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How new superintendent Austin Beutner plans to help LAUSD's struggling schools

Austin Beutner, who starts work Tuesday as the chief executive of the Los Angeles Unified School District, faces several daunting challenges in his new job: falling enrollment, tightening budgets, labor difficulties.

But the most intractable challenge L.A. Unified faces are not financial; at their heart, they're academic.

The scores on last year's math tests vividly illustrate the difficulties: at 341 LAUSD schools, fewer than a quarter of students met state standards in math. At another 124 schools, fewer than 10 percent of students cleared that bar. (Statewide, 37.6 percent of students met standards in math)

Break down the district's test scores by race and you'll find the same intractable gaps. Most white and Asian students in L.A. Unified met or exceeded standards on their reading and math tests. But passing rates for black and Latino students, respectively, lag 30 or 40 percentage points behind.

What is Beutner's philosophy for how to reverse these academic struggles?

His short answer: empower principals. As the new superintendent told KPCC in a wide-ranging interview:

Beutner is not the first superintendent to float "decentralizing" L.A. Unified — that is, giving principals more money to spend on their own schools and more authority to spend those funds on staff or supplies as they see fit, freed from central office directives.

However, "I would challenge you to say has the district actually followed through and truly put resources closer to schools," Beutner said. "I think the discussion has continued but actually hasn't been implemented fully."

The 'principal' thing

Research has zeroed in on the importance of having a strong principal to school improvement efforts.

But placing the onus of reform on principals can come at a cost. Case-in-point: the experience of another finalist to be L.A. Unified's superintendent.

Before he was in the running to lead LAUSD, Andrés Alonso was the top administrator in the Baltimore City Public Schools. While in Baltimore, Alonso led a decentralization effort, giving principals more power over their own budgets.

Richard Ramos, principal of Haddon STEAM Academy, shows off students' model bridge-building projects on display in the hallways of the school in Pacoima. He hopes to create a magnet program at Haddon.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Richard Ramos, principal of Haddon STEAM Academy, shows off students' model bridge-building projects on display in the hallways of the school in Pacoima. He hopes to create a magnet program at Haddon.

But with the extra resources came more responsibility. Alonso "held [principals] more firmly accountable for the results in their school," said Betheny Gross, a senior researcher at the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

"But," added Gross, who co-authored a case study of Alonso's reforms in Baltimore, "the central office didn’t build up the kind of supports that the principals needed to get what became a new kind of job.”

As a result, much of Baltimore's principal corps became burned out. Within four years, only one-quarter of the principals who were in place when Alonso arrived remained on the job.

'The Main Event'

While Baltimore is a cautionary tale, Gross said it's also something of an outlier; other districts have been able to decentralize more successfully, she said.

Nonetheless, Beutner said he's aware of the pitfalls of the strategy.

"Decentralization just for the sake of decentralization doesn't get you a better outcome," Beutner told KPCC. "You could decentralize to every principal today and some principals are ready. Some principals need some more training. Some principals need to be mentored to make sure that they're ready for that level of autonomy."

Beutner will have to address numerous financial challenges that have become familiar in L.A. Unified. The school system is "spending more than it is taking in," Beutner said, as revenues level off and enrollment numbers continue to decline. Pension and healthcare costs are ballooning.

But to Beutner, the academic challenges — closing the achievement gap and lifting struggling schools — is "the main event."

"It's what schools do: help kids realize their potential," he said. "So when I talk about the budgets and everything else, it's reorganizing— it is figuring out what our values are so the resources are there to close that opportunity gap and help that student achieve."