The Big Question: Can U.S. Schools Recover From the Pandemic?

Bloomberg Opinion , July 04, 2021

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Virginia Postrel: After a career in investment banking, diplomacy and newspaper publishing, you’ve just finished a three-year tenure as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest district in the country. The pandemic has been a huge shock to the whole educational system and it would be easy to focus on the negatives. Do you see any positive changes for the future that might come out of the pandemic experience?

Austin Beutner, former superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District: Yes. The work we did to be a safety net for the families and students we serve has renewed a sense of mission for those who work in schools and a sense of collaboration, trust and support with the overall community in Los Angeles. We provided 140 million meals. No other organization in the country did that. We made sure half a million kids had a computer and Internet access. No other government agency in California did that. We provided Covid testing and access to vaccines for students, staff and families. We’ve built an app with Microsoft called the Daily Pass, where we can keep track of whether you’re healthy or not, whether you have a fever or not, if you’ve been Covid tested and whether you’ve been vaccinated. All that has provided a foundation of trust, support and interest in public education — and I believe it will be part of the foundation for school-based health services in the future.

One of the things that I’ve tried to do is bring the community back into public education. Los Angeles is the heartbeat of the fifth-largest economy in the world. We have gifted storytellers and technologists. And since the start of the pandemic we’ve moved light years ahead in terms of how we measure and understand the need to keep students engaged and interested in the work.

So we formed a book club with Snapchat, in which we had Alicia Keys talk about the book she was reading — not me, not the teacher, but Alicia Keys — and we found a way to raise money so children could receive the book for free. We worked with Fender to provide 7,500 free guitars to middle-school students, who probably struggled the most the most socially and emotionally during all of this, so they could engage with others. We created courses with Illumination, the creators of “Despicable Me,” on how to animate. We got James Cameron to help us tell the story of the voyage of the Titanic with literacy, math, and critical thinking woven in. I believe this will stay with us, in that we think more about making sure the offering to students is of interest to students.

And we now have data and information on how students are doing in real time. Think of middle-school students taking math. Before the pandemic, we didn’t have students one-to-one with computers. So if you took a test you had to write on a piece of paper and the teacher had to grade it and you’d get it back the next day or two days later. Now, say you have students taking a five-minute diagnostic test online. If 18 out of 24 students get it and six don’t, and then you see two groups out of the six in which three struggled with this part and three struggled with something else – the teacher can immediately keep the bigger group going and have breakout groups for the two smaller groups. The ability to do real-time diagnostics and individualize the instruction for students, that’s like the Holy Grail. And we’re doing it at all levels.

VP: And that comes out of the fact that because of the pandemic, you got everybody computers?

AB: Computers and Internet access. The core of the students we serve don’t have Internet access because families can’t afford it. So now that we’re all connected, we can share information, whether you are at school or at home. For the first time ever, we introduced online tutoring for students as a supplement. In Los Angeles, we serve students over 700 square miles. One of the difficulties in bringing additional support to schools is that students have a very small window of time after school – because the buses have got to go and if you don’t make the bus, what do you do? Well, now if we want to give you the opportunity to have an extra scoop or two of tutoring, we can do that on your schedule. We can match you with a tutor from anywhere in the country or really anywhere in the world. We couldn’t do that before.

VP: Back in 2019, before Covid, teachers in your district went on strike for the first time in 30 years. During that strike, they enjoyed a lot of support from parents and students. Has that relationship changed at all, especially with disputes about whether schools should go back in person or not? Has that changed who’s trusted?

AB: It’s a good question to which I don’t know the answer. But to put the strike in context, it was a very public conversation about the inadequacy of funding for public schools in Los Angeles. Class sizes were too big. We didn’t have the dollars to hire reading specialists. I agreed with that. But the state funds public education in California, not school districts. When I started three years ago, when the strike occurred, funding per student was about $17,000; at that same time, funding in New York City was approaching $30,000, even though our costs are relatively similar. This year, our budget is $24,000 per student, so for the first time we have a path to adequacy. Now we have to deliver on that promise.

A year ago, we launched a program for struggling readers in which we added 200 reading teachers. We created a program we call the Primary Promise, where we use this ability to get quickie diagnostics to have small breakout groups and small individualized tutoring. We trained our general classroom teachers to work with the reading specialists. And we took a group of students who were struggling to read or non-readers and they had caught up to their peers halfway through the school year. We’re showing we can do it. And if we have adequate funding, we can do that for more students.

