How the Los Angeles Unified School District spent its summer vacation

LAUSD schools open in two weeks after having had the July from Hell.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is heading into the new school year after something less than a whiz-bang summer. The follies began with a report revealing that the predicted 2017 graduation rate of 80 percent didn’t quite hit the mark. In reality, it was 76.1 percent because the state’s Department of Education changed its definition of “graduate” after a federal audit questioned the accuracy of California’s method of figuring out who really completed high school. Using the old formula, students were counted as graduates if they transferred to adult education programs to earn their diploma or passed a high school proficiency exam. But now they are more honestly considered dropouts. The value of a diploma had previously gone south after the district decided in 2015 to pad its numbers with “credit recovery classes” – allowing students to take frequently useless crash courses on weekends, holidays, etc. Additionally, the demise of the California High School Exit Examination in 2016 gave the false impression that grad rates were improving.

Of course, none of this should be at all shocking, as earlier this year California’s school rating system showed that 52 percent of LAUSD’s schools earned a D or F in English language arts, 50 percent earned a D or F in math, and just 40 percent of all students graduate college or are career ready.

At the same time, the education advocacy organization Parent Revolution released a report which showed that in LA’s 44 lowest-performing schools, 46 percent of their teachers were not evaluated at all from 2014 to 2017. (In the 2016-17 school year alone, 70 percent of teachers working at those 44 schools were not evaluated, “even though only 27 percent of students at those schools were proficient in English language arts and only 20 percent were proficient in math.”)

The LA school board also took a hit. Ref Rodriguez, one of the four reform-minded board members, was forced to resign after pleading guilty to a felony count of conspiracy and four misdemeanor counts for making contributions in another person’s name during his 2014 campaign board run. Although Rodriguez escaped prison time, he did have to vacate his board seat. Given his strong pro-charter school stance, that’s good for the education establishment, but bad for kids. While the board could pick a temporary successor, considering the new 3-3 split, getting a majority to agree on anyone will be difficult. The board will probably call for an election to fill the vacant seat, but it’s doubtful that will happen before next spring.

There was, however, some good news…for some students. At the same time the district has been scandalously neglecting its least capable students, the school board decided that principals at bottom performing schools would not have to hire “must place” teachers who have either been deemed ineffective or were bumped due to the state’s archaic quality-blind seniority system. While that sounds like a much needed improvement, it really is a zero-sum game since the unwanted teachers will now be foisted on all the other schools. LAUSD school board vice-president and rare right-thinker Nick Melvoin saw through this sham and said that the same logic should apply to all students. But Melvoin knows well that districtwide hiring practices must be negotiated with the teachers union. Speaking of which….

The United Teachers of Los Angeles is talking strike. Starting two years ago, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl threatened not only to call for a teacher walkout, but ominously to unleash a “state crisis” on California. Well, looks like crisis time is on the horizon. In a July 24th press release, UTLA submitted its “Last, Best and Final Offer” to LAUSD and demanded a “48-hour response from the district.” The union said that the 2 percent ongoing salary increase, an additional one-time 2 percent bonus and a $500 stipend for materials and supplies offered by the district was “insulting.” The union then trotted out all the usual bogeymen, blaming unaccountable charter schools, pro-privatization ideologues and new school superintendent Austin Beutner for the district’s woes.

But union kvetching aside, Beutner just may be the right man for the job. While UTLA whines that he is a “billionaire investment banker, not a teacher,” his status as a businessman is a good thing. He is dealing with a school district whose unfunded liability for retiree health benefits has risen to $15.2 billion, up from $13.5 billion in 2016. As CALmatters Jessica Calefati reports, LAUSD could be “just two years from financial ruin.” Nick Melvoin added, “We’re in a death spiral.”

Speaking recently to LA business leaders about the deficit, Beutner posited, “By 2021, if we haven’t changed things appreciably, we will be no more, and that reckoning will not be pretty.”  While Beutner didn’t say what would follow the apocalypse, Dan Walters writes that there will be political pressure, particularly from the teachers unions, for a taxpayer-funded state bailout.

The summer has turned out to be long, hot and horrible for the country’s second largest school district, and the fall and winter aren’t looking any brighter. Students and taxpayers will remain collateral damage for a system where unaccountable bureaucrats and the teachers unions run the show.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.