By Mark Ridley-Thomas
I recently had the opportunity to see Austin Beutner in action as the new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District when we both visited the Boys Academic Leadership Academy at George Washington Preparatory High School in South L.A.
LAUSD is at a pivotal moment and must take advantage of this change in leadership to avert impending financial disaster. I urge Superintendent Beutner and the Board of Education to join forces to ensure the nation’s second largest school district and its students are thriving.
I recognize that our schools face profound educational challenges, with more than 60 percent of students struggling to read, write and speak fluently, and more than 70 percent struggling with math. Though the district had an 81 percent graduation rate in the previous school year, more than half of its graduates were found ineligible for admission to the UC and CSU systems.
Nevertheless, I remain steadfast in urging LAUSD to make fiscal solvency its top priority.
One might argue that the district doesn’t have a choice. With a deficit projected to surpass $400 million in the upcoming fiscal year, the District may become obligated to spend more outside the classroom than inside it. Unless reforms are implemented, and quickly, that gap will grow even wider. California school districts receive state funding based largely on attendance, and enrollment in the LAUSD has already dropped precipitously, down to 500,000 from a peak of 700,000.
It wasn’t always this way. When I was growing up, engineers in Los Angeles helped put an American on the moon. Whether students want to be engineers, machinists, artists, doctors, teachers or even public servants, they need the basic building blocks of education. When even those are threatened by their school district’s financial instability, even the best academic innovations will fail.
Already, California ranks near states like Mississippi and Alabama – at the bottom of the list – in terms of how much it invests in students. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, provides more than $20,000 per pupil; compare that to just $15,000 in Los Angeles. But matching or even exceeding those numbers would not be enough of a solution, given LAUSD’s structural challenges.
Superintendent Beutner should work closely with the Board to appoint an independent fiscal monitor who will deliver monthly reports and recommend immediate steps to bolster economic stability that can be implemented within the 2018-2019 school year.
As teachers hold the key to our students’ success, I hope Superintendent Beutner will invest in them as well. He should consider teacher residency programs, as well as individualized professional development plans.
Superintendent Beutner should also prioritize improving the curriculum to adapt to the changing economy, and increase access to apprenticeships, paid internships, and specialized instruction that can better prepare students to join the workforce.
I always marvel at how Los Angeles County’s economy – the 17th largest in the world – continues to grow and diversify. The next generation of Angelenos must to be prepared to succeed in emerging job opportunities across all sectors, such as bioscience.
Previous superintendents have wrestled with the district’s grim fiscal reality with varying degrees of success and failure. Some established misguided priorities, while others aimed too low to be deemed truly successful.
Superintendent Beutner must have the courage to make bold decisions in the face of resistance, the business acumen to correct the district’s perilous finances, and an understanding of local culture and politics to carry out the necessary changes.
We cannot continue to do business as usual. We must ensure that future generations of Angelenos are empowered to lead our industries and our communities.
Mr. Superintendent, you now have the job you sought. Now show us how to save the District.
Mark Ridley-Thomas is a former high school teacher and currently serves as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Can LAUSD Govern Accordingly?