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

Renowned philanthropist Eli Broad, well-known for his contributions towards education, has recently announced his retirement from the foundation he established with his wife. However, experts believe that Broad’s influence on policy and politics, particularly regarding the role of private funding, will continue to shape the future. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, based in Los Angeles, has gained national attention due to Broad’s significant impact on the charter sector. Through a training academy, hundreds of school district leaders have been shaped by Broad, many of whom currently head the largest systems in the country. Additionally, Broad Prize has encouraged school districts and charters to seek recognition and financial reward. With Broad’s departure, concerns arise regarding the foundation’s future dedication towards education issues.

Broad himself confirmed his retirement on his official Twitter account, expressing his eagerness to spend time with family, read, and enjoy movies. Although a new president, Gerun Riley, was appointed at the foundation in 2016, Broad has remained actively involved. Megan Tompkins-Stange, a public policy professor at Michigan State University and an expert in education philanthropy, describes Broad as an influential figure who represents the hands-on approach of philanthropists who strive for quick outcomes and hold grantees accountable.

Tompkins-Stange highlights Broad’s distinctive style, which differentiates him from other philanthropists in the education sector such as Bill Gates and the Walton family. Her research, detailed in her book "Policy Patrons," commends Broad’s unapologetic desire to bring about rapid change.

Born in Detroit, Broad amassed his wealth through construction and insurance, establishing his empire in Los Angeles after relocating there as a young businessman. Broad has heavily invested in expanding Los Angeles’ charter schools, specifically those catering to low-income, minority students with a focus on college preparation. Moreover, he has financially supported pro-charter candidates in school board elections, aiming to create a more favorable political environment for the growth of charters. With Broad’s financial assistance, the recent Los Angeles school board election became the most expensive in U.S. history, resulting in a majority of pro-charter members. Steve Zimmer, the former president of the Los Angeles Unified School District, supported by the teachers’ union, acknowledges common goals with Broad but expresses disagreements on the means to achieve them.

In addition to his national influence on the charter sector, Broad’s philanthropic endeavors have significantly impacted the city of Los Angeles. He has contributed to the redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles and established a $140 million art museum in the city center in 2015. Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot Public Schools and CEO of Future is Now, highlights Broad’s uniqueness as a self-made individual who recognizes the importance of the public education system from which he benefited.

Broad’s legacy also includes the establishment of a highly prestigious prize.

"When you accepted an investment from Eli Broad, you were committing to very specific performance metrics," stated Barth. "I would say he was ahead of his time in setting clear expectations. He was doing this before the concept of ‘venture philanthropy’ or an investment approach in philanthropy became popular."

Critiques of Imposing Change

While Broad has many supporters within the charter sector, he has also garnered critics. According to Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Teachers College Columbia University, the most common complaint is that Broad, as a powerful billionaire, has influenced public institutions without being held directly accountable. "The focus of this reform movement that Broad is a part of is addressing the achievement gap, which is commendable," said Henig. "However, the flip side is that predominantly white institutions and predominantly white donors are leading a charge that primarily affects minority communities." Tompkins-Stange also expressed this concern and suggested that the Broad Foundation can improve its future funding decisions to align with the changing demographics of the nation. Henig explained that Broad is part of a trend among emerging philanthropists in the last two decades who may become frustrated with the outcomes of their investments. He believes that Broad’s impatience led him to shift his philanthropic focus from traditional school districts to charter schools, particularly large and well-established charter school networks. This change in focus can be observed with the discontinuation of the Broad Prize for urban school districts.

"When it wasn’t immediately successful, when it wasn’t evident that the winners of the Broad Prize continued to improve, and when it wasn’t clear that other districts were adopting those strategies with equal success, the Broad Prize began to emphasize recognition of charter networks," explained Henig. Barbara Jenkins has a personal perspective on Broad’s impact. She credits him with helping her achieve a successful career in education. Jenkins attended his academy in 2006 and later became superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Florida. In 2014, her district won the Broad Prize, sharing the distinction with Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia. These were the last traditional public school systems to be awarded the prize. Jenkins highlighted the immediate impact the $500,000 in college scholarships had on her students. "Regarding the academy, it was the most impactful professional development I have experienced," she said. "The standards and expectations were high. Philanthropists have the right to allocate their funds as they see fit, and for individuals like Eli Broad to recognize the importance of investing in education speaks volumes about their belief in its significance."

Getting Involved

Patrick Dobard joined the Broad Academy shortly after being appointed superintendent of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD). The RSD is not a typical district as it is state-run and responsible for turning around failing schools in Louisiana. Dobard, who currently serves as the CEO of New Schools For New Orleans, faced unique challenges in his role. "Through the Broad Residency and Academy programs, they have been instrumental in attracting talented individuals to work in various organizations throughout the city of New Orleans [after Hurricane Katrina]," Dobard explained. "Whether it be in local charter schools, the New Orleans Parish school board, or even at the state office, their investment in human capital has had a lasting impact on the city." While injecting private funds into the public service system may seem promising to proponents of free-market ideology, it can be concerning to those who fear that wealthy individuals are influencing policy-making.

"I believe he is well-positioned to continue making a significant difference due to the extensive relationships he has cultivated. It is challenging to label him within the confines of a highly polarized environment," remarked Tompkins-Stange. She expressed uncertainty regarding how distant Broad may be from the work he has passionately dedicated himself to for two decades. "However, his deep involvement on the forefront enables him to witness the direct impact he is making. Moreover, he has a reputation for speaking up and taking action when he identifies something that requires attention. Therefore, we have reservations about any potential change in this regard."


  • oscarcunningham

    Oscar Cunningham is a 41-year-old educational blogger and professor. He has been writing about education for over 10 years, and is known for his expertise on online learning and digital media. Cunningham is also a frequent speaker on these topics, and has given talks at a range of universities around the world. In his spare time, he also enjoys playing the violin and running.

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