March 11, 2009
The education philanthropist Eli Broad is based in Los Angeles, but at an event this week in Manhattan he painted a vivid picture of the unique influence he’s exerted in the New York City schools.
Broad said that his foundation has given money to the two charter schools the union president here, Randi Weingarten, opened; has trained seven or eight of the top officials in Chancellor Joel Klein’s Department of Education; and was a player in Klein and Weingarten’s merit-based pay deal.
The remarks came at an event at the 92nd Street Y Monday, where the writer Matthew Bishop of the Economist interviewed Broad on a small stage. Broad said the close relationship began as soon as Klein took the job. “From the first day Joel took office, literally, we met with him,” he said. He is close with other education leaders, too.
In Washington, D.C., the Broad Foundation has met repeatedly with superintendent Michelle Rhee and is believed to be one of the groups that would fund Rhee’s plan to give teachers more money in exchange for giving up tenure rights. Broad said on Monday that several of his staff members are taking jobs in Arne Duncan’s U.S. Department of Education.
The relationships are part of the Broad Foundation’s aggressive education agenda, which includes opening many charter schools, adopting corporate models for school leadership, and changing the way teachers are compensated. Because they are not beholden to public opinion, philanthropies can be “far more aggressive” in their goals than most politicians, Broad said. “We don’t mind taking risks. We don’t mind being criticized, at times even being hung in effigy,” he said.
Broad said his foundation has taken a hit from the economic downturn, seeing its endowment drop in value by 25%. But he said he plans to continue in the business of education giving and offered a few indications of where he might redirect his spending now that his other pet issue, stem cell research, is being funded by the Obama administration. “I’m a big believer in mayoral control,” he said. Earlier, he’d explained his interest in the way school systems are run: “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is management and governance.”
He said the continued giving will be important as nonprofit organizations see their capacity shrink. He cited the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Robin Hood Foundation as two organizations that relied heavily on hedge-fund donations and therefore have lost a substantial amount of money in the downturn.
Broad also cited results emerging from the Broad-funded Education Innovation Laboratory, run by the economist Roland Fryer, who previously served beneath Klein. He described the divide inside the Democratic Party and said that Fryer’s preliminary research supports the side he and Klein favor, whose belief he summarized as the idea that schools alone can help close the achievement gap. He said the other side of the debate argues that environmental factors affect the achievement gap as well.
He said his education ventures haven’t always been successful. His foundation backed ED in 08, the national campaign intended to raise make education an issue in last year’s elections. About ED in 08, Broad said simply, “We didn’t succeed.” He said that while candidates adopted pieces of the campaign’s platform, it failed to make inroads in the national consciousness. “It amazes me that the American people don’t get it,” he said. Later, while discussing ED in 08′s call for an extended school year, he said, “The public seems to like long summer vacations.”
“We’re often accused of having too much influence in education,” Broad said. “I’m not sure how you’d restrict that.” While foundations and nonprofits are barred by law from getting involved in politics, they might expand their reach by spinning off organizations with a different tax status that allows them to back political candidates and lobby for pieces of legislation, Broad said. He said the Klein-chaired Education Equality Project is considering doing just that.