As Eli Broad Steps Down, Will His Influence on K-12 Education Last?

Eli Broad speaks at a ceremony announcing the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education in Washington, D.C.
Eli Broad speaks at a ceremony announcing the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education in Washington, D.C.
—Diane Bondareff/Invision for The Broad Foundation/AP-File
| Corrected: October 16, 2017
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High-profile education philanthropist Eli Broad has announced he’s stepping away from day-to-day duties at the foundation that he and his wife founded—as well as public life in general—but his legacy in reshaping how private money can influence policy and the politics around those ideas will extend into the foreseeable future, experts say.

The 84-year-old Broad is the founder of the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, based in Los Angeles. He’s generated much national attention for his outsized influence on the charter sector, shaping hundreds of school district leaders through a training academy, some of whom continue to lead the biggest systems in the country, and energized school districts and charters seeking the prestigious Broad Prize that comes with a handsome cash award.

His departure, announced late Thursday in a piece by the New York Times, raises the question of whether the foundation will be as aggressive on education issues now that he is no longer at the helm.

“It’s true: I’m retiring,” Broad wrote on his official Twitter account. “I’m eager to spend time with my family, read, and maybe even watch a few movies.”

Broad named a new president at the foundation, Gerun Riley, in 2016, but had remained active.

“It’s a real milestone announcement as someone who was part of a wave of really hands-on philanthropists who have built up a strong influence on the education sector,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, a public policy professor at Michigan State University who has extensively researched education philanthropy and profiled the Broad Foundation in her book, Policy Patrons, last year. “He’s been at the forefront of this highly engaged venture-style philanthropy, wanting to move quickly to achieve outcomes and holding grantees to very specific metrics.”

‘Unapologetic’ Mover and Shaker

Tompkins-Stange said what’s helped set Broad’s style apart from a peer group in education philanthropy that includes Bill Gates and the Walton family, the founders of Walmart, has been his “unapologetic” nature in wanting to see change fast.

Broad, a native of Detroit, made his money through construction and insurance, building his empire in Los Angeles after relocating there as a young businessman.

“Even in his business, Kaufman & Broad, I used to kid him that he’s a little like George Bailey [the fictional protagonist of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life”], because he made one of his first fortunes building homes for working men and women in Michigan,” said Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools and the current CEO of Future is Now, an advocacy organization.

Broad has invested tens of millions in expanding Los Angeles’ charter schools, particularly schools with a college prep-focus that serve predominately low-income, minority students. He’s also spent hefty sums on school board elections to create a friendlier political environment for charters to grow. With the help of money from Broad, the most recent election for the Los Angeles school board was the most expensive in the nation’s history, and saw the board flip to a majority of pro-charter members.

“I wish we weren’t in the position that we’re in right now, which seems to be a never-ending escalation in both an investment war and a political war over the control of our schools,” said Steve Zimmer, the union-backed, former president of the Los Angeles Unified School District, who lost reelection this past spring. “I never felt like I disagreed with Eli on the goals. The point of disagreement was how to get there.”

Beyond shaping the charter sector nationally, Broad’s philanthropy has had a major impact on the city of Los Angeles. Broad helped fund redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles, and his vast patronage of the arts is embodied in a $140 million dollar art museum he opened in the center of the city in 2015.

“Los Angeles is unique, and this is one of the beautiful things about this city, there’s not an old establishment,” said Barr. “Broad is not a seventh generation [John D.] Rockefeller. Like the city itself, he’s self-made. He didn’t inherit wealth, he created it. And he never lost sight of the fact that he was the product of the public education system in Michigan.”

A High-Profile Prize

When he unveiled the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2002, Broad said he hoped to create the equivalent of the Nobel or Pulitzer Prizes for education. To win the annual prize, a $1 million award, districts had to demonstrate high academic improvement while closing the achievement gap among low-income and minority students. Districts including New York City, Miami-Dade, and Houston were among the recipients before the prize was suspended in 2015. The foundation continues to award a $250,000 annual prize to charter schools, an award that began five years ago.

The Broad Academy, meanwhile, has trained nearly 700 district superintendents, according to its website. They include John Deasy, the former chief of the district in Los Angeles, where the Broad Foundation was particularly active. However, critics of the academy say it trains future superintendents in harmful corporate-management techniques and encourages them to leave parents and teachers out in the cold.

The foundation also provides grants to numerous high-profile organizations, from Teach For America to Success Academy charter schools. Of the foundation’s $590 million in education-focused donations since 1999, $144 million has gone to charter schools, according to the foundation. (The foundation has provided grant support to Education Week in the past, but is not currently a funder.)

“We wouldn’t be where we are nationally or in Los Angeles without him. Full stop,” said Richard Barth, the chief executive officer of the KIPP charter school network.

Broad’s desire to invest in fast results and scaling up promising ideas helped propel the growth of networks like KIPP—the largest in the country.

KIPP has 209 schools in cities all over the United States, including 15 in Los Angeles. Barth said Broad was highly engaged in his organization’s work, and had exacting standards for his grantees.

