Was Austin Beutner The Change-Maker LAUSD Was Looking For?
On September 13, 2018, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s still-new superintendent, Austin Beutner, delivered his first major policy speech to a crowd of invited guests in a high school library in Koreatown.
That day, Beutner laid out four “opportunities” for his superintendency in the address. Among those priorities: determining which LAUSD teachers weren’t up to the job.
“We need a transparent, efficient, and fair process to manage ineffective teachers out,” Beutner said — words that, in education circles, evoked bitter, long-running debates about teacher evaluations and job protections.
Beutner stepped down Wednesday after three years leading LAUSD. As he departs, many in the district are conflicted about how to view Beutner’s tenure: Did he take the job to shake up LAUSD’s “status quo?” And did he change the district for the better?
Consider that early speech on teacher quality. For John Marshall High School teacher Nicolle Fefferman, revisiting those words was like getting dunked in “a cold bit of water.”
Like many L.A. teachers' union members, Fefferman said she has warmed to Beutner over the last year. She’s grateful for the “moral courage” he displayed in helping LAUSD weather the pandemic. The superintendent she once chanted against during the 2019 strike became a “legitimate partner” to the rank-and-file, she said.
Still, Fefferman isn’t upset at Beutner’s departure. Fefferman wants the school board to hire someone with prior education experience, which Beutner lacked. Plus, listening to his early statements about teacher quality again reminded Fefferman of why she distrusted him in the first place, and “why we went into the strike so determined, viewing [Beutner] as an antagonist, not an ally.”
To Ben Austin, that early speech is emblematic of something else: what he considers the “missed opportunity” of Beutner’s superintendency.
Austin — an advocate for giving parents more direct control in schools — welcomed Beutner’s bold, early talk. But Austin feels the strike weakened Beutner, and since then, he feels the superintendent has been too deferential to United Teachers Los Angeles, particularly on distance learning and campus-reopening decisions.
And the debate Beutner proposed about teacher quality three years ago? It never really took off.
“I thought [Beutner] was well-positioned to chart a new course for the children of Los Angeles,” Austin said. “I think it’s fair to say he’s ended up being at best a caretaker for the status quo.”
In an exit interview with KPCC/LAist this week, Beutner said his tenure was transformative for the nation’s second-largest school district. But he disagreed with the suggestion that those early words about teacher quality were evidence that he saw challenging unions as a necessary part of shaking up LAUSD.
“We did something radically different,” he said. “But we didn't bust anything up. We worked together…”
“Maybe there are people who wanted me to come for that fight,” Beutner said. “I didn't come for that fight, okay? I didn't come for the charter, no-charter fight either. I came to make it better. And that's what we did.”
The superintendent’s defenders say Beutner should be remembered as a bridge-builder.
“When he came to office, he was really championed by education reformers,” said Bill Burton, founder of the political and public affairs firm Bryson Gillette, “and a lot of people would say that to his credit that he didn’t just hew to one party line [in the union-versus-‘reform’ debate].”
We asked Beutner about an array of issues, moments and crises he faced as superintendent — and a few stakeholders about how they feel Beutner did.
The Teachers' Strike
Back in 2018, UTLA members were already gearing up for their strike when Austin Beutner’s superintendency began. The former investment banker said at the time, he was a blank slate.
“I started at the school district just as an archetype,” he said. “Nobody had seen me work at a school — I hadn't worked at a school. I fit…whatever narrative the union wanted to have in terms of a strike.”
The union would ultimately cast Beutner as the villain of the January 2019 walkout. During the ramp-up to the strike, union members frequently accused Beutner of negotiating through the press.
But the superintendent contends the strike was never really about him: it was about whether state lawmakers were adequately funding K-12 schools.
In that same September 2018 speech, Beutner harped on elected leaders to raise funding levels using words that closely mirrored the union’s demands: “We want smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers, and additional counselors, librarians and support staff in every school — but we will need more money to pay for it.”
“It wasn't a conversation about whether teachers should be paid more or less,” Beutner said in his exit interview with KPCC/LAist. “We and the union agreed on that. It was a conversation about adequacy.”
