In Superintendent Austin Beutner’s Los Angeles Unified, it’s as if the 2018 elections never happened, or that Donald Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education had never turned a glaring klieg light on the avarice of “school choice” Democrats under Obama who suddenly found themselves aligned with voucher-loving, charter school-pushing megadonors to the Republican Party.
Charter industry proponents may believe they have the upper hand against United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), a teacher union of 30,000-plus members, but it seems the privately-run and publicly funded charter franchise business sector is more embattled than may seem at first look. Why? Because they’ve been exposed as the zealous market fundamentalists they are, they keep pushing their unwanted billionaire philanthrocapitalist experiments on city after city despite a string of failures and anemic results, and their top-down strategies ignore the fundamental needs of students, parents, and teachers closest to the classroom — where children find it impractical to be sick on Monday, for example, the one day of the week the school has a nurse on campus, and insist on falling ill on nurseless Tuesdays through Fridays.
While Superintendent Buetner acts as if he prefers the good old days of 2012, what he’s actually missing is how the landscape has shifted under his feet and the feet of school privatizers. If he had been immersed in the day-to-day of Los Angeles’ public school system from a lived perspective for the past several years instead of parachuting in to the top job at the nation’s second largest school district eight months ago, he would’ve known that substantial tides have shifted against him.
First, let’s look at recent history of the leadership of LAUSD to see if neophyte Superintendent Beutner is in over his head. Is he likely to plunge LAUSD into chaos similar to the iPad overreach and MISIS scheduling software disasters that were the hallmark of past Superintendent John Deasy’s top-down policies? If 2018’s Education Spring in the red states of Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Colorado are any indication of longstanding teacher disgruntlement with the state of classrooms and stature of the profession nationwide, the answer to both questions is yes. If the sight of 50,000 marchers in mid-December isn’t enough warning, what is?
Beutner is an investor and former public official with no classroom or school administrative experience. Like Deasy, Beutner is allied with the Eli Broad/Trump/DeVosian “run it like a business” wing of the business sector that believes students and teachers are widgets any CEO can manage, no specialized education expertise required. Beutner favors implementing a “portfolio” model on Los Angeles Unified that follows the pattern set by New Orleans’ famously all-charter school district. And in that, he underestimates the scope, nature, and breadth of threats LAUSD faces and his rote responses from the “ed reform” playbook to UTLA’s social justice unionism will likely show how he is ultimately the wrong person to lead the district.
Background On Beutner’s Appointment
To date, Los Angeles Unified teachers have been without a renewed contract for well over 20 months. Some of the delay was due to the unfortunate and unexpected serious illness of immediate past Superintendent Michelle King, a career educator who rose from the teaching ranks in LAUSD to replace John Deasy after a national search process involving many town halls and community forums, and who reluctantly resigned in January, 2018.
Turbulence in the composition of the school board marked the spring of 2018, as parents in the district rallied to oust charter lobby-backed LAUSD School Board President Ref Rodriguez after an investigation found he was guilty of felony campaign finance violations committed in seeking his school board seat. At first he sought to hush critics by stepping down as president of the board.
Community demands that he resign altogether grew, and one of Rodriguez’s last acts was to cast a May, 2018 majority vote to approve Beutner’s appointment as Superintendent before Rodriguez tendered his resignation in July, 2018. Unlike the search for King, Beutner met none of the requirements community members had set out as criteria for the Superintendent that marked the search for King. Charter industry-backed school board members Monica Garcia, Richard Vladovic, Ref Rodriguez, Kelly Gonez, and Nick Melvoin all overrode the objections of five former LAUSD school board members who spoke out publicly against Beutner to instead offer him the Superintendent position. George McKenna, one of two board members who voted against, said at the time: “We’re paying $350,000 to a trainee [Beutner]. That’s an interesting anti-school concept — that anyone can run a school district because schools aren’t working well.…” The “trainee” was approved to begin as Superintendent in June, 2018.
What UTLA Wants: Context
After passage of the 2012 Local Control Funding Formula and its renewal in 2016, base grants and concentration grants to certain categories of students (English Language Learner, Foster Youth, and Low-Income/Free and Reduced Lunch recipients) raised new funds and redistributed those state monies to school districts. This would seem to have flooded the K-12 public school system with funding, but in fact two major siphons emerged: charter school growth and the ed tech/testing industry.
At the same time as LCFF raised revenue for K-12, the expansion of charters since 1992 and the unchecked spread of them in LAUSD, thought of as desirable by city oligarchs like Eli Broad but few others, has eroded enrollment in public neighborhood schools. (Charter schools are privately managed with public money yet exempt from key civil rights, labor, open records, and building safety codes that all truly public schools must adhere to. They are essentially unregulated and as a result subject to unaccountable corruption and mismanagement. A 2015 estimate of unaccounted for public funds shunted to charters amounts to $80 million or more.
Because public schools have fixed costs, charters that strip enrollment from neighborhood public schools often leave those public schools with the most expensive students to educate (special needs children, for example) and fewer resources with which to do it. Charter growth is mutually exclusive to the health and stability of an existing public school system when each public school is funded through Average Daily Attendance based on pupil head counts.
A second major “stealth” impairment of public schools post-2012 was the growth of the testing/remediation industry. After the Great Recession of 2007-2011, few of the counselors, librarians, paras/classroom aides, and nurses that had previously staffed schools were replaced. Instead, the rush to implement Common Core, and more specifically, the computer-based tests that comprise CAASSP, shifted resources away from people hired to serve students’ basic needs to a high tech infrastructure best suited to harvesting student test data.