“When you took an investment from Eli Broad you were committing to very specific [performance] metrics,” said Barth. “I would say he was ahead of his time in setting explicit expectations. He was doing this before ‘venture philanthropy’ or an investment approach in philanthropy was big.”

Criticism for Imposing Change

Although Broad can count many fans among the charter sector, he’s cultivated critics as well. Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College Columbia University, said the most common complaint has been that Broad is a powerful billionaire who has influenced public institutions without facing direct accountability.

“The center of this reform movement that Broad is part of has been aimed at addressing the achievement gap, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Henig. “But the flip side is that predominately white institutions and predominately white donors are leading a charge that affects predominately minority communities.”

Tompkins-Stange echoed this concern as well, and said this could be an area where the Broad Foundation can improve with future funding decisions that are made as the nation’s demographics change.

Henig explained that Broad fit a trend of emerging philanthrophists in the last 20 years who can become relatively frustrated with the results of their investments. Henig thinks that impatience led Broad to shift his philanthropy over time away from traditional school districts and into charter schools, in particular large, sophisticated networks of charter schools.

This change in focus was seen with the disbanding of the Broad Prize for urban school districts.

“When it didn’t rapidly prove itself, when it wasn’t clear that the winners of the Broad Prize continued on an upward arc, when it wasn’t clear that other districts adopted those strategies with equal success, the Broad Prize switched emphasis more toward recognizing charter networks,” said Henig.

For Barbara Jenkins, Broad’s impact is personal. She believes he’s helped her have a successful career in education. Having attended his academy in 2006, she was superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Florida in 2014 when the district won the Broad Prize, a distinction split with Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia that year. The two districts were the last traditional public school systems to win the prize, and Jenkins said the $500,000 in college scholarships for their high school seniors that came with the award immediately made an impact on her students.

“Regarding the academy, it was the best professional development I’ve had to date,” Jenkins said. “The rigor and expectation was high. Philanthropists can put their money wherever they want and for people like Eli Broad to see education as an important place to put it speaks tremendously of their belief in its importance.”

Getting Involved

Patrick Dobard was accepted into the Broad Academy just after being named the superintendent of Louisiana’s Recovery School District. The RSD is not a traditional district—it’s run by the state and charged with taking over failing Louisiana schools and turning them around. Dobard, who is now the CEO of New Schools For New Orleans, faced a lot of unique challenges in that role.

“Through the Broad Residency and Academy programs, they helped to steer significant talent to work in organizations throughout the city of New Orleans [after Hurricane Katrina], whether that talent is in the local charter schools, or in the New Orleans Parish school board’s offices, or even in the state office—they’ve had lasting impact through the human capital that’s been placed in the city.”

While injecting private money into the public services system can look encouraging to those who ascribe to free-market, libertarian-esque ideology, it can scare those who worry the United States is allowing a wave of rich people to dictate how policy should be shaped.

“Political philanthropy has long been a part of the American fabric and people appreciate others giving away their fortunes to help kids and seeing their passion to make the world a better place,” said education policy analyst Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank. (Hess also writes an opinion blog on edweek.org.) “But the flip side of when we get passionate about something is that it is easy for our vision to become obscured as passion does not tend to lead to the best rational thought process. Then people will attack you for how you spend your money, and so you become defensive and shut out any criticism, which hurts your ability to make sustainably positive change like you wanted in the first place.”

Broad cut an interesting figure: He identified as a liberal Democrat in “blue” California, but tangled with teachers’ unions on issues and was an ally to Republican and conservative folks through his work on charters.

But Broad is also a risk-taker in his funding, said Barr, whose Green Dot Public Schools is unique among charter networks because its teachers are unionized.

Broad, said Barr, is willing to back ideas no one else would—such as a unionized charter school that Barr opened up in New York City with the help of Randi Weingarten, then the president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. She is now the head of the American Federation of Teachers.

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“The only national donor for start-up funds for that school was Eli Broad, and that school would not have opened [without his support],” said Barr. That’s “a school that is now in its 10th year, and it just got a [National] Blue Ribbon … and the average teacher makes a little over $100,000 a year.”

Earlier this year, Broad lobbied senators to reject Betsy DeVos as President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the U.S. Secretary of Education, citing “her support for unregulated charter schools and vouchers as well as the potential conflicts of interest she might bring to the job.” And he and his wife are adulated for their support of the arts, which seems to have allowed him to switch among polarized political groups to do his work.

“I think he’s poised to keep making an impact because of all those relationships he’s made and that he can’t be easily categorized in such a polarized environment,” Tompkins-Stange said, adding that she’s not sure how far away Broad may stay from the work he’s been so engaged with for 20 years. “But by being involved so deeply at the forefront, it’s allowing him to see an immediate legacy, and he’s not known to stay quiet if he sees something he thinks needs fixing, so I think we’re doubtful that’ll change.”

Vol. 37, Issue 10, Pages 1, 15

Published in Print: October 25, 2017, as A Major K-12 Benefactor Is Stepping Down. Will His Impact Last?
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Correction: 
This story originally misstated the number of KIPP schools in Los Angeles. There are currently 15.

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