The first half of 2016 brought high stakes and high drama to Los Angeles’ education scene, from dire budget predictions to heated charter debates to attempts at overhauling teacher tenure laws.
There were anniversaries to celebrate along the way — 25 years for both charter schools nationwide and Teach For America — and comings and goings of superintendents, plus the glimmerings of electoral races to come (for the school board’s members and president, LA City Council, mayor and even governor) that promise a starring role for education.
The new year started with the announcement that Michelle King had been chosen by a unanimous vote of the school board to be LA Unified’s next superintendent, the first black female ever to lead the district and the first woman since 1929. The three-month nationwide search had ended at home, with an LA Unified “lifer” who was educated in the district and has worked for it for nearly 30 years. King replaced Ramon Cortines, who stepped down at the end of 2015.
King had to immediately grapple with how the district would co-exist with the growing number of charter schools and the school board’s opposition to a plan to significantly increase their numbers. In fact, the day she was confirmed by the board was also the day of the unanimous board vote against an early draft plan to expand charters.
King called for healing, and in her first community town hall she stressed, “It’s not us versus them.” She met three times with the new head of the nonprofit formed to lead the expansion of the city’s high-quality schools, Great Public Schools Now Executive Director Myrna Castrejon, who, like King, was announced in January, is a minority woman and single mother, and stands to have significant impact on the shape and state of education in LA.
King also took on the plummeting graduation rate as well as predictions of a massive deficit within three years, holding a series of special board meetings in May and June to address the predictions and as well as recommendations outlined in a November report by an independent financial review panel.
She presented her first budget in June, which most board members praised, but noted there was much work yet to be done.
“Are we there? No, we’re not there, but we are on a path moving forward in the right direction,” King said as she presented the budget to the board.
“In general, I think that your staff and you have done a good job of trying to meet the needs in the district with the limited funds we have,” board member Monica Ratliff told her.
“The future is dire,” is what King heard at the outset of the special meetings on the fiscal health of the district.
Internationally renowned education expert Pedro Noguera of UCLA, hired by the district to advise King and the board and facilitate the special meetings, warned that unless more serious measures are taken, the nation’s second-largest school district is destined to lose more students.
The challenges LA Unified is facing, Noguera said, include declining enrollment because of the growth of charters and demographic shifts, chronically under-performing schools, structural budget deficits and the need to increase public support for schools.
The details were daunting: the budget deficit was projected to reach nearly half a billion dollars in three years; a district audit showed LA Unified debt outstripped assets by $4.2 billion; unfunded pensions topped $13 billion and have more than doubled since 2005; per-pupil funding had doubled but the district still faces financial crisis; and plans for a turnaround included boosting enrollment but not cutting staff. Indeed, even though the district has lost 100,000 students in the last six years, its certified administrative staff has increased 22 percent in the last five years.