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State of Our Schools: Rudderless

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"That's it?"

- Audience member's reaction to Austin Beutner's speech

As parents were making their final preparations to send their children back to school, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) leadership was gathering downtown last Thursday for the annual "State of Schools" event. After a breakfast in Grand Park provided by the Food Services Division (no, there was none of the Walmart surplus that is said to be part of the Breakfast in the Classroom program), principals, five out of the seven school board (Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez were conspicuously absent) and district bureaucrats headed to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for the headline event - a speech by Superintendent Austin Beutner.

Beutner started his speech by looking back at the most significant event of the past year - the strike by the District's teachers. While acknowledging that many of the concessions won by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) would be beneficial to the students, he did not explain why a work stoppage was necessary to achieve them. Nor did he accept responsibility for his part in creating animosity between the district and its workers that led to the strike.

From here, Beutner segued to the cost of providing the services mandated by the agreement that ended the strike and how the public made this more difficult by rejecting Measure EE. Of course, he did not mention how he had contributed to the public's distrust of the district by submitting text to the City Clerk that was different from what was approved by the school board. Instead, he struck a defensive tone as he ran through a list of accomplishments from the past year in an effort to counter the perception of a failing district.

Unfortunately, Beutner's highlights were nothing more than a vague list that did not provide any context or detail. Yes, the district has increased graduation rates, but has it done so at the expense of the perceived value of those diplomas by Los Angeles employers? The Superintendent did not give any assurance that the make-up credits that helped to increase those rates represent an imparting of knowledge or simply time spent in front of a computer. He also mentioned a declining suspension rate but did not specify the cost. Are behavior problems actually being addressed or are they just being swept under the rug?

And then the speech suddenly ended.

The master of ceremonies mentioned that the presentation was much shorter than previous ones and that the remaining schedule of the day's activities would be rearranged accordingly. Those seated around me seemed bewildered. This speech was supposed to set the tone for the upcoming school year, but the assembled generals seemed to be at a loss as to the direction in which they would be charging.

On an optimistic note, maybe this brief presentation was an indication that Beutner has learned in his first year at the helm of the country's second-largest school district that he really did not know as much about education as he thought he did. Most importantly, there was no mention of the "portfolio plan" he had crafted behind the backs of his bosses on the school board and which has already failed in other school districts. Does this mean that he was finally convinced to drop this ill-conceived program?

In the end, nothing good can be said about a school superintendent who lacks vision and directly shows the problem with hiring a person for the position who had no professional experience in the field of education. Board Member Schmerelson previously revealed that Beutner was unable to answer any of his questions about education during the interview process. That lack of knowledge should have been a red flag for the other board members, but Melvoin, Monica Garcia, Ref Rodriguez and Richard Vladovic still voted for him. That mistake was in full view on Tuesday as the state of our schools was shown to be rudderless.

So much for "kids first."

The stage is set for the State of Schools address
The stage is set for the State of Schools address
(Image by Carl J Petersen)
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Carl Petersen is a parent, advocate for students with special education needs, elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD's District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, he was endorsed by the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a "strong supporter of public schools." His past blogs can be found at Opinions are his own.

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Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD's CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD's District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a " (more...)

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