Can a Business Exec Save One of the Largest School Districts in America?

Austin Beutner, the new leader of Los Angeles schools, is the latest big-city superintendent with no education experience. Some say that -- and his ties to charter schools -- are cause for concern.
by | May 16, 2018
Austin Beutner
Austin Beutner started as superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District on Tuesday. (TNS/Los Angeles Times/Kirk McKoy)

As the new superintendent of the nation's second-largest school system, Austin Beutner has his work cut out for him.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has a surplus, but LAUSD's own top fiscal analyst predicted that it could run a deficit by July. Student enrollment has declined by 100,000 since 2010, causing the district to lose state funding while its pension and health-care costs are rising. Meanwhile, L.A. faces a persistent achievement gap. Black and Latino students trail their white counterparts across the state and within the district in math and English scores.

Beutner, who started the job on Monday, doesn't have a significant background in education or any experience in the classroom. But the city hopes his unique resume -- as an investment banker and philanthropist with a brief stint as publisher of the Los Angeles Times -- will help turn L.A. schools around.

“The job isn’t top teacher,” says LAUSD board member Nick Melvoin. “It’s really about running an $8 billion organization with 55,000 employees.”

Still, critics say Beutner's lack of education experience and his ties to staunchly pro-charter school advocates are cause for concern. Beutner has sat on the board of a charter school operator. Critics also contend that the selection process to choose Beutner was done without proper vetting.

“We don’t know much about Mr. Beutner, except for his financial experience," says John Rodgers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles. "But the school board moved quickly and without much transparency in making this pick. We don’t know much about how Mr. Beutner will deal with the achievement gap or other issues facing LAUSD.”

Many big cities in the past 20 years have chosen school superintendents with little or no education background, including Paul Vallas, who ran school systems in Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia; Arne Duncan, who ran Chicago Public Schools before running the U.S. Department of Education; Joel Klein, a former federal prosecutor who was Michael Bloomberg’s first appointee to run New York City public schools; and Forrest Claypool, who ran the Chicago Transit Authority before running that city’s school district. Los Angeles itself has previously hired a former governor and a Naval officer to lead its schools.

The pivot to a schools chief with business acumen rather than classroom credentials has often been associated with the push for charter schools and vouchers. In Beutner's case, he was picked by a school board that is largely pro-charter and that has ties to charter supporter and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.

In what was the most expensive school board election in the country, charter backers spent $9.4 million in 2017 to help elect two pro-charter candidates in L.A., flipping what was a pro-teachers’ union board to one that favors charter schools. Broad himself contributed $1.9 million to those pro-charter efforts. More than $15 million was spent on the 2017 board elections.

“Mr. Beutner has strong ties to Eli Broad. [Broad] is someone who has tried on several occasions to assert control over the LAUSD,” says Rodgers. “In the past, he has tried to influence school board elections and floated the idea of mayoral control under [former Mayor Antonio] Villaraigosa.”

It was Broad who helped Beutner land a job as deputy mayor under Villairagosa, according to Los Angeles Magazine. The two later collaborated in an unsuccessful attempt to purchase the Los Angeles Times.

Critics worry that Beutner shares Broad's support for charter schools and could effectively try to remake LAUSD as an all-charter system. (Beutner could not be reached for comment.) But Melvoin, who won election on the board in 2017 and is part of the elected body’s pro-charter contingent, says those concerns have no basis.

“There are definitely some folks in the reform community that are excited about this choice,” Melvoin says. “But the fear there is going to be a charter expansion is unfounded.”

While Beutner has not publicly presented clear goals for education policy, Melvoin says the new superintendent did express a commitment to board members to give more power to the local schools. Traditionally, LAUSD has been a top-down operation, with policy being set in the central office.