The state requires every district to set aside money for periods of economic uncertainty, for large and unanticipated expenditures, and to be eligible for a higher credit rating. While the union argues that the reserve should all go to teachers, the district says that it has already been earmarked for various costs over the next several years.
And that, says Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and publisher of the Los Angeles Times with no prior experience in public education, could push the district into insolvency by 2021.
What if he’s right? What if the district really can’t afford the sort of investment that could make a difference in academic outcomes, now shaped by some class sizes that exceed 40 students and the pedagogical challenges inherent to Los Angeles, where 80 percent of public-school students live in poverty and many are learning English?
The real bogeyman isn’t L.A. Unified, and it isn’t Los Angeles, either. In Los Angeles, unlike New York, the city plays no role in public education. It’s Sacramento, the state’s capital, which provides about 90 percent of district revenue.
Despite being the world’s fifth-biggest economy, with Democrats serving in every statewide office and holding supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, California ranks in the middle among states in per-pupil spending on elementary and secondary education—about $12,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures for 2016. That’s slightly under the national average and about half as much as the list leader, New York.
Read: The ripple effect of the West Virginia teachers’ victory
To make matters worse, California’s support for L.A.’s public schools has been diluted by the explosive growth of independent charters, which are publicly funded, privately run, and a severe financial drain on a system in which state money follows the student. Most of them are nonunion.
In L.A. Unified, which operates more than 1,300 schools, enrollment has been declining for a decade as the number of charters rises. The city now leads all others with 225 independent charters, serving more than 110,000 kids. Do the math, and it’s $1.3 billion of state funds not going into L.A. Unified, a sum the district needs to help cover capital improvements, transportation, teaching material, and other costs—even if it has fewer students to teach.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, conceded that the state needs to provide more money, much more. “Our target is both, the district and the state,” she told me.
She focused her ire on Beutner for his unwillingness to release the reserve fund, calling his resistance “a series of excuses that don’t meet the needs of students.”
But she was hardly effusive about the first budget from California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, who took office this month. Newsom proposed spending a record $80.7 billion on kindergarten through community college, a 3.6 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. He also proposed adding $3 billion to the state’s share of pension payments for teachers and administrators, which reduces the level of mandated contributions from districts, enabling them to use money for other things.