Vol. 16 No. 32, September 8, 2010
Back-to-School Lessons from LAUSD
By K. Lloyd Billingsley, editorial director
After 15 years of legal and environmental battles, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) recently opened the Robert F. Kennedy High School, which cost $578 million—more than half a billion dollars—and now ranks as the most expensive government-run high school in U. S. history. The district thus tops its own record, one of the LAUSD’s many dubious achievements.
The Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, also named after a politician, was previously the Belmont Learning Center. This one took 20 years to build and cost $377 million, by some accounts the most expensive high school in the United States before the $578 million RFK school. The LAUSD’s Visual and Performing Arts High School, on the other hand, cost a mere $232 million.
These three schools cost taxpayers nearly $1.2 billion, and that amount likely understates the cost. The building costs, as PRI’s Lance Izumi notes, do not figure in the LAUSD’s per-pupil spending calculation. They claim to spend $10,000 per pupil, per year. According to a Cato Institute study, the real figure is $29,790, when construction and other costs are included.
Between 2001 and 2007, while much of this spending was going on, enrollment fell six percent in the LAUSD. During that time, however, LAUSD administrators increased by nearly 20 percent. In 2009, Lance Izumi has also noted, the LAUSD paid $200 million to 1,700 employees no longer on the job.
Freespending LAUSD bosses are free to call any school a “learning center,“ but that does not mean that students will learn much in the illustrious schools, with their cushioned maple floor dance studios and restaurant-quality pizza ovens. Contrary to what the LAUSD seems to assume, buildings don’t teach.
In the LAUSD, only 40.6 percent of students graduate from high school, and 72 percent of LAUSD campuses remain in the bottom half of the state’s academic ranking. Five years ago it was just under 70 percent, according to news reports. The academic and fiscal problems, however, do not lie solely with LAUSD administration. Consider also the teachers.
The Los Angeles Times recently published a database that evaluates teachers based on a “value added” analysis of how well their students perform on standardized tests. This is the same kind of evaluation that President Obama seeks to promote through the “Race to the Top” process—for which California has again failed to qualify.
In the LAUSD, the teacher union cried foul over the revelations, which are not the sole basis for the evaluation of teachers. Union boss A. J. Duffy of United Teachers of Los Angeles, (UTLA) even called for a boycott of the Los Angeles Times. One hopes that the paper continues its fine reporting on the district, a textbook case of waste and failure.
The LAUSD, like the entire K-12 government education monopoly, is good at spending money but shows little evidence of being reformable. Legislators should therefore give parents and students statewide the ability to fire the whole bunch. Money should be attached to students, not a bureaucracy, and the students should be able to take the money to any school, government-run or independent. That is the pattern in Sweden, and it is working well, particularly for low-income parents.
Parents and students should have school choice as a matter of basic civil rights. Until they have that right, little change is likely anywhere in the state, even if districts spend $578 million, more than half a billion dollars, on a single high school.