United Teachers Los Angeles leaders declined to comment for this story.
Fefferman, who co-moderates the union-allied Parents Supporting Teachers group on Facebook, believes the strike may have changed how Beutner approaches the job.
“During the strike, we were able to get out there, in the streets, and show him,” she said. “The city shut itself down for the strike on behalf of its students. We can say that that moment, perhaps, put him on the path of thinking differently.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Beutner said, the L.A. Unified School District was “more responsive than almost any other form of government.”
“That sounds less than humble,” he said, “but I think the facts would bear that out,” pointing to the district’s early decision to close campuses, LAUSD’s massive food relief effort and early moves to provide COVID-19 testing and vaccinations at school sites.
Throughout, Beutner criticized local officials whom he felt were standing on the sidelines while LAUSD incurred the costs of delivering critical aid to its neediest families.
In government circles, “schools have been historically thought of as the other,” Beutner said — when in fact, he argued, “we are the center of the community. Schools are the future of the community. And I had a mission and a purpose, which is to help more people in Los Angeles recognize that.”
But Beutner also faced criticism — and a legal challenge — from parents who felt he allowed UTLA leaders to dictate the terms for how distance learning would work, or when and how to reopen campuses.
“Parents during the last 18 months have very much felt like they were on the outside looking in,” said the parent advocate Ben Austin, who now runs the organization Education Civil Rights Now.
Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that are operated by non-profit groups, not the school district — but district officials do regulate and oversee the 224 charters operating within LAUSD’s boundaries.
And the relationship between charter schools and the district has always been fraught.
“I joined this telenovela sort of in the 19th season,” Beutner joked.
While Beutner himself has largely stayed above the charter fray, there were moments of tension during his tenure: As part of the teachers’ strike settlement in 2019, LAUSD’s board approved a demand for a moratorium on new charter schools. Charter advocates are also concerned that a new state charter law — and LAUSD’s rules for implementing that law — could pose a threat to the district’s charter schools.
But overall, Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, downplayed those challenges in her reflections on the outgoing superintendent’s tenure. She credits Beutner for his pandemic response, saying he “put the priority on the basic needs of communities.”
“He was a very nimble crisis superintendent,” she said.
Castrejón also pointed out that “charters were fully included in the recent [school construction] bond. I also believe that was a tremendous move forward for charters, again recognizing that charter students are public school students.”
Perhaps the most contentious day-to-day challenge to the relationship between LAUSD and charters centers around the issue of charter schools “co-locating” on campuses of LAUSD-run schools. Beutner said the pandemic made it difficult to pursue more comprehensive solutions to the tensions that arise from these arrangements, which are mandated by state law.
“I believe in school choice,” Beutner said. “I also believe in a well-planned and organized system — not just random choice dispersed throughout. We're seeing the symptoms now that there was no intelligent design in terms of [which neighborhoods in the district] choice is needed.”
“So should charters continue to exist? Yes,” he added. “In my mind, there's great work done in charters. There's great work done in traditional schools…But the sooner we could get rid of co-locations, I think the whole system would be better off.”
At the time Beutner took over as superintendent, the advocacy group Students Deserve was pushing for reforms of the L.A. School Police Department. (They succeeded in 2019 in forcing an end to the department’s random searches policy.)
But after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer last year, Students Deserve activists escalated, pushing for complete defunding of the district’s sworn police force. With UTLA’s support, the group succeeded in securing a $25 million cut from the force, reducing the department’s budget by more than one-third.
Later, the group successfully lobbied the school board to approve spending that money — and more — on a Black Student Achievement Plan that will bring more counselors, social workers and restorative justice coordinators to LAUSD schools with significant populations of Black students.
Beutner trumpeted a version of the plan in one of his weekly addresses in February — and Students Deserve’s youth leaders say Beutner never opposed their efforts. Still, they feel he wasn’t interested in listening to their input. They were dismayed that Beutner did not include a representative from their group — one of the most active on the issue of school policing — on a recent school safety task force.