Finally, because the Great Recession saw LAUSD’s staffing workforce reduced by about <a>2,000 teachers a year between 2008-2012, from approximately 40,000 teachers for 650,000 students in 2008 to approximately 30,000 teachers for 570,000 students today, class sizes have stayed large or gotten larger.
UTLA’s demands can be summarized as:
Beutner’s Approach to Negotiations: Discredited Ed Reform Playbook Offered As a Template
Six months into his eight month time as Superintendent, Beutner decided that a portfolio approach would best suit LAUSD. In an attempt to increase “local control,” Beutner would create thirty two area networks within the 720-acre Los Angeles Unified district boundary, as reported by the LA Times:
Kitamba partner and chief executive Rajeev Bajaj, while heading different companies, became a major consultant in 2010 and 2011 for the school-reform effort in Newark, N.J. The companies in which he was involved attracted media attention because of potential conflicts involving business ties to state and local officials.LA Times, 11/05/18
His partner at Kitamba, Erin McGoldrick Brewster, served as chief of data and accountability for the District of Columbia Public Schools, under hard-charging former Supt. Michelle Rhee. In 2009, McGoldrick Brewster, along with Rhee, came under scrutiny for not pushing harder to investigate credible allegations of cheating at schools that showed huge gains on standardized tests.
The work of Ernst & Young and Kitamba is being paid for by the recently established Fund for Equity and Excellence, which pools philanthropic resources for local education. Donors include the Ballmer Group, the California Community Foundation, the California Endowment, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Weingart Foundation.
Both Newark and the District of Columbia were also subjected to the experimentation of edupreneur philanthropists with little to no expertise in school administration. In the case of Newark, a huge $100 million infusion of cash from the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation was intended to inject “competition” into the Newark School District, one, pitting schools against each other using aggregate school tests scores as an index of “achievement,” and two, increasing the numbers of charter schools. It mostly inspired a book documenting the Newark experiment’s bloated ineffectiveness and the voracious self-perpetuation of the “school failure industry,” also known as the “education industrial complex.” DC, once the model of the “school failure industry,” crashed and burned after discredited then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s pay-for-grades cheating scandal highlighted the illegitimacy of rewarding teachers and principals with cash for using standardized test scores to measure student growth; school administrators promptly changed wrong test answers to right ones to boost scores.
Several critics of Beutner’s “portfolio model” point out how private management of public schools has failed in Detroit, New Orleans, and Chicago. Lois Weiner describes how segregation and push-out of low-performing/expensive to educate students are the primary results of school closures and competition for students:
In New Orleans, Detroit, and other cities in which states have imposed the “portfolio model”, creation of charter networks may have given a small number of students increased educational opportunities, but as we have seen in the most extensive “experiment” in charterization, in New Orleans, the vast majority of schools and teachers receive inadequate funding and support. Schools that have become more racially isolated train students for low-paid jobs and “push out” those who are dissatisfied. A select number of elite and well-funded public schools are maintained in the richest and whitest parts of the city, and a few lucky working-class students of color find spots in these schools.Lois Weiner, Jacobin Magazine
In New Orleans, Denver, and DC, The City Fund, a so-called philanthropy designed to pilot and spread the “portfolio model” says that three pillars help improve student achievement:
The City Fund’s goal is for cities to have a large charter sector, “often scaling to serve 30-50% of students,” the presentation reads. Those schools, it argues, creates a competitive environment, one pillar of The City Fund’s model. They believe this will help “all boats rise.”Chalkbeat
The second pillar is accountability, or “the expansion of the city’s best schools and the replacement of its worst, regardless of type,” based on a common performance rubric. And the third is equity, which it connects to a central choice system for a city’s district and charter schools.
One thing that is explicitly not part of the approach: more public money for schools. “None of these structural reforms cost public dollars,” the presentation reads. “Cities can increase the efficiency and equality of the system within existing budgets — with philanthropy supporting the transition costs.”
The group has an aggressive timeline for convincing cities to move in this direction, according to the presentation.
Between 2018 and 2021, it hopes to have success in at least 20 cities, affecting around one million students. Specifically, their goal is for 10 cities to have fully adopted the model, and 10 more to be making progress.
As has been described above, graduation rates for students from portfolio model cities are still less than stellar and none of those highly segregated or permanently privatized school districts are known for their exemplary programs. Much like the startled residents of Newark who learned from watching Oprah that billionaire philanthropists had decided how to solve Newark Public Schools’ problems, LAUSD families learned about Beutner’s plans to implement the “portfolio model” from a series of confidential documents the Los Angeles Times gained access to and then published in November, 2018.
Beutner’s lack of imagination in addressing the specific needs of Los Angeles Unified, his inability to connect with teachers, his reliance on shopworn, top-down, and out of touch policies in negotiating with the union reveals a blinkered approach.
Most recently, LAUSD tried to weaponize the provision of special education services by claiming that striking teachers would be denying their students, some of whom have profound disabilities, if they walked the picket line. The petition to the court was quickly rejected. UTLA union head Alex Caputo-Pearl said that if Beutner cared about special needs students, he would’ve reduced class sizes immediately.
Charter industry proponents may be spoiling for a fight with United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), a union of 30,000-plus members, but it seems the privately-run and publicly funded charter franchise business sector is more embattled than may seem at first look.