New LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner wants to change the conversation about public education

By Gary Walker

Austin Beutner presents a student with free eyeglasses during an event for Vision to Learn

Austin Beutner calls himself “an unconventional choice” to lead the 650,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. Few would call that an understatement.

Beutner, who on Tuesday becomes LAUSD’s fourth superintendent in seven years, has no formal administrative experience in the world of public education. He made his fortune as an investment banker, co-founding the global investment banking firm Evercore Partners in 1995. He also served as an international business consultant for the U.S. State Department during the Clinton administration.

But after fracturing his neck in a 2007 bicycle accident, Beutner thought long and hard about what direction to take his future and chose the public sector. In 2010 he became deputy mayor of Los Angeles during the Villaraigosa administration, focusing on streamlining city agencies and making bureaucracy more business friendly. In 2013 he co-chaired the Los Angeles 2020 Commission that recommended LADWP reform. In 2014 he became publisher of the Los Angeles Times, clashing with Chicago-based ownership about renewing the paper’s local focus.

Between his stints at L.A. City Hall and the L.A. Times, Beutner founded Vision to Learn, a nonprofit that conducts free vision screenings and provides free eyeglasses for students in economically struggling areas throughout LAUSD and now more than 100 other school districts nationwide.

Beutner’s mother was a teacher and his father a German engineer who fled Europe ahead of World War II. Both placed a high value on education.

“We moved five times when I was in elementary school,” recalls Beutner, “and each time the choice to live in that community was based on the quality of that community’s public schools.”

The LAUSD board voted 5-2 to offer Beutner a $350,000 annual salary to helm the district through 2021.

Board member George McKenna was critical of choosing “a person with no experience as an educator in K-12 school districts” for the top job in L.A.public education.

“The premise that a non-educator is a better fit to lead a large educational organization because of limited managerial experience in outside business experiences is fundamentally flawed and politically motivated,” wrote McKenna in a public dissent. “To intentionally seek non-educators to serve as superintendents reflects a lack of respect for the professional educators who have demonstrated effective service and leadership within school systems, along with a denial of the board’s ultimate responsibility to establish policies that govern the district and hold the superintendent accountable.”

Nick Melvoin, who represents Westside neighborhoods on the board, praised Beutner as a steady hand who could offer a fresh pair of eyes to tackle declining enrollment amid rising pension and health care costs.

“We need new, creative solutions to tackle old, seemingly intractable problems. Austin Beutner is the right person at this time to help us forge a new path for success in a climate of financial uncertainty, pervasive achievement gaps, and severe underfunding of our public schools. Whether it was at the city, the L.A. Times, a nonprofit, or the private sector, superintendent-designate Beutner has proven his willingness to lead in difficult circumstances,” Melvoin said.

Beutner discussed his new job with The Argonaut on Monday at his Vision to Learn office in Brentwood.

Top left: Beutner stands with Westside school board rep Nick Melvoin during a press conference following the board’s 5-2 vote to hire Beutner {Photo by Gary Leonard}
Bottom left: Students share a laugh with Beutner during a classroom visit for Vision to Learn
Right: Beutner met with The Argonaut on Monday at his Vision to Learn office in Brentwood {Photo by Shilah Montiel}

Running LAUSD is, historically, a very challenging proposition. Why did you want this job?

I’m a public school kid. I had a great public school education. After my accident, I decided to take some time to reflect on what to do next, and I decided that I wanted to spend the next chapter of my life working for others in the community, trying to make the community better. That’s what took me to the mayor’s office, to the Los Angeles Times to revive one of the great civic institutions in our city. That’s what caused me to found Vision to Learn, which has now become a model for the nation. So when this opportunity arose I said to myself it would be an honor and a privilege to serve.

The challenges are well documented, but if we don’t get it right … It’s not optional. The kids are counting on us.

 

How would you answer critics who say you don’t have any experience in education?

Magic happens in the classroom. Great teachers inspire their students, and it’s the job of the superintendent to make sure they have the tools and the resources to succeed. And I think that I can do that. … I’m an unconventional choice, but maybe these are unconventional times.

 

Should LAUSD be run like a business?

No. It can’t be run like a business, and a business can’t be run like government. But there are some similarities. Are you serving the needs of your community and your constituents? I think that’s a good question to ask whether you’re a private or public organization. There should be a way to measure if you’re succeeding. There’s a consistent and stubborn achievement gap between students of color and their peers. We ought to be able to measure that and to figure out what evidence-based programs we can provide to help close that gap.

This school district has kicked down the road a lot of hard choices about where its dollars should go, and in the past there’s been this belief that budget conversations should happen in one room and a school district’s values should happen in another. But I don’t think that’s the case. The budget is a reflection of your values — the values of the workforce, the values of all of us. Public education is our common place. So I think I can help lead us in that conversion: What are our values?

Are conversations about budgets and values really happening in different places?

