Education Nation In Los Angeles: Corporate Leaders Weigh In

"Why is it during a period of budget downturn," NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams asked, "why does education -- you'll forgive the phrase -- take it in the shorts?"

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy responded: "I think there is a general belief that anybody can teach... teaching is complex a highly skilled, highly nuanced task. It actually is rocket science to teach a third grader to read on grade level."

The 350 member audience of teachers, education professionals and business and civic leaders, gathered at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood for the final Los Angeles installment of NBC's Education Nation tour, applauded loudly at Deasy's answer.

(See coverage of Education Nation in Chicago)

Thursday night's panel event, "Job One: Preparing America to Compete In the 21st Century," brought Williams, the moderator, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, entrepreneur Lynda Resnick, Milken Institute leader Michael Milken, and Deasy together to discuss preparing Southern California students for global competition. Other panelists included Maria Contreras-Sweet, former California Secretary of Business, Transportation, and Housing and founder of Promerica Bank, and Bryon Auguste, a director at McKinsey & Co. and chairman of Hope Street Group.

To see video of the panel, check out NBC's Education Nation.

Before the panel began, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spoke of his city's dreadful high school dropout rate, especially among African-American and Latino students. Williams grimly contrasted Villaraigosa's demeanor to New York's ever-chipper Mayor Michael Bloomberg, saying, "To hear a big city like that, you know you have a problem."

Holding up a study called, "Life In The 21st Century Workforce," Williams said most employers are looking for three traits in a new hire: the ability to learn new skills, critical thinking/problem solving and team work. Panelist Lynda Resnick, who heads POM Wonderful, Teleflora, Paramount Farms and FIJI Water, said Californian students -- and American students in general -- just aren't competitive when it comes to the job market. When she surveyed her companies' presidents on the subject, Resnick said they all agreed on one thing: "We go offshore not because we want to save money. We can't hire qualified people" in the United States.

Michael Milken also addressed international competition, saying "there is not one country in Asia that has turned over the sole education of their children to the government." He decried the fact that middle class Americans spend about 50 percent of their income on a house and car to the detriment of extracurricular study for their kids, noting that even the average working class Korean family spends about $5,000 a year on extra tutoring. "No one in Korea finds it prestigious to show you their house," Milken said. "They find it prestigious to show you the education of their child." He was challenged by a member in the audience, who said Americans move to the suburbs because of the better schools for their children and not the square footage of the houses.

Superintendent Deasy put forth some unsettling facts about California's disinvestment in education over the decades, saying the state currently spends $58,000 a year per prison inmate but only $7,000 per student.

But Broad challenged him when it came to funding. "If you go back twenty-eight years ... spending in real dollars has gone up 250 percent while results have been flat-lined," adding that he thought the money simply isn't reaching the classroom anymore.

Erica Lepping, communications director for the Broad Foundation, told HuffPost after the panel that "you can go around the United State and see there are school districts that spend about $5,000 to $6,000 per low income student and have incredible results. Then you can go to school districts like Newark, New Jersey, that are spending $12,000 to 13,000 per student with abysmal academic outcomes."

Amongst the panelists, the burden of reform weighed heavier on Deasy than anyone else. When asked whether teachers with graduate degrees should receive extra compensation for their degrees, he said, "I don't want highly qualified teachers in the classroom. I want a highly effective teacher in the classroom." He also called for the need to include stats on student performance over time in a teacher's annual review -- an issue that has been controversial in Los Angeles -- and said he was "agnostic" on the issue of charter schools. Deasy ended the evening with an emotional avowal, saying "poverty is not destiny" and "language proficiency is not competence."