How a Billionaire is Trying to Control Los Angeles Public Schools

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How a Billionaire is Trying to Control Los Angeles Public Schools

Eli Broad waits to speak during a media preview of The Broad Museum in Los Angeles on Sept. 16. (Reuters/Kevork Djansezian)

Eli Broad is a housing and insurance tycoon whose  California-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has poured hundreds of millions into “transforming” K-12 urban education by training administrators and supporting charter schools, merit pay and other market-based reforms. And now, Broad wants to do even more, trying to lead a campaign to raise nearly half a billion dollars to open enough charter schools to enroll nearly half of the students in the country’s second-largest school district.

Broad, according to various reports, wants to open 260 new charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District over the next eight years — effectively doubling today’s number.

Whether the plan will ultimately be approved by the city’s officials is unclear, but the idea is clearly spelled out in a 44-page memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times. It names other foundations and wealthy philanthropists who could be involved, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Hewlett and Annenberg foundations. Individuals include Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk and entertainment magnate David Geffen. (Note: The Broad Foundation has partly funded the Los Angeles Times’ new digital initiative to expand education coverage.)

Broad was one of the early members of what education historian and activist Diane Ravitch dubbed “The Billionaire Boys Club,” whose members, including Gates, have spent so much money on corporate school reform that private philanthropy has had a major effect on public policy. Broad has repeatedly championed charter schools — which are publicly funded schools that are privately run. Earlier this year his foundation suspended a program in which it gave annual $1 million awards to high-achieving traditional public urban school districts, but Broad is carrying on with a $250,000 Broad Prize for charter schools, which he says do a better job than traditional public schools in educating high-needs students who live in urban areas.

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His memo cites three major charter operators —  Green Dot Public Schools, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools and KIPP Public Charter Schools — as having  seen “significant” gains by students. But it turns out that those results have actually been mixed. According to the LA School Report, a pro-reform publication:

In building a case for creating 260 charter schools within in LA Unified eight years at a cost of $490 million, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has cited “significant” gains by three charter organizations that have received $75 million from the foundation.

But when all factors are considered, there is little conclusive evidence in the report outlining the expansion plans that shows big investments in charters always — or evenly routinely — achieve consistent academic improvements, raising an important question: Just what can Broad and other foundations promise for an investment of nearly half a billion dollars in an expansion effort that would dramatically change the nation’s second-largest school district?

The LA School Report story details where test scores went up — and down — at the three cited charter school networks in Los Angeles, pointing to what is generally known about charter performance around the country: On the whole they don’t perform better than traditional public schools, but it is hard to compare because the populations of students are often not the same.

The Los Angeles Times notes in this story that “charter forces point to test scores showing that their students, on average, do better than those in L.A. Unified” but that district officials “argue that it’s more accurate to compare charter schools not with the district as a whole but with magnet schools. In that match, magnets generally do better.” Of course, that isn’t a fair comparison, either, given that the populations of charters and magnets are also different.

The proposal, called Great Public Schools Now, would require some 5,000 teachers, according to this story in the Times, which also says:

The Broad proposal, which would set aside $43.1 million for a “teacher pipeline,” refers to Teach For America as the “strongest human capital partner” for charters in Los Angeles. That group recruits recent college graduates and provides training that consists of six weeks before they start teaching — more in some cases — combined with ongoing support and course work.

The plan also looks to other fast-track programs, the New Teacher Project and the Relay Graduate School of Education, as avenues for hires. The New Teacher Project recruits those who want to change careers as well as recent grads; Relay is an emerging program developed in conjunction with charter leaders. It’s based in New York City, with regional campuses in five states, not yet including California.

Younger teachers offer a workforce that charters consider more flexible and one that is willing to work at a pace that may be unsustainable over the long term, some experts said.

Teach For America is the nonprofit famous for recruiting new college graduates, giving them five weeks of training in a summer institute and placing them in schools that are among America’s neediest. It has been a prime mover in the “no excuses” movement, which promotes the notion that the conditions in which children live can’t be blamed for poor academic performance. In other words, teachers should be able to overcome a child’s hunger, sickness or trauma.

Most charter schools have teachers who are not unionized, and so it is no surprise that unionized teachers in the traditional Los Angeles public schools oppose Broad’s proposal. Several hundred last month protested the Broad charter plan at the opening of a new Broad museum in Los Angeles, the Times reported:

“You want art for the masses?” one person shouted into a bullhorn.

“Then fund more classes!” others shouted in reply as they paraded back and forth under the museum’s much-discussed honeycomb facade.

Charter schools have not proven to be the magic bullet that their supporters had hoped a few decades ago when they began to open as a way to push improvements in traditional urban public education. Still, the Times’ editorial board likes Broad’s idea, endorsing it in an editorial titled, “A charter school expansion could be great for LA.” The editorial notes that all charter schools are not high quality and that it will be important to make sure that bad charters are monitored and closed.  It actually says:

The only serious official scrutiny that charter operators typically get is when they are issued the right to operate, and five years later when they apply for renewal. It would seem a more thoughtful approach could be developed.

It would seem so, don’t you think?

Here’s what Ravitch wrote in 2011 about the growing influence of the wealthy on education reform policy. It still has resonance today:

What does all this outpouring of interest by the wealthiest people in the United States mean? Some no doubt are motivated by idealism. Some think they are leading a new civil rights movement, though I doubt that Dr. King would recognize these financial titans as his colleagues as they impose their will on one of our crucial public institutions. Some hate government. Some love the free market. Some think that the profit motive is more efficient and effective than any public-sector enterprise. All of them share a surprising certainty that they know how to “fix” the public schools and that the people who work in those schools are lazy, unmotivated, incompetent, and not to be trusted.

For me, as a historian, the scary part is that our public schools have never before been subject to such a sustained assault on their very foundations. Never before were there so many people, with such vast resources, intent on dismantling public education. What does this mean for the future of public education? What does it mean for our democracy?

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss writes the Answer Sheet blog for the Washington Post.

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