I think in one room there’s a conversation about how we take care of the people who are responsible for helping our students learn, and that’s the teachers. I think there’s a separate conversation about which students need the most resources and assistance. We all have to be in the same place, in the same room.

 

You’ve clashed with bureaucracies at Los Angeles City Hall. What did you learn from that experience?

One thing I took from that experience was, for me, the first thing that I need to find out is what people are trying to tell me and then how we can find a common language. When I say I want to change something, it connotes something good. I don’t see risk in that, I see opportunity. But if you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time and you hear “change,” you might think “risk” and you might wonder how you’ll be able to participate or share in the opportunity. The first thing I want to do is make sure that I’m listening and then put a team together and hold ourselves accountable. We need to be just as accountable in the public sector as in the private sector.

 

What did the Vision to Learn breach of contract allegations teach you about LAUSD?

It was not a coincidence that this came up in the midst of the superintendent’s race. Those fearful of change saw it as a way to dislodge Austin Beutner. We served the district for five years for free. Every classroom teacher supported our work. So we saw an opportunity to expand and help more kids. We went to the district to accelerate our program and gave them an estimate of roughly $5 million — we’d come up with half and the district would come up with the other half. We agreed to move forward in March 2017. But the agreement was signed for the implementation to begin in October 2017, six months later. We’re six months behind because the district signed the agreement late, but we’re still going to deliver on our promise to serve these kids. … This allegation surfaced when an insider was also competing for the job, so that strikes me as very coincidental.

 

Is LAUSD too centralized?

That’s a good question. I think one of the things that we have to address is how we’re getting the resources that we need to our local schools. To me that’s the most efficient way of doing things. Great school leaders make great schools, so you want to put the resources and the decision-making as close to the local school level as possible.

 

In some Westchester circles there’s still an appetite to form a separate school district. Would you support that level of local control?

That’s a direction, but let’s put aside breakaways and tearing apart the district, because I don’t support that.

 

Can you explain your exit from the Los Angeles Times?

I took on the challenge because journalism is how you hold truth to power; it’s where we engage our community. I looked at the Times and saw it as historic but not as relevant today as it needs to be. And the distant overlords in Chicago had lost the faith of our community. So I thought that I could stand up for our community and make sure the resources go back to the newsroom and tried to imagine a future where we can reengage the community. We didn’t get as far as I wanted at the Times because it became a conflict between the overlords in Chicago and those of us in Los Angeles. They wanted to make cuts to the newsroom, and I wasn’t going to do that so they could pay for their overhead in Chicago. The future of the Times resides with local ownership. I’m glad that Dr. [Patrick] Soon-Shiong bought the paper, and I hope he’ll be successful with it.

 

Often education reporting focuses on what’s wrong in education. What’s going right in LAUSD and other large school districts around the nation?

There are some fantastic teachers that are doing great work. At Venice High School, there’s Kirsten Farrell, a sports medicine teacher. There are only five California Teachers of the Year, and she’s one of them. So there are some fantastic teachers doing great work and sometimes that gets drowned out. We need to remind ourselves that there are a lot of things to be proud about. We have a lot of challenges that we can’t ignore, but I think having a California Teacher of the Year in our community is outstanding.

 

Your friendship with Eli Broad and partnership with charter-affiliated foundations to help fund education reporting at the L.A. Times has led some to describe you as a charter school ally. Is that fair?

When my parents moved to a certain neighborhood, they did it with the hope that there was a school there that would give their children the best opportunity to succeed. I think we owe that to every family in LAUSD. We have about 500,000 kids in traditional public schools and about 100,000 in public charter schools. We have to make sure that the 500,000 in traditional public schools are getting the best education possible, and we have to make sure that the 100,000 in public charter schools are getting the best education possible. Models have to be held accountable, both have to be transparent, and if we’re doing our job kids are going to come out ahead.

There’s no ideology in this for me. I don’t think that the answer lies solely in charters or traditional schools. I think it lies in good schools.

 

Would you support closing neighborhood schools with low enrollment to reduce district expenses and create space for charters, which some charter advocates have suggested?

It’s a little early for me to address that, but I’d take it on a case-by-case basis. One has to be careful about setting arbitrary thresholds.

 

Co-locations of charters on traditional public campuses have become extremely contentious, especially on the Westside, and often framed as a fight over limited resources. What can the school district do to make them less combative?

The taskforce that I helped create believes that we should be looking at the vast real estate portfolio that LAUSD has and consider things like taking land that isn’t being used and turn it into affordable housing for teachers. Some of it could be used as a park, others for office space. All of those things have to be looked at, but I think with a large portfolio there has to be space for some new innovations.

 

Do you think the public generally holds an accurate impression of LAUSD?

I think they don’t. Now why is that? I think in part because people cast aspersions that are not grounded in fact. How many people don’t know about the fantastic work that Kirsten Farrell is doing at Venice High but know about some of the things they’re struggling with at Venice High? I think that we need to do a better job of reinforcing the positives but make sure that we’re not sugarcoating the challenges.

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