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L.A. charter schools are investment grade to Broad

The philanthropist gives $6.5 million to one group. His total to area campuses is $36 million.

May 24, 2007|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

In his continued effort to bring pressures to bear on the Los Angeles public school system, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad has committed more than $6 million to a high-performing charter school group to help it dramatically expand.

The $6.5-million grant to the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools from Broad's education foundation, along with $3.5 million raised by Alliance board members, clears the way for the group to open 13 middle and high school campuses by 2010 in impoverished neighborhoods where traditional schools are foundering. The expansion will nearly triple the number of Alliance schools to 20, matching the pace of growth underway by the city's most prominent charter group, Green Dot Public Schools.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, former Mayor Richard Riordan, who is Alliance's board chairman, and other Alliance leaders are expected to join Broad at a news conference to announce the gift this morning.

Charters are publicly funded, independently run schools. In exchange for improved student performance, charter operators are free to design their own curriculum and work outside many of the restrictions imposed by school districts. In recent years, the number of charters in the Los Angeles Unified School District has exploded to 103 -- more than any other district in the country. Currently, about 6% of the roughly 708,000 students in the district attend charters, and thousands more will enroll in the next few years.

Broad's gift to Alliance is the latest indication that he views the work of charters, and not the efforts of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or the district's Board of Education, as the best chance to reform the nation's second-largest school system.

"Certainly the brightest hope for students in Los Angeles are high-performing charter school organizations," Broad said in prepared remarks.

"We need to change," he added in an interview. "We're looking for the superior performance of charter schools to create the pressure for change."

A $10-million contribution to Green Dot last year and the gift to Alliance bring to $56 million the amount given by Broad to support charters in several U.S. cities -- with $36 million going to Los Angeles charter groups.

A staunch supporter of the idea of complete mayoral control of school districts, Broad has made no secret of his disappointment over Villaraigosa's ill-fated decision to seek only partial control of L.A. Unified through legislation that the courts threw out as unconstitutional.

Broad is equally tepid on the mayor's recent success in helping to elect a majority of allies to the school board, as well as the idea that the newly configured board will be able to push major reforms from within.

"If you don't have mayoral control ... what other options do we have?" he said. "The option is to get the best public schools you have to act as a catalyst to force the others to become better."

Broad indicated that his donation to Alliance would not be his last to charters. He said he aims to help several other charter organizations replicate their models on a scale equal to Alliance and Green Dot.

Robin Kramer, Villaraigosa's chief of staff, spoke highly of Alliance's work. She deflected the notion that Broad's single-track focus on charters comes at the expense of the mayor's reform efforts, saying "the mayor's vision for change is inclusive of great charter organizations." Kramer is expected to speak at today's news conference at the invitation of Alliance.

Alliance's founder and chief executive, Judy Burton, a former high-ranking district official, echoed Broad, saying she expects the new schools to push Alliance past "the tipping point to a scale that is needed to make an impact on a district this large."

"With parents recognizing they have a choice to send their children to a high-performing school instead of having to go to one simply because it is in their neighborhood, I do believe that the district is beginning to feel the pinch," she said. "The district has to realize that this is a competitive market."

As the number of charters in Los Angeles has grown, some board members have increasingly chafed at their effect on the district. Scores of teachers and administrators have left to join charters, while millions of dollars in state funding has been redirected each year from district coffers.

School board member Monica Garcia, who is closely aligned with the mayor, said the district needs to work more closely with charters. "Until we can with confidence provide quality education opportunities to every child, we have to seek out these partners," she said.

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