A Heavyweight Ed Funder Looks to Expand Charters In His Home City—And Gets a Fight

Along with Walton and Gates, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation is among the pantheon of top education funders that have championed an overhaul of K-12 education in the U.S. Over the past 15 years, it has poured over $600 million into initiatives calling for increased accountability, stronger leadership development, and better opportunities for students and parents.

Needless to say, Broad loves charter schools. And now, according to news reports, the foundation may be planning a major expansion of the charter institutions in its home city of Los Angeles. 

Before saying more, let us note a key point: Broad money looms very large in L.A., where Eli Broad has been a major mover and shaker for many years. But his philanthropic footprint is most visible in the cultural arena, with Broad money fueling various arts institutions and a new Broad museum now under construction downtown. 

Will Broad's local presence in education one day be equally large? That seems distinctly possible. 

For some perspective: Los Angeles has more charter schools than anywhere else in the country. Designated as the region with the highest growth of new charter schools in California, L.A. is currently home to over 200 charter schools serving over 100,000 students.

Perhaps playing on this growing momentum, a number of high-profile education foundations, led by the Broad Foundation, are said to have met with local charter officials in recent months to discuss plans to make L.A. an even bigger center of the charter movement. 

According to the Los Angeles Times:

Details of the project are not yet fully clear. But charter school leaders said they have met with officials from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in recent months about the effort. The Keck Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and other organizations that support the independently run, publicly financed charters also are involved, according to people who attended the meetings.

The Times goes on to say:

One person who attended a meeting said the goal was to enroll in charter schools half of all Los Angeles students over the next eight years. Another said there was discussion of an option that involved enrolling 50% of students currently at schools with low test scores. A source said the cost was estimated to be $450 million; another said hundreds of millions of dollars are needed.

News of the closed-door meetings have excited many local advocates of the charter school movement who argue that charters are incubators of innovation and experimentation in the classroom, and provide a model for establishing true education equity for low-income populations. But those on the other side of the debate dismiss the charter movement as a resource-sucking lobby with a political agenda to privatize education and eviscerate unions—and all the protections that come with them.

The Broad Foundation is no stranger to criticism for its ed funding. Known for bypassing districts to get things done, Broad made noise earlier this year when it pulled a $1,000,000 prize intended to honor high-performing urban school systems—a move many felt signaled growing impatience and frustration with the traditional public school system (or an unfair dismissiveness, depending on who you listened to).  

Related: Has Eli Broad Given Up Hope That Public Schools Can Improve? Not Quite

Commenting on news of the charter meetings, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) President Alex Caputo-Pearl confirmed the less-than-cordial relationship between Broad and public school officials, telling the Times, “We're concerned about anything Eli Broad is involved with."

Perhaps adding fuel to that fire is Broad’s relationship with former LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy. Deasy, lauded by many as one of LAUSD’s most progressive superintendents in recent memory, resigned last year amid growing tension with the school board and union leaders. 

Deasy’s forced resignation angered a lot of people—probably nobody more than Eli Broad himself. Since leaving LAUSD, Deasy has doubled down on his relationship with Broad, joining the foundation as Superintendent-In-Residence, and leading many to speculate that Broad and Deasy are gearing up for an aggressive campaign to change the landscape of L.A.'s public school system. 

This will be interesting to watch—or damn scary, depending on your viewpoint. Eli Broad is passionate about education reform, and passionate about Los Angeles. But he hasn't yet brought those two interests together at the scale that he might, given his resources.

Broad is worth $7 billion and has pledged to give away much of that fortune. Which is to say that the $600 million he's given so far for education may turn out to be merely a down payment. If Broad focuses really big money on charters in Los Angeles, the city might just find itself at the epicenter of a paradigm shift in public education.