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

There are two groups of funders in the world of education philanthropy: Those who've given up nearly all hope that traditional public school systems can improve, and those who haven't.

The funders who've given up hope, most notably the Walton Family Foundation, put almost all their money into building an alternative system made up of charter schools and supporting organizations, like Teach for America. The funders who haven't given up hope, like the Gates Foundation, support charters schools but also back hands-on efforts to improve traditional school districts.

Historically, the Broad Foundation has been in the hope camp. Like Gates, it has sunk millions into charter schools while also working to bolster performance in traditional districts. The billionaire Eli Broad—who made his fortune by reinventing how homes were built and later turning around an insurance company—has believed urban school systems could improve with the right management models, as well as the removal of what he saw as political roadblocks, such as teachers’ unions.

Now, with decision by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to suspend the Broad Prize for Urban Education, it looks like Broad and his advisors are starting to give up hope, and migrating toward the darker Walton view that traditional districts are incapable of reforming.

News of the Broad Foundation's decision to suspend the $1 million prize, given each year since 2002 to a top performing urban school district, was first announced by the funder at the beginning of February. The story gained traction a week later when the Los Angeles Times published an article about the decision. The official line from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation is that the funder has “paused” the $1 million award while it updates the award to “better reflect and recognize the changing landscape of K-12 public education.”

The Broad Prize was designed to reward and encourage further success in boosting student achievement and closing achievement gaps, but Broad Foundation President Bruce Reed said, “We’ve seen some of that, but not enough and not fast enough.”

The funder cited “sluggish” academic results in many urban systems. The Times reported that some associates of Eli Broad say the 81-year-old billionaire is uncertain if he even wants to continue rewarding traditional school districts at all.

Whatever the case, though, the Broad Foundation is likely to keep up its advocacy of a range of reforms to traditional public systems, and maybe even ramp up those efforts. Such reforms include teacher evaluation models that tie appraisals to value-added models of student achievement, changes to teacher tenure rules, data-driven decision making, and closing down schools that fail to measure up. Recently, for example, the foundation has supported the Partnership for Educational Justice, which was started by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown to file lawsuits challenging teacher tenure in various states. 

Sure, maybe the foundation will no longer directly cut checks to public school districts. But it's likely to still keep cutting checks—and more of them—to reformers who want to change how such districts operate. And that could have a big impact on the education funding landscape. 

Bruce Reed and Eli Broad appear to be like-minded when it comes to education reform. Politically, Broad identifies as a Democrat, but is critical of teachers’ unions, a reliable Democratic constituency. Reed has served on the staffs of Vice President Biden and former Vice President Gore, and is a former CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (see our 2014 profile of Bruce Reed). If the Broad Foundation does shift away from hands-on managerial efforts to boost schools to more of an advocacy and policy effort to push reforms, it certainly has the right leader in place with Reed. 

In 2014, the $1 million prize, which funds college scholarships for graduates from the winning districts, was split between two districts: Orange County Public Schools in Florida and Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia. This was Gwinnett’s second time to win the award. Other previous winners include the Miami-Dade Public Schools, the New York City Department of Education, Boston Public Schools, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (North Carolina), and the Houston Independent School District (another two-time winner).

The winning districts are chosen by a panel of education experts, and the funder was disappointed that more districts were not showing progress, according to Reed.

New York University Professor of Education Pedro Noguera said Broad expectations for urban schools may not have been realistic but that the prize gave urban districts something for which to strive. He also expressed concern that politics intruded on the award process, noting that New York City won in 2007 as Broad ally Michael Bloomberg was seeking a third term as mayor.

Some critics have greeted news of the prize’s suspension with a kind of “don’t let the door hit you on your way out” dismissal. Education scholar and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch has criticized Eli Broad as someone who believes the effects of poverty “can be overcome by good management” and called the decision evidence of Broad’s low regard for public education.

Other critics were more blunt in their comments. Of Broad, the head of one of California's largest teachers unions said, “The farther he and his foundation stay away from public education, the better,” the head of one of California’s largest teachers’ unions said of Broad.

The notion that Broad will retreat from school reform efforts is surely wishful thinking, and teachers' unions and progressive ed advocates will find themselves facing an even more formidable foe if the foundation chooses to step up its policy efforts. 

As well, if the foundation ends its support of urban school systems, that decision will likely accrue to the benefit of the charter schools, charter management organizations, and portfolio school systems Broad has championed. While the funder is ending the Broad Prize for Urban Education, it plans to continue awarding its annual $250,000 award for top charter school organizations. One wonders if that award will grow larger.

Maybe the most important thing to keep in mind here is just how much Broad money is waiting in the wings. Last year, we speculated that a much higher level of giving for education from the Broad Foundation seemed likely in coming years. Whether such giving is planned, not to mention where it will go, remain open questions. But one thing is for sure: More of Eli Broad's money has to go somewhere, since he's worth $7.2 billion and has pledged to part with at least half that wealth. Given his historic interest in education, it's hard to imagine that bigger sums won't flow to this area. 

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