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Eli Broad and the End of Public Education as We Know It




If there were still any doubt about Eli Broad’s desire to gut traditional public education, it has been erased by his much-discussed “Great Public Schools Now” initiative, a draft of which LA Times reporter Howard Blume obtained last month.

Broad’s 44-page proposal outlines plans to replace half of LAUSD’s existing public schools with charter schools. “Such an effort will gather resources, help high-quality charters access facilities, develop a reliable pipeline of leadership and teaching talent, and replicate their success,” states the document. “If executed with fidelity, this plan will ensure that no Los Angeles student remains trapped in a low-performing school.”

According to the proposal, Broad wants to create 260 new “high-quality charter schools, generate 130,000 high-quality charter seats and reach 50 percent charter market share.”

(Actually, LAUSD has 151,000 kids in charters now: 281,000 out of 633,000 LAUSD students is 43 percent. This isn’t the only imprecision in the proposal.)

The estimated cost of this LAUSD transformation would be nearly half-a-billion dollars.

By his own account, Broad is the fourth-richest resident of Los Angeles, with $7 billion in wealth. So he could easily finance this proposal out of pocket and still pay his property taxes in Brentwood.

But that’s not the plan.

Instead, Broad is shaking the can to his fellow foundationeers and squillionaires. The Gates Foundation of Seattle has already given $29 million for charter schools, while the Walmart-backed Walton Foundation of Bentonville, Ark. has invested over $65 million.

Broad says he’s “creating a more supportive policy environment for charters.” He hopes that virtually overturning the LAUSD in Los Angeles will set a revolutionary example that will enable charter schools to sweep the nation. The private sector would partially regain the control of public education that it lost in the 19th century, whose market-driven schools were excoriated by Charles Dickens.

But modern charter schools are a lot better, right? Some studies show a marked improvement in charters’ performance compared to traditional public schools in areas like reading and math. Others, however, suggest that the average results are about the same.

LAUSD already has more charters than any other U.S. school district. But supply-side institutions are risky. According to a new report by the Center for Media and Democracy, 2,500 have failed between 2001 and 2013 — 43 in Los Angeles alone — stranding their students and teachers and sinking many millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Charter teachers, lacking union support, appear to burn out faster.

According to his autobiography, “The Art of Being Unreasonable,” Broad blames school problems on administration (his signature educational achievement is the Broad Superintendent Academy, whose graduates include recently ousted LAUSD super John Deasy), with little attention to the actual rubber-meets-the road matter of better teaching. Like most charterites, Broad seems to feel that working under a tough superintendent without a union or tenure brings out the best in young teachers.

According to the bio, Broad resented attending Detroit’s Central High. “My high school teachers made it very clear that they found my constant questions annoying,” he recalls. It’s interesting that he doesn’t credit Central for any of his ample college success, not to mention his unparalleled business career.

He hasn’t always felt this hostility, though. In 2000, he persuaded former Colorado Governor Roy Romer to apply for LAUSD superintendent, the initial step in the steady if slow revival of the agency derided as “LA Mummified.” Romer and his board championed a $3.3 billion bond measure that studded the landscape with over 20 new LAUSD schools; Broad gave $200,000 toward its passage.

In 2007, he cofounded Strong American Schools, a lobby for better schooling that reportedly eschewed “controversial’’ topics like vouchers and charter schools. But soon his Strong American Schools partner Bill Gates was rooting for charters and Broad followed. Yet, as recently as his 2012 autobiography, he didn’t find conventional public education hopeless.

Now, at 82, Broad’s ambition apparently is to do away with public education as we know it.

“Part of it is ideological commitment to the deregulation notion, and part of it is practical – teacher unions are the last, biggest unions, and taking them down will create much more room for a broader deregulation of the economy and public sector,” said United Teachers Los Angeles chief Alex Caputo Pearl.

Ultimately, it should be about the students. My late friend, LAUSD teacher Alan Kaplan, struggled for over 30 years to teach “left behind” children to think and aspire, rather than just pass standardized tests. I wonder how long Al and others like him would last under a tenure-free, test-focused, supply-side charter school system.

Photo by Yvette Wohn.


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