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LAUSD Board Chooses Miami's Alberto Carvalho As Next Superintendent

A man wearing a black suit and a tie seated at a school board dais gestures with his closed right hand while speaking into a microphone.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is seen during a school board meeting in 2018.
(Joe Raedle
/
Getty Images North America)
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Alberto Carvalho, the charismatic leader of Miami’s public school system with an immigrant's story, is the top pick to be the next superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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LAUSD Board Chooses Miami's Alberto Carvalho As Next Superintendent

LAUSD board members announced their intentions to open contract negotiations with Carvalho following a closed-door meeting Thursday morning. The vote was unanimous.

Carvalho grew up without much money in Portugal, moved to the U.S. as a teen, learned English and Spanish and worked odd jobs before landing a job teaching science at a Miami high school in 1990. From there, he worked his way to the top of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools — the nation’s fourth-largest school system — where he has been superintendent since 2008.

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In 2018, Carvalho very nearly became chancellor of New York City’s schools; Mayor Bill de Blasio publicly announced Carvalho as his choice to lead the nation’s largest district. But at the last minute, Carvalho appeared to change his mind on live television and decided to turn the job down.

Barring another last minute change-of-heart, Carvalho would become LAUSD’s fourth non-interim superintendent in the past 10 years — following Austin Beutner, longtime administrator Michelle King (2016-2017) and John Deasy (2011-2014).

The board’s selection caps a four-month community outreach and search process after Beutner stepped down as LAUSD superintendent back in June.

Carvalho's Time In Miami

Since Carvalho took the helm at Miami-Dade, the district says its graduation rate has increased 31 percentage points — from 58.7% in 2006-07 to just under 90 percent in 2019-20. (If charter schools are excluded from the calculation, Miami’s graduation rate would top 93 percent.)

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On LAUSD school board members’ wish list for a new superintendent, Carvalho arguably checks a number of boxes. His success as an immigrant echoes the experiences of many L.A. families: one out of every five LAUSD students is still learning English.

School board members here were also seeking a candidate with experience leading a large, low-income district, and Carvalho has it: 73% of Miami-Dade’s 337,000 students eat free or reduced price meals at school.

He also has experience that Beutner conspicuously lacked: significant classroom experience.

Eight years after arriving in the U.S., Carvalho landed a job teaching science at Miami Jackson High School in 1990, the Tampa Bay Times reported. He was then 25 years old. (The newspaper’s profile noted students at Jackson nicknamed him “Armani” for the sharp suits he wore daily.) Five years later, he became an assistant principal.

He climbed the district ladder to become superintendent in 2008, during the full swing of the Great Recession. Nine Miami-Dade schools were facing possible shutdown and the school system was “nearly bankrupt,” according to an NPR profile.

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“We decided that the crisis was our friend,” Carvalho told an audience in 2013. “We’re going to embrace the crisis and do every crazy great thing we wanted to do today and blame it on the economy.”

In the four years after he took over, Carvalho reassigned more than two-thirds of Miami-Dade’s school principals through a mix of termination, demotion and promotion. During that same period, the district also did not renew the contracts of 6,000 teachers it felt were low-performing.

This was an era of brash education leadership. Around the same time, Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee brought in PBS cameras to film her firing principals over their performance. Carvalho isn’t shy about seeking publicity, but on this hot-button issue, he chose a different course.

“You didn’t see me on the cover of Newsweek,” Carvalho said in 2013, “because I knew if we proclaimed and actually gloated over firing teachers I would have invited national forces that would have stifled and stopped my reform efforts.”

LAUSD Superintendents (1990-present)
    • Bill Antón (July 1990-Sept. 1992)
    • Sidney Thompson (Oct. 1992-June 1997)
    • Ruben Zacarias (July 1997-Jan. 2000)
    • Ramón Cortines* (Jan. 2000-June 2000)
    • Roy Romer (July 2000-Oct. 2006)
    • David Brewer (Nov. 2006-Dec. 2008)
    • Ramon Cortines* (Jan. 2009-Apr. 2011)
    • John Deasy (Apr. 2011-Oct. 2014)
    • Ramon Cortines* (Oct. 2014-Dec. 2015)
    • Michelle King (Jan. 2016-Sept. 2017)
    • Vivian Ekchian* (Sept. 2017-May 2018)
    • Austin Beutner (May 2018-June 2021)
    • Megan Reilly* (July 2021-present)

    * Denotes interim

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Immediate Challenge: Shore Up Enrollment

In any time, the scale of the challenge facing a new LAUSD superintendent would be massive.

