by Austin Beutner
Originally published in the Los Angeles Times
Schools have been closed for about two months, and it’s time to start asking about what comes next. But returning to school will require far more than simply spreading out desks and making new rules for recess.
COVID-19 has highlighted fundamental gaps in the public education system caused by woefully underfunded budgets.
Ninety percent of public-school funding in California comes from the state — and schools have long been underfunded, especially when matched against the outsize expectations placed on them. Private schools in Southern California invest about $50,000 a year in each student; New York public schools, $30,000. In Los Angeles, we are asked to make do with $17,000 per student.
And now, with the state budget in crisis, I worry that schools will get hung out to dry. This past week, the State Department of Finance estimated cuts as deep as 20% to funding for public education.
Public education has always been the great equalizer in society, providing a path out of poverty. That’s particularly important for students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 80% of students are living in poverty.
We cannot fall victim to the notion that spreading budget cuts evenly, across all the things the state funds, spreads pain equitably. The consequence of a child not learning to read is vastly different than reduced hours at the zoo or a pothole going unfilled. A good education is the path out of poverty for many of the students we serve and the promise of a better future for all of them.
A child who is not a capable reader by third grade is four times more likely to drop out and more likely to be incarcerated as an adult. How we as a society spend our dollars reflects our values — and there is no greater value than investing in children to help them realize their talent and their potential.
That is particularly important now. Many school districts across the country did not try to keep school going during this period of social distancing and have simply canceled the rest of the school year altogether, but Los Angeles Unified has helped students and teachers move online.
We made a massive effort to ensure that nearly half a million students have remained connected to their school communities. We have worked to provide laptops, tablets and internet access to every K-12 student who needed it, an extraordinary milestone that we will reach this week.
Because of this, learning has continued, and it’s happening in creative and wonderful ways. But it’s far from perfect, and we cannot pretend that online learning at the kitchen table can replace the magic that occurs in a classroom led by a great teacher.
We don’t yet know whether the new school year, which begins Aug. 18, will mean a full return to in-person classes or not. But whenever our campuses finally reopen, we will have catching up to do. And we will have additional needs. Custodial staffs, for example, already cut to the bone, will be overwhelmed by the cleaning necessary to safely reopen schools. There will also be a need for much more mental health support in schools to help students recover from the disruption this is causing in their lives.
To prevent our current health crisis from become a crisis in education that lasts a lifetime for the children in our schools, we need to ensure three things.
The first is adequate funding.
The second is that the investments being made now to bridge the digital divide continue to pay lifelong dividends for students.
Mastery of digital technology is essential to the jobs of tomorrow at innovators like Amazon, Illumination, Snap Inc., Verizon and YouTube — companies working closely with our schools. But many students in LAUSD didn’t have ready access to technology outside the classroom. Because of our recent efforts, they now do, and we need to build on that and make it a positive outcome of this stressful and, to some, devastating time. Our investments in the future need to include making sure all students continue to have internet access.
Technology enables new ways to explore ideas, and we are getting great support to help students with that. Guitar maker Fender is working with teachers to offer online music classes. Illumination is collaborating with teachers on a class in drawing, animation and storytelling. And director James Cameron is helping teachers create a class exploring the voyage of the Titanic.
That brings me to our third need: community support. Nothing is possible without active participation from the broader community.
When I speak to civic groups made up of people on whom fortune has smiled, I start by asking how many public school graduates are in the crowd. Most hands shoot up. A great public education provided the foundation for most successful Angelenos. And we all must be committed to ensuring that same opportunity for today’s children. Public education is the common ground on which we all stand.
Celebrities and business leaders often speak at graduations to dispense advice. Graduation ceremonies will be different this year, so I invite these same individuals to show — not tell — students what a life of purpose means. Thousands of donors already have helped provide millions of dollars to support the immediate needs of students and families during the pandemic. Organizations as diverse as Creative Artists Agency and the Teamsters have provided expertise and resources.
Their support has been vital. And we need those who can to keep supporting students by staying involved in our schools. This crisis has shined a light on the challenges in public education. The need won’t end with a coronavirus vaccine.
Austin Beutner is superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District and former publisher of the Los Angeles Times.