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Commentary: Putting kids first includes the example we set for them 

Ben Austin and Veronica Melvin | May 7, 2018

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Last Tuesday, the LAUSD school board selected Austin Beutner to be the next superintendent to lead the Los Angeles Unified School District through a historic inflection point. The decisions of this new leader will impact the future of more than half a million children every year, with massive public policy and social justice ripple effects reverberating far beyond the district’s attendance boundary.

Tuesday’s debate should have been an edifying discourse about reimagining public education for the children of the 21st Century, but instead public comment from the audience devolved into an assemblage of mean-spirited personal attacks, name-calling, and conspiracy theories more suited for the president’s Twitter feed than a school board meeting.

Speakers lined up to accuse the new superintendent of having ties to Russian oligarchs, links to Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, and secret plans to undermine public education.

One speaker declared: “Now you have the option for a superintendent to think about hiring someone who is a billionaire over an educator, haven’t we learned anything? We have a billionaire in the White House and what has he done for us? For our people. Nothing!”

There are perfectly reasonable arguments to oppose the selection of Austin Beutner as superintendent and for good people to agree to disagree. But those arguments do not include alleged ties to the Russian mob, conspiracies to destroy public education, ham-handed comparisons to Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, or sweeping declarations that one side has all the answers and holds all the moral authority.

This kind of rhetoric wouldn’t be tolerated on any LAUSD school playground. But somehow in the chamber that sets policy for the second-biggest school district in America, this behavior is not only tolerated, but normalized and further encouraged with shouts and inappropriate remarks from the audience.

By no means do we suggest that the debate about the future of public education in Los Angeles should be a genteel affair devoid of passion, intensity, and authenticity. The stakes of this debate could not be higher because it’s about the future of our children. But it is possible to strongly disagree in the context of respect.

In his first remarks as superintendent, Beutner modeled the kind of humility we would want to see in a role model for our children: “Part of what I need to do is recognize I can learn, and I will learn. And I have to surround myself with people who know … more about what happens in the classroom than I do.”

Especially with Donald Trump in the White House setting a toxic example for our children every day, educators, parents, and civic leaders have a responsibility to do the opposite. We can’t teach our children to reject bullying and embrace kindness if the people who call themselves education leaders can’t adhere to those same basic ground rules.

Whatever anyone thinks about charter schools or district schools, education reformers or teachers unions, Democrats or Republicans, or any other false choice that has divided our politics and our district, let’s stipulate that everyone on all sides of this debate are good people who care about kids. Let’s also agree to embrace facts over conspiracy theories, and to reject bullying, name-calling, and personal attacks that would not be tolerated on any LAUSD elementary school playground. “Kids first” is more than a slogan, a hashtag, or even a policy proscription — it begins with the example we set for our children.

Successfully ushering the LAUSD through this historic inflection point will require a radical sea change in our politics, which will entail a long and arduous journey.

The first step of that journey must begin with an acknowledgment of our common humanity, a commitment to basic civility, and a recognition that nobody wins if our children lose.

Ben Austin is executive director of Kids Coalition, and Veronica Melvin is CEO of LA Promise Fund. 

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