to curb the problem, it had never bothered finding out which, if any, of those programs worked.

That kind of problem isn’t limited to absenteeism. L.A. Unified is far better at passing flowery new resolutions than following through. If Beutner can change that culture, fabulous.

Here’s something else Beutner did: He was our boss. He served as publisher of The Times for a year. So we know a little bit about how he works.

He has an ability to focus on the big picture, which differentiates him from his L.A. Unified predecessor, Michelle King, a well-liked and very capable manager with a talent for calling all hands on deck. But clear and bold vision wasn’t her strong suit.

The last superintendent to have a strong vision was John Deasy. Like Deasy, Beutner will bring a sense of urgency to the district.

But it also will be important for Beutner to learn from Deasy’s shortcomings — including a cockiness that ultimately undermined his tenure.

Beutner is not exactly known for his humility, either. But he does strike us as more careful and sensible than Deasy, more pragmatic and less ideological. Deasy proposed and then stubbornly clung to an outlandishly expensive and problem-riddled plan to provide iPads to all students. We hope that under Beutner the district can expect more pilot testing of visionary ideas and more checking on whether those ideas came to successful fruition.

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A strong leader can’t always afford to be a popular leader. But Beutner should not overlook the importance of reaching out to teachers. Not all decisions will go the way they or their union might like. But it is vital to acknowledge that their jobs are often difficult and discouraging, and that many of them nonetheless bring their all to it every day. Their expertise and opinions should be listened to and considered.

Beutner should set high standards for district-run schools — and then hold charter schools to the same standards or higher ones. He should remember that most charter schools are in the happy position of admitting only students whose parents want them to attend that school and who are willing to make extra commitments to have them there. It’s not exactly a level playing field. Charter schools should perform better than, not as well as, neighboring district schools in order to continue operating.

The new superintendent should examine the district’s graduation rates and consider whether it is leaning too heavily on online credit recovery courses and other shortcuts to burnish its numbers. L.A. Unified should keep standards high even if it means reporting less rosy graduation figures.

Beutner will lead a district that is deeply divided and often raucously outspoken, with powerful interests on both sides. He still has a lot to learn about education, and he has a reputation for stepping on toes and not suffering fools. He will need to be open to others’ ideas and respectful of their expertise.

For its part, the board needs to oversee him (as it failed to do with Deasy) but not micromanage him.

We hope Beutner’s tenure will be a long one. Leading a bureaucracy requires more patience than leading a private enterprise. It can definitely be more frustrating, especially for a get-it-done figure like Beutner. But the district badly needs stable leadership. Perhaps Beutner can provide it if he brings an open mind to his new job.

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