Broad school bully?

ASSOCIATED PRESS Eli Broad (above) has had a hand in Philadelphia's education system for more than a decade: Current Superintendent William Hite is a 2005 graduate of his academy; the late Arlene Ackerman was a "resident" at the facility; and Paul Vallas (bottom, also a Broad grad) won a grant from Broad's foundation during his turn as head of Philly's schools in the early 2000s.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Eli Broad (above) has had a hand in Philadelphia's education system for more than a decade: Current Superintendent William Hite is a 2005 graduate of his academy; the late Arlene Ackerman was a "resident" at the facility; and Paul Vallas (bottom, also a Broad grad) won a grant from Broad's foundation during his turn as head of Philly's schools in the early 2000s.
Posted: April 30, 2013

IN 1939, a 6-year-old boy moved to Detroit with his working-class parents - Lithuanian Jewish immigrants - and walked into the remarkable engine that propelled so much of America's prosperity in the 20th century, his neighborhood public school.

That kid, Eli Broad, graduated from Detroit Central High School in 1951 and went on to become one of the world's richest people, a billionaire who made his fortune first in the post-World War II housing boom and later in insurance.

Today, the 79-year-old Broad (it rhymes with "road"), who lives in Los Angeles, is spending a good chunk of his fortune on education reform - steadfast in his belief that applying the same data-driven, free-market principles that made him so wealthy can also make U.S. schools great again.

Yet a small but growing band of critics say his Broad Foundation could actually destroy the kind of schools he's trying to save - the public schools that once trained first- and second-generation Americans like him.

"They run roughshod over communities, ignore data and local experiences . . . and promote a homogenized, nationalized agenda of short-term fixes in a top-down structure," Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education in Philadelphia, said of the foundation.

"They both contribute to and profit from what educators now refer to as 'churn,' the short-term turnover of leaders who come with big egos, big salaries and sweeping reforms that last a millisecond before they're off to the next city. It's a brand of reform that's created chaos in cities nationwide, not the least of which has been Philadelphia."

Schools Superintendent William Hite - a 2005 graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy - is the latest of four Philadelphia School District heads over the past decade to have forged close ties to the Broad Foundation. Other Broad trainees served as top aides during the reign of Hite's predecessor, the late Arlene Ackerman - herself a "superintendent-in-residence" at the same Broad academy before coming here.

Critics insist that the unseen hand of the Broad Foundation played a role on this winter's dramatic move to close 23 public schools across Philadelphia - noting that the foundation in 2009 published an 83-page School Closure Guide, now no longer on its website, for large urban districts.

So just who is Eli Broad, anyway? And how did a megabillionaire living near the Pacific Ocean come to have so much influence over urban public schools, not just in Philadelphia but across the river in Camden, as well as Chicago and other large cities?

Broad's supporters and detractors agree that he's one of a handful of billionaires - along with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the heirs to the fortune of Wal-Mart's late Sam Walton - who decided to focus their philanthropy on a perceived crisis in American education, especially the achievement gap in urban public schools. These rich philanthropists arrived with their checkbooks just when government aid to education is shrinking.

Published reports say that Broad - who co-founded KB Homes and later sold his insurance firm SunAmerica to AIG for $18 billion - is worth about $6 billion.

He's also been trying to buy the Los Angeles Times for years, but he turned to education in the late '90s. He convened education reformers and activists at his mansion - and fixated on the notion that the best way to turn schools around was through top-notch principals.

"Across the country, especially in many low-income urban areas, inefficient systems, outdated practices and inadequate resources have been preventing good teachers from doing great work," Karen Denne, a Broad Foundation spokeswoman, told the Daily News.

"To fundamentally change outcomes for students, public-school systems need leaders with an instructional vision for improving student achievement - leaders who understand the complexities of making an organization run effectively . . . "

In many ways, the Broad philosophy is identical to "corporate education reform" - top-down decision-making, a heavy emphasis on standardized tests to rate how schools are performing, a menu of "school choice" heavily larded with charters, and a reduced role for teachers' unions.

What's unique - and why the Broad Foundation wields so much influence nationally - is that unlike a traditional think-tank that spends millions to study and promote new ideas, Broad's focus is to place and train leaders. That includes not just superintendents but their aides, principals and school-board members, many of whom come from nontraditional backgrounds, such as business or the military.

Paul Vallas, a former Illinois state budget director who arrived from Chicago in 2002 to take over Philadelphia's schools, was an early archetype - and he won a $4.3 million grant from the Broad Foundation three years later to train new principals in an Academy for Leadership in Philadelphia Schools. His short-term successor here - a retired Army colonel named Tom Brady - was a graduate of a Broad academy.

But Philadelphia was just one of many cities where Broad gained clout in the 2000s. In Oakland, a parent activist named Sharon Higgins became alarmed as several superintendents with close ties to Broad showed up, shut down schools or made other changes with little parent or teacher input - and then left. Higgins became so concerned that she created a website to track the Broad Foundation.

"It's this extreme wealth where you have this one individual with his one idea, and he is able to implement what he wants without any accountability," said Higgins.

In New Jersey, education activists have been locked in a battle with Gov. Chris Christie's education secretary - Chris Cerf, a graduate of Broad's academy - over more than $2 million in Broad funds that have paid for various state-reform efforts. They have questioned whether the money is contingent on Christie remaining governor, not to mention the notion of state programs paid for by a wealthy outsider with an agenda.

"The public has a right to know what Broad is funding," said David Sciarra, executive director of New Jersey's Education Law Center, which has been aggressively pursuing records of Broad transactions.

In Philadelphia and Chicago, moves to close dozens of schools in poor neighborhoods brought a renewed focus on 2009's School Closure Guide: Closing Schools as a Means for Addressing Budgetary Challenges. In cold, bloodless corporate prose, the guide lays out "a right-sizing plan" for closing a large number of schools at once while provoking as little community opposition as possible - and making use of "the urgency generated by the discovery of a budget shortfall."

Many of the Broad recommendations - on timing, or holding regional hearings instead of meetings at specific schools slated to be closed - will be familiar to Philadelphia parents angry at the closures. But Broad's Denne said it was inaccurate for critics to suggest that the 4-year-old manual was driving the closures, and that "lessons for other large urban systems can help minimize the negative impact on communities."

And after more than a decade of Broad's training of scores of urban school leaders, critics find its influence hard to beat back.

When Philadelphia hired Hite as superintendent, the only other finalist was Clark County, Nev., deputy superintendent Pedro Martinez - a 2009 graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch


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