When Austin Beutner was tapped in May 2018 to lead the Los Angeles Unified School District, reaction was mixed. Many applauded the selection, believing his combination of private-sector and government experience—his career included co-founding the investment banking firm Evercore and running 14 city departments under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—provided the acumen needed to reform the district and prepare for an upcoming budget crunch. Others criticized the move, charging that a school board divided between pro-charter and pro-union factions had hired a businessman with no real education background.
Beutner still has his critics. The union United Teachers Los Angeles pilloried him during the six-day teachers’ strike in January 2019, and the residual effects linger, but as the spread of the coronavirus has disrupted education efforts across the country, the fruits of his dealmaking and executive prowess are manifesting themselves, leading to advances that are eluding other school districts.
In a period of weeks Beutner has orchestrated rapid-fire moves that resulted in educational programs being broadcast on a trio of local TV stations; enabled the LAUSD to serve hundreds of thousands of meals each day to area families; and laid the groundwork to get computers and internet access into the homes of approximately 100,000 low-income students.
Entities beyond Los Angeles are taking note. Last Wednesday, a columnist for The Seattle Times woefully compared that city’s educational efforts to what is occurring in L.A.
“Los Angeles has 10 times as many students, with nearly triple the rate that are low-income (80 percent of L.A.’s students qualify for free-lunch programs versus 28 percent in Seattle). How are they the ones shooting for the moon?” wrote Danny Westneat.
This isn’t to pretend everything in L.A. is smooth. In a televised address on March 23, Beutner said that while about 50 percent of district students are learning at the pace they had been before schools closed on March 16, a full 25 percent are not learning much at all. Even for those keeping up, distance learning is only a bare facsimile of in-person interaction with teachers, not to mention the gaping crevasse that appears when school-age kids can’t play with their friends.
The coronavirus has changed everything at warp speed, and education is no exception. On March 2 Beutner appeared in a video describing how the LAUSD was planning for the impacts of a disruption; it hearkens to an almost more innocent time, touching on the need for hand washing rather than strict social distancing. Just 11 days later, as health concerns intensified and calls for school closures erupted, Beutner announced on a Friday night that the 1,300-plus district campuses would shut down the following Monday. Many but not all of the 472,000 K-12 students came home with educational packets and/or Chromebooks or other devices.
Behind the scenes, a lot was happening. Before the shutdown, Beutner reached out to the heads of PBS in Washington, D.C., and PBS SoCal. The public broadcasting brass worked with LAUSD staff to come up with broadcast-worthy material in subjects including math and history, and then to identify complementary online components. They arranged for educational content to be shown for much of the day on PBS SoCal, KLCS and KCET, with different programs, directed at different age groups, on each station. Again, it’s no substitute for classwork, but it provided families access to at least some educational material.
“Remember, the roots of PBS are actually in distance learning,” Beutner told Los Angeles. “It’s in their DNA.”
Beutner didn’t take a traditional path to the superintendent’s seat. A native of Michigan, he graduated from Dartmouth College and entered the world of high finance; he got a job at the powerhouse financial services firm Blackstone and made partner by the age of 29. He made friends in high places, and President Bill Clinton dispatched him to Moscow to help with the opening of Russia’s economy.
He founded Evercore in 1996 with former U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, but left after breaking his neck in a mountain biking accident. Upon recovery he changed his life, and in 2010 he joined Villaraigosa’s administration as a sort of jobs czar, working for $1 annually. He stayed for a year, ran than dropped out of the 2013 L.A. mayor’s race, and had a stint as publisher of the Los Angeles Times.
Education wasn’t completely foreign to him. In 2013 he launched the nonprofit Vision to Learn, on the premise than many low-income children lacked glasses, which could hamper their education. The nonprofit has now provided approximately a quarter-million free pairs of eyeglasses to children across the country.
Beutner was serving as a volunteer advisor to LAUSD Supt. Michelle King when, tragically, she became sick with cancer. She stepped down from her post (she died in February 2019) and the board hired Beutner.
Running the nation’s second-largest school district involves more than just education—LAUSD schools often function as a social services safety net. Closing campuses threw a wrench in the lives of hundreds of thousands of families with parents who work while children are in school. Additionally, many students rely on schools to get their meals—that includes the estimated 17,000 LAUSD students who are homeless.
As the threat of the virus bore down on the district like an approaching hurricane, Beutner sought to turn dozens of LAUSD campuses into learning centers where students could gather each day under adult supervision, engage in some type of learning, and be fed.
Health officials quashed the plan a few days before it was supposed to start, saying it could not be done safely in the sudden social distancing era.
“So we had to put in place, at a minimum, a way to provide food,” Beutner said.
In a matter of days, the learning centers instead became food distribution points, open for a few hours daily, where families could pick up two meals per person. They began operating the Wednesday after schools closed.
The mission soon expanded, and last week, in addition to operating about 60 “grab-and-go” locations on school campuses, the LAUSD began supplying meals to temporary homeless shelters. Last Thursday, the district handed out more than 400,000 meals. (That Wednesday, through a partnership Beutner orchestrated with talent agency CAA, the Teamsters and Mattel, the centers also gave away thousands of toys.)
“We’re not specifically in the business of providing food to adults, but we’re providing help where it’s needed and where it’s asked,” Beutner said. “I couldn’t even tell you that the children we’re providing food to all go to our schools. If you’re a child in need we’re going to help you, and if you’re an adult in need we’re going to help you.”
While the district already had food operations, another challenge posed by the coronavirus required a seismic shift—with classrooms closed, learning needed to take place in homes. But due to the digital divide, about 100,000 LAUSD students lacked either high-tech devices, Internet connectivity, or both.
The district responded on March 23 by announcing a $100 million emergency investment to get devices in the hands of students who lacked them. But the plan required connectivity—Beutner said he reached out to various wireless Internet providers, and struck a deal with Verizon. The rollout began last week.
“The goal was all [students],” Beutner said. “Not almost all, not nearly all, but all. And wireless is the only way to get to all.”
Not every problem has been solved, and it’s not hard to find holes in the system. The speedy onset of distance learning has forced many instructors to master Zoom meetings, and a lot of training is required, for students, parent and educators, with unfamiliar tools and technology. There are also issues for special education students. Beutner recently acknowledged that the earliest schools will reopen is May 1, but closures could extend beyond that. Additionally, not everyone is participating in distance learning—in a video update on March 30, Beutner said there has been no online contact with about 15,000 LAUSD high school students, and on any given day, nearly 40 percent of high school students don’t interact online with their teachers. He said many of these are students who live in poverty or have disabilities.
The list of challenges is extensive, and a steep decline in tax revenue is likely to hammer education budgets across the state. The longterm impact of the virus is impossible to predict.
For now though, the educational process continues and the LAUSD is seeking to adapt—one deal at a time.
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