Beyond Charters: Will Philanthropy Step Up for Public Schools in Los Angeles?

photo:  Supannee_Hickman/shutterstock

photo:  Supannee_Hickman/shutterstock

In Los Angeles, five foundations recently pooled $3 million to form the Fund for Equity and Excellence to support the city’s public school district. It isn’t the first public education fund formed to aid the district, which has had trouble attracting private money for its traditional public schools, despite robust support for local charter networks.

The fund is meant to support measures that will improve attendance, increase high-quality learning opportunities and engage families and communities. The work will also focus on reviewing the district’s operations and attracting talent to join its team.

Austin Beutner, the district’s new schools chief, spearheaded the effort to establish the fund. Beutner is a local businessman and philanthropist himself with deep ties to the local funding community. He took on his new role in the district in May.

The five foundations backing the fund include the Ballmer Group, California Community Foundation, California Endowment, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Weingart Foundation.

A number of those five funders should be familiar to readers. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation is a major player in Los Angeles K-12 education and the charter movement more broadly. The foundation has lent its support to public school districts in the past, usually when there’s an outside body providing accountability—like the D.C. Public Education Fund or the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. But for the most part, Broad’s giving has focused on charter schools—most recently, spearheading an ambitious half-billion-dollar plan dramatically increasing the number of students enrolled in charters in L.A. 

The Ballmer Group is another familiar name on the Fund for Equity and Excellence’s list of backers. The group serves as the philanthropy vehicle for Steve and Connie Ballmer, who have substantially increased their giving in recent years, tapping a vast fortune from Steve's years at Microsoft. The Ballmers have focused their efforts on anti-poverty work and recently made some big investments in K-12 education. In addition to backing national groups with large, multi-year grants, the Ballmer Group has concentrated its grantmaking in cities where Steve and Connie have personal ties—including Los Angeles, where Steven owns the L.A. Clippers, and where the Ballmer Group has lately emerged as a major philanthropic player. 

Related: The Ballmer Express: Where's This Anti-Poverty Funder Heading Now?

Given the deep pockets of some of the funders involved, the $3 million flowing to the Fund for Equity and Excellence, split between five foundations, may seem small. The hope is that the amount will grow with further commitments from the five funders and through bringing on additional backers. Regardless of the fund’s plan for future growth, its modest start highlights the challenges the district has experienced attracting private dollars.

Public education funds have found success in other cities. The funds provide a sense of accountability for wary donors and come with a staff that can focus full-time on raising and managing funds, leaving district leaders free to focus on educating.

Along with the Fund for Public Schools in New York City, the D.C. Public Education Fund is among the model’s big success stories. The fund raised $120 million over 10 years to support D.C.’s public school system. More recently, the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation has demonstrated that the model can work in smaller cities with fewer local foundations and less national attention.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of a public education fund for LAUSD leaders intent on raising private money. But the Fund for Equity and Excellence isn’t the first public education fund established to support the city’s school district. And the last one wasn’t a success.

About seven years ago, philanthropists and the district came together to start the L.A. Fund for Education. The fund said it hoped to raise $200 million over five years on behalf of L.A.’s public school district. It raised between $7 and $20 million, according to estimates from the Los Angeles Times, before it merged with another organization and shifted its focus to supporting the city’s charter schools. Current Schools Chief Beutner was one of the philanthropists that served on the original fund’s board.

There are exceptions to philanthropists’ reticence to invest big in the L.A. Unified School District. The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools has attracted huge support from local philanthropists Melanie and Richard Lundquist, for example. The partnership is a nonprofit that operates 18 of the district’s lowest-performing schools. The nonprofit started in 2007 with a $50 million donation from the Lundquists. The couple recently committed another $35 million to the group.

Related: Inside Player: Behind a Unique Effort to Transform a Big Urban School District

Even though the nonprofit oversees the schools, like a charter management organization would, the schools remain a part of LAUSD. The district’s requirements, including teachers union contracts, apply to partnership schools.

Charter schools are the other exception to the city’s difficulty raising private money for public education. As mentioned earlier, the Broad Foundation has made the expansion of charter schools in L.A. a major focus of its work. The Walton Family Foundation has also supported charter schools in the city as part of its broader plan to promote charter schools across the country. Los Angeles is one of the 17 cities that the foundation is supporting with its $250 million Building Equity Initiative. The work will focus on supporting construction of new charter school facilities.

Still, even as big money has continued to flow for charters, we've reported that a growing number of major donors and foundations are channeling new resources to the traditional public schools that still educate the vast majority of America's school children. In this sense, the Fund for Equity and Excellence is part of a larger trend. While past failures in L.A. hang heavy over this initiative, it has emerged at a promising moment.