Around 600,000 students of all ages attend schools the district runs or regulates, more than 80 percent of whom are low-income. The school system is also one of L.A. County’s largest employers, with a nearly-$9 billion annual operating budget that rivals the budgets of some entire U.S. states.

Carvalho will inherit that sizable portfolio at a precarious moment. California funds school districts based on the number of students enrolled, and LAUSD’s enrollment — which has been declining steadily for nearly two decades — lurched downward by more than 20,000 students this year as parents opt for private or home-schooling, delay kindergarten enrollment or balk at LAUSD’s student vaccine mandate.“

"They’re going to need a superintendent who can address this,” said Pedro Noguera, dean of USC’s Rossier School of Education. “You can only address it if you can ensure the public that the schools are better — that kids are going to be well-served if they choose L.A. public schools.”

Deep Pockets, Deep Needs

The pandemic has also exacerbated many of the academic and socioeconomic challenges the new superintendent will have to face.

LAUSD is overwhelmingly Latino, but a recent L.A. Times analysis found less than half of the district’s Latino elementary students met grade-level benchmarks in reading last year — compared with 70 percent of white students.

The superintendent has to think about all students, but they have to have an equity-minded focus to say there are some student groups who have far greater needs than others.
— Tyrone Howard, UCLA Professor

During the pandemic, fewer LAUSD alums qualified for spots at a four-year state university in California. More than 50% of the district’s Latino high school graduates and two-thirds of Black graduates did not earn the credits they needed to qualify for admission at a UC or CSU school. (By contrast, 56% of white grads and 72% of Asian grads did earn the credits they needed.)

Tyrone Howard, a professor at UCLA’s School of Education & Information Studies, said he believed the superintendent must craft strategies to address the needs of a growing population of homeless students and often-overlooked foster youth. LAUSD’s Black Student Achievement Plan is a start, but Howard said data continues to suggest Black students “don’t feel as supported.”

“The superintendent has to think about all students,” Howard added, “but they have to have an equity-minded focus to say there are some student groups who have far greater needs than others, and how do we think very intentionally about those groups.”

For now, LAUSD is financially stable, still riding high from record levels of state funding and roughly $5 billion in extraordinary pandemic relief aid.

But while the district had hoped to use that money to hire more than 1,100 literacy and math teachers, counselors and coaches — all to help students make up ground lost during distance learning — as of mid-November, the district has filled only half of those positions. They are, after all, temporary — and like school systems everywhere, LAUSD is grappling with shortages of qualified staff, ranging from substitute teachers to student mental health providers.

Two men, including President Barack Obama on the right, embrace and shake hands behind a podium in front of a gold background.
FILE - President Barack Obama embraces Alberto M. Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, at the ConnectED conference in the East Room of the White House in 2014.
(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP)

Seven Board Members, ‘Seven Different Directions’

Carvalho will have to tackle these challenges while also navigating the layered politics of the LAUSD board.

Unlike in New York and Chicago, where the mayor appoints both the school board and the superintendent, LAUSD’s seven-member school board is elected and is the ultimate authority in the district. Their most important job is to hire a superintendent to serve as the district’s chief executive officer.

All seven board members were elected with the support of either L.A.’s teachers union or advocates for charter schools — publicly funded, tuition-free schools run by private groups, not LAUSD. (If you’re keeping score, teachers union allies are one vote short of a clear majority.)

But the pandemic has turned down the temperature on the charter debate, and other issues have heated up. For instance, pushing LAUSD to distribute even more money to the district’s poorest and highest-need schools is a central issue for some board members — and important outside advocacy groups.

These fractious board politics have helped fuel LAUSD’s churn through four permanent superintendents — and three interims — in the past decade.

Board members were deeply divided over whether to hire Beutner in 2018, and while his pandemic response earned him widespread praise, it’s not clear board members ever bought into his vision for the district. The late Michelle King’s tenure was cut short by cancer, but just before her departure, she had been struggling to sell the board on her strategic plan. (USC’s Noguera, who advised her on that plan, said the board didn’t understand “what a strategic plan was.”)

“For a superintendent to have a sustained tenure, it’s important for them to feel empowered and not pulled in seven directions by different board members,” said John Rogers, a UCLA professor and director of the university’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

“Rather than have seven different leaders, who are strong caring and committed, but wanting to enact power to advance their own visions, we need to have a shared vision,” Rogers added, saying that one person — the superintendent — should be articulating that vision.

A strategic plan is among the first things school board member Kelly Gonez called for when her colleagues elected her board president one year ago.

“We have to be thinking about — in the long term — how do we meet the socio-emotional needs of our students,” Gonez said in an interview in December 2020. “How do we close the learning gaps we know have emerged in this time, and how do we continue to support our families?”

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).