Riordan and Rutten: LAUSD's dirty secret is that nobody knows anything

File photo: University High School in West Los Angeles.

In a joint opinion piece in the Los Angeles News Group papers, former mayor Richard Riordan and LANG columnist Tim Rutten write that the Los Angeles schools spend a lot more on students than district officials know or admit — with much lower results than they also will admit. A major source of the problem, say Riordan and Rutten, is that even the top officials of LAUSD have no idea how much money the district takes in for educational uses and, more importantly, where it goes. Riordan has made reform of the giant school district a key goal of his political activities since he was in office. He and Rutten have collaborated on previous op-ed pieces. A sample from this one:

This year, LAUSD — America’s second-largest public school system — will spend a little more than $7 billion to educate nearly 600,000 students. Ask how much will be spent on each of those pupils in this school year, and the answer you’re almost sure to get is a little more than $7,000 — followed quickly by the caveat, “it’s probably a lot more.”

How much more? Once again, nobody knows for sure....

Scholars and economists who’ve studied the question and to whom we spoke — none of them willing to go on the record — confessed that it really was impossible to say with any real precision. One educator who once worked inside LAUSD said, that despite his MBA, he “never could make heads or tails” of the district’s voluminous budget. Some of the analysts attributed the mystery of LAUSD’s finances to the district’s sheer size and the numbing complexity of its overlapping state and federal categories. Others alleged that district bureaucrats deliberately create a budget nobody can decipher — in part to avoid accountability for themselves, in part to conceal money from LAUSD’s powerful teachers’ union. Who’s right? Impossible to say for sure.

Given that LAUSD can’t tell you exactly how much it spends per pupil, it’s not surprising that it can’t really be precise about what it gets for that money. Would it make a difference if, instead of $7,000, the baseline number was $17,000 or $27,000? Nobody knows. What can be agreed upon is that the district is failing far too many of its students, betraying the aspirations that trusting and hardworking parents have for their children.


The screenwriter William Goldman once said that Hollywood’s dirty secret when it comes to making a successful movie is that nobody really knows anything. As it turns out, that is LAUSD’s secret, too. That’s unacceptable. Everybody may love a mystery, but not when it involves our children and their future.

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