VP: And yet there are still some serious fiscal issues facing the district. Over the next few years, the district will confront a deficit of around $1.5-$1.75 billion. If the next superintendent had unilateral power to deal with those deficits, what should they do? They can’t just wave a magic wand and make more money come in.

AB: We’ll have two years in which the federal government will provide about a quarter of our budget, whereas historically it’s been about 12%. So we’ve got about two years of runway to show what adequate funding can do for students. And then Californians are going to need to have an honest conversation about where their values are, because budgets are a reflection of values. If they say, “We just want to pay $17,000,” then you’ll see the outcome. If Californians instead say, “One way or another, we’re going to find a way to have adequate funding for our public schools,” then we’ll deliver on the promise of public education, which is the path out of poverty for many students and the promise of opportunity for all of them. My advice to the next superintendent is to focus on showing what can be done with sufficient resources. The early signals from things like Primary Promise are remarkable. They’re a game changer for us. And I’m absolutely confident if we show that the additional dollars lead to better outcomes for children, then we’ll find a way to have adequate funding in the state of California.

VP: Isn’t there anything that should be cut?

AB: When I started, we had about 4,200 people in the central office building. On any given day now, there’s about 250. Awfully close to every dollar is now spent at a school. I think that’s what taxpayers want to see. We’ve disassembled the bureaucracy. We’re about as lean as one could be. We cut $150 million from central office costs before Covid, but in a budget that’s approaching $10 billion, I think we’re at a point of truly diminishing returns. If less than 2% of dollars are not spent at schools, the focus has got to be on spending the 98% wisely and seeing the best outcome.

VP: About one-fifth of the students who live in the LAUSD area attend independent charter schools. People seem to like them. Do you anticipate that those numbers will remain steady, or will they go up or down?

AB: The relative mix of traditional public schools and charter public schools has actually been stable under my tenure. Our goal has to be that if 80% of students are in traditional schools and 20% are in charter schools, we need the 80% to be as good as they can be. Shifting the mix shouldn’t be your main event, as far as I’m concerned. It’s got to be about raising standards in all schools. Programs like Primary Promise, with the effort to decentralize and restore the voice of local communities, is in effect taking a page from the playbook typically ascribed to charters — which is that they’re nimble, agile and can try things. A traditional public school is the foundation for the work we’re doing with George Clooney and Eva Longoria and Don Cheadle, to create a model for the future about how we prepare a diverse group of students for opportunities in the film and television industry. We’re working with Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine to create a school to build the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs – that’s also being done in a traditional school. And I think both groups would tell you that wouldn’t have been possible a year or two ago in Los Angeles. We got it off the ground in a very short period of time. If traditional school systems can innovate like that, I think you take away a lot of attention as to why the 80% aren’t making the progress.

VP: How does the district make sure that goes forward — that this isn’t just because there was this particular person as superintendent with the connections and vision to make it happen?

AB: There are 86,000 people working for the Los Angeles Unified School District. I’m one person. If we remember that the clearest view of what a student needs is at the front of the classroom, not clouded by what the bureaucracy’s involved in, we’re going to do just fine. The reason we’re doing this work with George Clooney and Eva Longoria is not because Austin could make it happen. Maybe that’s a start, but it’s going to be great because the people involved in the school believe in the mission, believe in the vision and realize we can make it better for students by looking to the future.

VP: Speaking of having a clear view of the front of the classroom, I was once a very near-sighted third grader who had to borrow her classmates’ glasses to see the chalkboard. You founded a charity called Vision to Learn. Can you explain what it does?

AB: Vision to Learn provides free eyeglasses to children in low-income communities who otherwise wouldn’t have them. About one in four children naturally need glasses. If a child needs glasses but doesn’t have them in kindergarten, they’ll often be mislabeled as a behavioral problem. By fourth or fifth grade, they’re called slow learners or something less polite; by eighth grade, they’ll drop out and start looking for reward on the street. We’ve had several groups of researchers look at this and, whether it’s in Los Angeles or Baltimore or other parts of the country, when kids get classes, they do better in school. Their grades go up. The two groups of students for whom it is most beneficial are the bottom quartile, meaning those struggling in school the most, and students with learning differences and disabilities.

VP: What advice would you give to your successor that would not be obvious to people who have not been in the job, but something that you wish you’d been told?

AB: From day one, tell our own story. What do I mean by that? There are great things happening in schools that people don’t know about: children whose dreams are being fulfilled, children being lifted out of poverty by what’s happening in public education. We all take that for granted working in schools because we see it every day — and too much of the narrative is about where we fall short. Like most public institutions, we’re not doing all we can and should do. But there is great work being done.