Billionaire Education Reform: L.A. Style
The Los Angeles Times published a confidential document, which seems to confirm earlier reports that the Broad Foundation wants at least 50 percent of L.A. public school students educated in charter schools over the next eight years. Currently, 16 percent of students in L.A. Unified attend charters, and according to the report, getting to 50 percent would require creating 260 new schools, for 130,000 students, at a cost of $490 million.
“Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to create the largest, highest-performing charter sector in the nation,” the report stated. “Such an exemplar would serve as a model for all large cities to follow.”
Hmmm. That sounds familiar.
Earlier this month, veteran Washington Post journalist Dale Russakoff published a new book, The Prize, which explores education reform efforts in Newark from 2010-2015. Her book details the goals, mistakes, and challenges reformers encountered as they tried to “transform” Newark’s struggling school system—largely through expanding charters, closing “failing” schools, and implementing new teacher pay scales. The political drama and backroom dealings led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg offers humbling lessons to all those working to improve public education, no matter where one comes down on the policy specifics.
Like Eli Broad’s vision for Los Angeles, a key goal for Newark education reformers was to make the city a model for the rest of urban America. Booker wanted Newark to be transformed into “a hemisphere of hope” and repeatedly told Zuckerberg that their goal was not just to fix local education, but to develop the “high impact programs and best practices” that could fix education in all major cities. Booker believed that if he could succeed within a difficult district like Newark, then he could succeed anywhere. He emphasized that Zuckerberg’s investment could help lead to the “blueprint for national replication across America’s urban centers to transform its youth.”
This month, HistPhil, a blog that explores the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, has been running an excellent series on philanthropic involvement in education. Their effort is well timed: As billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad continue to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into education reform, the need to understand what’s historically new, and what’s not, is more important than ever.
Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist and author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public Schools, contributed to the HistPhil series by looking specifically at Mark Zuckerberg’s experiment in Newark. Reckhow notes that there exists a “perennial drive” for philanthropists to create national reform models. She points to the Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas program in the 1960s, an effort that philanthropists had hoped could serve as a national model for urban policy. “The fallacy of the national replication model—at the expense of truly listening and understanding local circumstances—is a lesson that philanthropists must relearn time and again,” Reckhow says.
Other cities experimenting with education reform are similarly interested in “scaling” their efforts. Many point to the academic gains seen in New Orleans—the urban district with the highest percentage of charter schools in the country—as reason to implement their reforms elsewhere. “We don’t know if similar efforts can be replicated in other cities,” argued Neerav Kingsland, a prominent New Orleans reformer. “But we owe it to the children of this country to try and find out.” Tulane economist Doug Harris, who has conducted the most rigorous research on New Orleans reforms to date, says it’s questionable whether their model would work in other cities given the unique economic and political conditions present in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
OK, so reformers and philanthropists are drawn to ideas that can scale—and apparently have been for a long time. Still, how should we be thinking about Eli Broad’s plan to “charterize” L.A.? Is there anything new about today’s crop of philanthropists? Several contributors to the HistPhil blog argue yes.
Sociologist Robin Rogers says that the ideas held by modern philanthropists reflect those commonly seen in the venture capital world. She cites an influential article from 1997 in The Harvard Business Review that encouraged philanthropists to pursue social change using tactics commonly employed in the business sector. “Considered to be more muscular than traditional approaches to philanthropy, the new philanthropy appeals to many men who made money in tech or finance sectors,” Rogers writes. “These (primarily) men have great faith in the tools and techniques that they used to disrupt the old economy and usher in the new one.” (Though Broad is often grouped with tech billionaires, he acquired his wealth through homebuilding and insurance.)
While modern philanthropists share some similarities with their rich predecessors, Rogers argues that today’s bunch are far more likely to focus on “institutional pressure points” rather than provide support for a diverse set of projects. (She points to the Gates Foundation’s involvement in promoting the Common Core standards as an example, as well as dogged support for expanding charter schools).
Jeffrey W. Snyder, a postdoctoral research fellow in education, philanthropy, and advocacy at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, also wrote a HistPhil post exploring differences between “old” and “new” philanthropy—specifically in terms of their priorities and philanthropic methods. For one thing, Snyder finds that “new foundation granting in recent years far surpasses the total given by old foundations.”
He also says that newer foundations do indeed have different priorities compared to older ones. The latter tends to give substantially to university-based programs and research that aims to improve existing educational systems, while newer foundations donate heavily to charter schools and other organizations that push for more radical change.
We don’t yet know what’s going to happen with Eli Broad’s plan to “reach 50 percent charter market share” within Los Angeles public schools. And it wouldn’t be fair to assume he’ll behave just as Mark Zuckerberg did in Newark, or as other billionaires have elsewhere. Still, paying attention to historical precedent is important, and there seems to be sufficient reason to be wary. As The Washington Post’s art critic Philip Kennicott wrote just days ago, Eli Broad “is a self-made man…who has also built and burned bridges all across [Los Angeles]. Ask around, and no one seems to like him, though many call him effective…They admire his brilliance, covet his money, fear his power and lament his character, which is described as imperious, egomaniacal and relentless.”