Why LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner Wants To Talk About Teacher Quality Right Now

Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, delivers a speech in the library of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus in Koreatown on Thurs., Sept. 13, 2018. It was his first major policy speech. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

This week, the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District delivered his first major policy speech, four months after he took on the job. It was an opportunity for Superintendent Austin Beutner to lay out challenges he sees facing the nation's second largest school district.

Challenges other than, you know, getting a labor agreement with the district's teachers union.

"If that's all we talk about," Beutner told KPCC/LAist on Friday, "then we are going to stick with the same old status quo we've got that's just not good enough."

Beutner didn't change the subject to talk about easy issues. His speech Thursday took on an issue at the center of some of the most bitter teachers union battles in recent years: teacher quality.

Here's what he said in the speech:

A little backstory here: public school administrators have long argued it's too difficult to fire ineffective teachers, especially after they get tenure. In California, teachers earn tenure earlier than in most other states.

But in Sacramento, efforts to overhaul the tenure system have hit dead ends. In the courts, the high-profile Vergara lawsuit, which aimed to throw out tenure laws in the name of improving teacher quality, left teachers unions feeling demonized — and was ultimately unsuccessful anyway.

In an interview with KPCC/LAist Beutner emphasized he isn't trying to make a "fundamental attack" on tenure but he does remain concerned about making sure teachers are effective.

"Vergara being tried and adjudicated, right, wrong or otherwise, didn't address the issue of a high-quality teacher in every class," he said. "The challenge still exists."

Still, why bring up the issue now — two weeks after the rank-and-file of United Teachers Los Angeles voted to authorize a possible strike?

Beutner's answer: focusing only on the issues at dispute in contract negotiations sidelines other worthy conversations.

"There's common ground we can find," the superintendent said in his interview, "and maybe we have to broaden the conversation to find that common ground, rather than going back to the same two or three places where the district and labor have been butting heads for a long time and haven't found solutions."

District officials have spent a lot of time talking about the union's priorities — such as salary increases and class size reductions — that administrators believe LAUSD cannot afford. (UTLA would vigorously debate them on this point, of course.)

As Beutner said in his speech — delivered to an invitation-only crowd at the RFK Community Schools campus in Koreatown — UTLA and LAUSD ought to be fighting for more funding, not each other:

So did Beutner open up new lanes for compromise? Or reopen old wounds?

Legislating teacher quality "is a policy narrative that has come and went," said UTLA vice president Daniel Barnhart, speaking outside the school library where Beutner delivered his speech.

And "it's a non-starter when you are unable to sit down and negotiate the basics of class size, the basic student and staff supports that we need at every school," Barnhart added — referencing the union's charge that the district has been dragging its feet in returning to contract mediation. UTLA members have been working without a contract for more than a year.

Beutner offered few details of how he proposed to "manage ineffective teachers out" — particularly while simultaneously protecting the tenure system that critics say saddles schools serving the highest-need students with higher numbers of low-quality teachers. (Research on the claim is mixed.)

Beutner also offered few details of how he proposed to level the playing field for "hard-to-staff schools" by allowing them to hire or train teachers "differently." (LAUSD board members have already voted to exempt the highest-need schools from accepting displaced teachers.)

There were other new priorities Beutner mentioned prominently for the first time, too: creating more "transparency" in the teacher contract negotiation process, a better accounting of how resources are spent at individual schools and reducing parent barriers to volunteering in school.

But Beutner also issued a warning he's been repeating with increasing frequency as UTLA talks have gotten more contentious. "Los Angeles Unified is not too big to fail," Beutner said in his speech, "and no one is coming to save us if we do."

UTLA contends district officials are basing their "fiscal cliff" forecast on projections that, historically, have been way off target. They point out L.A. Unified currently has more than $1.8 billion in reserve.

District officials say they'll have to burn through that reserve in order to keep the district solvent for the next three years.

But in his interview with KPCC/LAist, Beutner also said he was in "violent agreement" with UTLA that the district must find ways to pay teachers more, to reduce class sizes and to hire more nurses, counselors and deans — but that the burden for funding these wish-list items rests with Sacramento, not with the LAUSD board.

"If we approach this moment trying to find answers only in wound-up rhetoric," Beutner said in his speech, "that will just land us where we've already been."

UPDATED, Sept. 16, 9:30 p.m.: Added an additional excerpt from Beutner's speech.