“Listening to the community and also to students is not something he was inclined to do always,” said Sarah Djato, a Students Deserve activist and recent Dorsey High School graduate. “It wasn’t his instinct even though it’s part of his job description.”
“He was less of an obstacle than he could have been; he could have rallied the school board [against us],” said Sierra Leone Anderson, a rising sophomore at LAUSD’s Girls Academic Leadership Academy.
But overall, Anderson said, “although he was never a huge obstacle, he was never really our side.”
Beutner said going forward, LAUSD should maintain its own police department, saying the district needs a dedicated force of officers to maintain safety: “It has to exist.”
He also said that spending on school police and direct support for high-need students are not mutually exclusive — so long as the state and federal governments fund schools adequately.
Beutner arrived at LAUSD warning that the district was careening perilously close to a “fiscal cliff.”
“If nothing changes,” he warned in that same September 2018 speech, “we are headed for insolvency in the next two to three years…Los Angeles Unified is not too big to fail, and no one is coming to save us if we do.”
In 2019, Beutner championed Measure EE, a parcel tax increase that would’ve generated ongoing operating revenues for the district. He hoped to capitalize on the goodwill the teachers' union had generated during its strike; polls showed the measure would have a fighting chance at the ballot box.
“It turns out there's little difference in what people might say to polls [and] what they'll actually pay for,” Beutner said. Measure EE failed by a wide margin.
Beutner took steps to shore up the LAUSD’s finances from within. He slashed ongoing central office spending by $150 million and worked with the district’s unions to trim healthcare costs.
The biggest game-changer for LAUSD’s fiscal outlook, however, was the arrival of billions in state and federal relief money during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reprieve will only be temporary, Beutner noted, and he worries that once eviction moratoriums and pandemic relief checks go away, the state’s large urban districts will face additional burdens. Beutner foresees LAUSD’s enrollment decline accelerating as families with school-aged kids flee L.A. for cheaper housing or jobs.
Beutner urged both Sacramento and D.C. lawmakers to make the temporary increases in funding permanent: “If you think of Los Angeles Unified as the canary in the coal mine for the state of California — we’re the heartbeat of the fifth largest economy in the world — if it works for us, it's going to work for other school districts.”
“This ought to be the time,” Beutner said, “when the state is looking at more stable financing for schools.”
Critics have long railed against LAUSD as an impenetrable bureaucracy — but Beutner said steps he took during his time in office will make the district less of a monolith.
In 2019, Beutner launched a plan to reorganize the district’s bureaucratic structure, calling for pushing more administrators out of the district’s six regional offices — the “Local District” offices — into 44 neighborhood-based teams.
This de-centralization of the district’s bureaucracy into what are referred to as “Communities of Schools” is, Beutner says, “a big, big structural change.”
The charter association’s Castrejón called this move one of Beutner’s greatest achievements.
“Centralized systems don’t necessarily serve students well and present particular obstacles in meeting the needs of all kids,” said Castrejón, praising Beutner for “bringing decisions to the local level, where the children, their families and their needs can be best understood.”
More recently, Beutner also set the stage for the sale of LAUSD’s downtown headquarters on South Beaudry Avenue — the “Beaudry Building” — which itself came to symbolize the district’s centralized bureaucracy.
“I hope the board embraces [decentralization] even more completely,” he said, “and I hope the next superintendent continues because we're seeing the earliest signs that it's going very, very well.”
Beutner has previously said he’s not stepping down in order to run for public office, denying in an April interview with KPCC/LAist that he was plotting a run for mayor of Los Angeles in 2022.
In our interview this week, though, he did not rule out a run for public office in the near future. Beutner said not to read too much into the discrepancy between his April answer and this week’s answer.
In any case, Beutner said he won’t stay idle for long. Beutner worked for a year as L.A. Times publisher and was a deputy mayor in Antonio Villaraigosa’s administration — and he wants to stay active in civic life.
“What I do next, I don't know,” he said. “I do not know. But I have worked for more than a decade to make Los Angeles a better community. I'm going to continue to do that.”