Exclusive Interview: Superintendent Austin Beutner

by Hunter Tidwell

My interview with Austin Beutner took about 2 weeks, from my request to his answer. I began with an email to his publicly available email address asking for an interview opportunity, and to my surprise, I was written back the same day. I then had a number of conversations with his representatives, on the phone and over email, over the course of 10 days. I sent them a list of 10 questions I wanted answers to, but they said I could only ask one. So I sent the following:

“We rank 43 out of 50 in per pupil spending, despite being the richest state in the nation. California spends $10,000 less on education per student than New York, despite having the highest GDP of any US state. How come our per-pupil spending is so low?”

This is a general question about the unusually low funding in our district. This is Superintendent Beutner’s answer, as emailed to me in early November:

“L.A. Unified’s per pupil student funding is $16,000. Despite California having the largest economy in the nation, the state has not invested the resources needed to meet the diverse needs of L.A. Unified’s students and school communities. L.A. Unified gets about 90 percent of its funding from the state of California, the remaining money comes from the federal government. We need to build support with our communities and work with the state legislature to increase funding for Los Angeles schools. We need to bring additional resources to our students and school communities because underfunding our education is bad for everyone.”

He indeed has a point about Los Angeles’ lack of resources for schools, but the state invests around $58 billion into education per year. Compared to New York’s investment of $26.4 billion, we seem to have more money. Even accounting for the population difference, we seem to have more funds available per student than New York state. If education funds went 100% to per-pupil spending, California would have an estimated 300 dollars more per student than New York.

Those are the statewide statistics, however. A comparison of Los Angeles and New York City yield different results. The New York Department of Education’s budget is $24 billion and LAUSD’s budget is $7.6 billion. NYDE, of course, has a much higher population of students than LAUSD, but even so, the ratio of dollars to students comes out at $22K for each student in New York versus $11K in Los Angeles.

There are a few solutions to this issue. One would be to raise the property tax on large landholders, as they’re more likely to be able to afford the prices. Another would be to increase allocation of state funds to Los Angeles, as our current budget is clearly smaller than it needs to be. Another would be a restructuring of the District’s budget to further reflect the needs of teachers and students.

In regard to the first solution, a reform to prop 13, a proposition passed in 1978 that cut taxes for large landowners and consequently cut school funding in half, would help resolve the issue. However, changing it is an ordeal; a complete repeal would result in massive tax increases for everyone in the state, and reforms that target the rich would be attacked by the landowners in question. It’s a viable choice, regardless; inaction is the only thing stopping us from changing it.

The second solution is a bit tricky, as well. Ideally, schools in the state would all receive equal funding, in other words, a fund proportional to the student population of each town. Why should we get more per student than the smaller cities and towns scattered throughout Los Angeles? Despite our efforts, income segregation still exists at our local level, though statistics have shown that schools with diverse student populations perform better academically.

The third solution is the one backed by UTLA and teachers at this school. The strike is a viable solution because it acts as a catalyzing force for the slow reform process. We need change now, and a strike demonstration will cause enough panic to bring change to the school, and possibly have effects on the other two solutions presented. If our district is truly unable to change things, then California will have no choice but to increase funding for our city.

As stated in his answer above, Supt. Beutner advocates for a reworking of state legislature to increase school funding. While this would definitely help fix the situation, the district needs to be held accountable for their management of funds; private charter schools in Los Angeles have reached a number higher than that of any other place in the nation, taking an estimated $600 million out of public schools yearly. Decreased enrollment in our public school program and a shift to private education would eventually lead to socioeconomic segregation and budget cuts, weakening the public school system and deepening inequality. If we let this happen, schools in upper-class neighborhoods will have more funds, and therefore access to higher quality education, than those in lower-class neighborhoods.

If Supt. Beutner’s beliefs reflect that of the district, then UTLA and LA Unified might have some common ground: they both believe our current budget for education is too low and should work together to ensure that our schools operate comfortably.