After A Year As Los Angeles’s School Superintendent, Learning To Separate Facts From Myths

Wednesday, August 21, 2019
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A first-generation American, son of a factory worker and a schoolteacher, attends public schools. which provide him with a great education.

That education, hard work, and a good deal of luck lead to success beyond his wildest dreams. A decade ago, he has a serious accident and decides to spend the next chapter of his life working to make sure that others have the same opportunity for a great education and a great job that he had. To help achieve this goal, he works for the federal government and local government, and becomes active in philanthropy—at the same time, attempting to reinvigorate journalism in his community. 

And a year ago, he becomes superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, hoping to apply what he’s learned from a lifetime of work in the private and public sector.

That individual is me.

Sounds like the American dream, right?

Or at least all but the part about the accident. 

So, what have I learned over this past year? Let’s start with the basics. Because of the dedication and hard work of more than sixty thousand employees at LA Unified, we are making progress.   

Graduation rates will reach an all-time high, surpassing 78 percent for the class of 2019. That’s quite an improvement from a graduation rate of just about 62 percent a decade ago. 

Chronic absences are down, reversing years of increases. In the first semester alone, students attended more than eighty thousand additional days of school.

Scores on state tests in math and English increased at every grade level, and we had the highest percentage of English learners become proficient in the language since the state started keeping records in 2003. 

A record number of students took college-placement exams. 

Suspension rates are at an all-time low, and students missed less than four thousand days of school, down from almost sixty thousand a decade ago. 

We built two new schools, bringing the total to 238 new schools and campus additions over the past twenty years. Gone are the days of year-round schedules and students commuting for hours across town to find an open seat in a classroom. 

And we’re doubling down on our efforts to serve students with great needs. There is talent in every seat in every classroom in every one of the 1,386 schools in LA Unified, but there is not always opportunity. In the coming school year, we will increase special funding to our highest-need schools by more than tenfold. But that’s still meeting only a fraction of the need in the face of gripping poverty in many of the communities we serve. 

So yes, we are making progress. But we still have a long way to go, and we need to increase the pace of progress. Here’s why:

  • The proportion of students not proficient at grade level is 56 percent in reading and 67 percent in math.
  • Only 10 percent of students with disabilities are proficient at grade level in both reading and math.
  • Of 100 kids who enter ninth grade in our high schools, about 12 will graduate from college. 

In an ordinary year, this would be a reasonable summary of the work in the nation’s second-largest school district. But the past year was not an ordinary year. 

In January, employees of LA Unified went on strike for the first time in 30 years. In June, Los Angeles voters failed to approve a ballot measure (Measure EE) to provide additional funding for local schools via a parcel tax (16 cents per square foot of indoor space on property owners, which would have generated around $500 million annually for over a dozen years).

But one contract won’t solve the decades of frustration felt by those who work in public schools. And New York City still provides about $29,000 to educate each student while in Los Angeles we’re asked to make do with about $16,000. 

How long have we been talking about the same frustrations, the same opportunity gaps, and the same shocking lack of funding? If we really want the best for our students, we have to solve these problems.

Let’s roll the clock back to January. At the time, polls said 80 percent of people supported the need for better pay, smaller class sizes, and more much-needed assistance to schools. The only surprise to me was that it wasn’t 100 percent, because we all should be in favor of those improvements. 

Also in January, more than two-thirds of poll respondents (69 percent) said they would be willing to pay more in taxes to provide the money for this. But come the June election, less than half of those who voted were willing to pay about 75 cents a day to support local schools.

What happened? Of those who were eligible to vote, 84 percent did not cast a ballot. If schools are the common ground on which we all stand, why not vote?

Let’s dig a little deeper and try and understand the views of those who did vote. Many expressed disappointment that funds from other tax measures have not solved the problems they were intended to solve and a broader frustration with being overtaxed. 

But one question from a poll taken in early 2018 stands out to me. When asked if they think local schools are going in the right direction, only 26 percent of respondents said yes; 40 percent said no. The same sentiments were expressed in a poll taken a decade before. We have hard work ahead to build trust, and it must start with more transparency about all we do, including where every dollar is spent. And we have to separate fact from fiction.

Let’s look at a few of the commonly held myths. 

Myth #1: LA Unified Has Plenty of Money 

New York invests about $29,000 per student each year and Los Angeles about $16,000. Let that sink in.

And LA Unified is spending more than it takes in each year. This year, the district will spend about $1,000 more per student than it receives from state and federal government. That practice can’t continue, as LA Unified will soon run out of savings and be looking at cuts, not increases, in spending.

Transparency will help. In September, we’ll publish a document that will show where every dollar goes, in very plain language. It will explain, for example, that LA Unified spends about $12 million on music instruction in elementary schools, or about $39 per student, per year. 

Myth #2: LA Unified Has a Bloated Bureaucracy

Ninety-seven percent of the budget is spent at schools. Yes, 97 percent.

In the past year, we’ve cut administrative costs by more than $100 million through a combination of layoffs, procurement savings, and other efficiencies and are asking folks to work harder. We’ve reduced health-care costs by almost $100 million by working with our labor partners.

We still need to tackle benefit costs, which continue to outpace state funding. And we’ll continue to look for other ways to be more efficient with every dollar we have.

But there’s no circumstance where cuts alone will provide the money to adequately fund schools, and there’s no way to recombine parts of $16,000 and turn it into $29,000. 

Myth #3: Only Dramatic Plans Will Improve Public Education

LA Unified is a complex organization with more than sixty thousand employees. On any given day, students are being taught in more than seventy thousand classes. Disruption is not what they need. They need stability and continuity. Dramatic plans have not worked elsewhere, and they won’t in Los Angeles.

Educators know what works—experienced school leaders with the budget they need to do the job, working with high-quality teachers supported by colleagues who can help address the social and emotional needs of each student. Schools should not be test kitchens where the recipe is changed every twenty-four months. We need to focus on what works and stay with it.

So, where do we go from here?

It starts with achievement, as it should.

We need to restore the school as the center and build capacity in school leadership. We’ll be adding more professional development for school leaders and teachers. We’ll provide school communities with new tools to offer a more complete picture of everything at that school—attendance, achievement, student needs, and available resources. And we’ll keep working to reduce the bureaucracy to allow school leaders to focus on students, families, and teachers. 

We have to do more for the students most in need, and schools can’t do it alone. City, county, and federal governments have to work alongside us as we try to help students escape from poverty.

The old adage “You judge a society by how it treats its children” comes to mind. That dollar difference between New York and Los Angeles over the course of a student’s K–12 journey adds to more than the cost of a teacher and an aide for an entire year. That’s why we’ll continue to fight for additional funding. Imagine what students in Los Angeles could do if they each had their own teacher and aide for a full year in the third grade. 

Perhaps most fundamental of all is the need to bring everyone into the work of public education. It’s our shared responsibility—business and labor, philanthropy and community organizations, faith-based organizations and elected officials. The children in our schools today are the Los Angeles of the future. We cannot rest until all students are getting the best possible education and the opportunity it will provide them in life.