What Does Eli Broad's Retirement Mean for Education Reform?

eli and Edythe Broad. Photo:  s_bukley/shuttersock

eli and Edythe Broad. Photo:  s_bukley/shuttersock

Eli and Edythe Broad, and their Broad Foundation, have been among the most important K-12 funders of the past two decades. Along with the Walton Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation has bankrolled some of the most ambitious education reform efforts of recent years. 

Eli Broad has also been a heavy donor to pro-reform politicians and campaigns, skillfully combining two streams of private giving to reshape K-12 systems—both in his home state of California and across the U.S. 

Recently, though, the Los Angeles billionaire and philanthropist announced that he is retiring from public life—making many wonder what this might mean for the future of education reform funding from the Broad Foundation. 

The New York Times broke the news that Broad, 84, plans to step down from active management of the foundation to spend more time with his family. The Broads have given more than $4 billion to various causes, including arts, medical research, and scientific research, in addition to education reform. The Broads' K-12 giving has totaled at least $600 million.

Among other things, the Broad Foundation has been a major past supporter of Teach for America; it gave millions to support big reform pushes in Washington, D.C. and Michigan, and it's behind the largest push for charter schools anywhere in the nation, organizing a half-billion-dollar effort to dramatically expand charters in Los Angeles. Broad was also an early and pivotal supporter of Eva Moskowitz and Success Academy in New York City. In addition, foundation funds have reached a who's who of other education reform groups over the years. 

All this philanthropy hasn't emptied the couple's pockets by any means. Forbes pegs Eli Broad's current net worth at $7.3 billion

And that statistic is a good starting point for pondering the future of Broad K-12 philanthropy. Simply put, there's a lot more Broad giving to come, regardless of the level of involvement of a mega-giver who's been famously hard-charging and hands-on. 

The Broads are part of the Giving Pledge and much of their wealth is likely to go to philanthropy eventually. Over the years, their biggest giving has supported biomedical research, most notably the Broad Institute, and they've given large sums to the arts. Looking ahead, it's likely that their largest future gifts will also go to these areas—and more specifically, to fortify institutions they've been instrumental in creating. 

But plenty of money will also go to K-12 education, which has been a passion for Eli Broad since his first days as a philanthropist many decades ago. That passion has played out in a lot of ways. Although Broad has been known as a supporter of charter schools, to brand him as solely a charter school funder in the vein of, say, the Walton Family Foundation, is to miss the larger picture of his education giving. In fact, Broad's initial and biggest focus as a K-12 donor has been on improving leadership within education systems. 

There is every reason to believe that the Broad Foundation giving will continue this K-12 work through its range of programs and will otherwise largely stay the course, drawing on an endowment that now stands at $2.5 billion and which could easily grow in coming years. 

It's been just over a year since the Broads appointed Gerun Riley, a longtime foundation staff member and confidante, as its new president. A Broad Foundation employee since 2003, Riley has worked on a number of the funder's K-12 initiatives, including the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The prize recognized an urban district each year for gains in improving student achievement and was awarded from 2002 until 2014, when the funder chose to end the award. It continues to award an annual prize to top-performing charter schools.

Broad said at the time of Riley's appointment that he and his wife wanted their philanthropy to continue after they are gone, and that Riley is someone who shares their values and priorities.

Eli Broad has long been a controversial figure in the K-12 world, attracting a slew of critics who've argued that his giving has done more harm than good. Diane Ravitch, commenting on Broad's retirement, wrote
"We can only hope that he steps away from his hyperactive efforts to privatize public schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere... He has been a destructive force in the world of education. His love of disruption produced nothing but disruption."

Yet, while Broad critics may be tempted to cheer his retirement, it could well be that even bigger Broad funds will flow to change K-12 systems in coming years than have been given so far. 

One unknown is whether Eli Broad will continue his personal political giving for pro-reform candidates and initiatives—contributions which have often worked in tandem with his philanthropy, underscoring how today's wealthy super-citizens can have an outsized influence over public policies that affect everyone.