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Charter schools get boost

L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad is donating $23.3 million to create 17 new campuses run by two major groups.

January 17, 2008|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Arts and education philanthropist Eli Broad today will announce his largest investment to date in Los Angeles charter schools, $23.3 million to jump-start at least 17 new campuses run by two major charter-school organizations.

Broad's gift is believed to be the largest by any private donor to local charter schools and underscores his goal of creating effective schools outside the direct jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

L.A. Unified already has 128 charter schools, more than any school system in the nation, enrolling about 7% of the district's 700,000 students.

KIPP schools, which will receive $12 million, are noted nationally for their regimented, character-building approach and extra-long school days and school years. The other charter group is Aspire Public Schools, which will receive $5 million; it requires every graduate to earn college course credits and $3,000 from a paid internship.

Charters are free, independently run, publicly funded schools that are not bound by either the state Education Code or many school district dictates.

Broad, 74, said Wednesday that creating more charters became an essential fallback when L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa retreated from pursuing outright control of the nation's second-largest school system.

"In other cities, those with mayoral control -- Chicago, New York City, Boston -- things are happening from the top down," Broad said in an interview. "And they've made great progress in all those cities. Here, we've got a different situation. If we want to see improvement here, charters are a route to get there. We think doing things from the bottom up, with charters, will help all public schoolchildren."

Broad's history with L.A. Unified spans several reform eras over the last decade. His support of local charter-school organizations has now grown to $56 million, reaching an estimated 25,000 students, arguably far surpassing the number affected by Villaraigosa's higher-profile effort to oversee reforms at six schools through a community partnership.

The gift also builds on research suggesting that charter schools are especially effective in raising test scores at urban middle schools, a sore spot for L.A. Unified.

Broad's donation, hailed in many quarters, was not greeted with enthusiasm by the leader of the teachers union. Most KIPP schools are non-union, as are all Aspire schools.

"Eli's so enamored with charter schools, he's willing to put millions and millions of dollars into them simply because they're charter schools," said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

Duffy questioned both the staying power of higher test scores at some charter schools as well as what he called their focus on "teaching to the test," which he characterized as simplistic and counterproductive.

Broad emerged as a force in the local school reform wars in 1999, when he helped bankroll then-Mayor Richard Riordan's effort to elect school board allies. He also was the person most responsible for recruiting former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer to head L.A. Unified, which Romer did from 2000 to 2006. In addition, Broad has funded a training academy for school district leaders and awards the national Broad Prize to one well-regarded school district each year.

Broad has rarely donated directly to L.A. Unified, although he has supported the new arts high school under construction on Grand Avenue downtown. He has continued to make sizable campaign donations in school board elections -- preferring candidates who say they won't micromanage, especially if he believes they will oppose the teachers union when he thinks it necessary.

Broad declined to comment on the district's recent reform record, or on the mayor's specific efforts. But he said progress in New York City shows that large school districts can make huge strides and that cooperative unions, such as the one in New York, can play an immensely helpful role.

"We've been trying to induce KIPP to come down here because, from what we've seen across America, it's the gold or platinum standard of charter schools," added Broad, who also praised Aspire highly.

Both KIPP and Aspire operate schools in traditionally underserved, poor and working-class urban communities with low-achieving Latino or African American students.

On test scores, the L.A.-area KIPP and Aspire schools slipped last year, but both still scored well ahead of schools serving similar students. And the KIPP schools scored better than average among all schools.

Researchers for the Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit EdSource concluded last year that, on balance, charter middle schools are clearly outperforming regular public middle schools. EdSource also asserted that schools run by charter-management organizations, such as KIPP and Aspire, are consistently doing better than other charter schools.

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