Putting His Wealth to Work To Improve Urban Schools

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

He counts the Prince George's County school superintendent and D.C. school board president among his disciples. He has advised the D.C. mayor on cuts in school system bureaucracy. He and a better-known West Coast entrepreneur are spending millions to persuade the next president of the United States to improve teacher quality and lengthen school days. He is spawning a new generation of school administrators who hail his name.

He is a billionaire, like his ally Bill Gates.

The question is: Can Eli Broad succeed in his campaign to help America's schools shed years of bad management practices and avoid the pitfalls of divisive community politics?

After creating two Fortune 500 companies -- residential developer KB Home and insurer SunAmerica -- the results-focused Broad has decided to use his money and expertise to help urban school systems tunnel through a mountain of obstacles that have long held back student achievement.

He and his wife, Edythe, have committed more than $250 million to school improvement projects since 1999, and they plan to spend most of the Broad Foundation's $2.25 billion in assets on education. The Los Angeles couple, along with Bill and Melinda Gates, are widely considered the most influential public education philanthropists in the country.

Broad (rhymes with road) has provided much of the money and advice behind efforts to bring business practices -- including freedom from what he considers meddlesome school boards -- to New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Now he has turned his attention to the District. His conversations with D.C. officials, Broad watchers say, are likely to bring more money and expertise to efforts to overhaul the school system.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's plan to take control of the D.C. schools is just what Broad has been recommending for many troubled urban systems. In January, Fenty (D) quizzed Broad on guidance he has given New York school leaders in recent years as a large number of central office personnel have been moved to other jobs or out the door.

"I think there is a big opportunity here," Broad said of Fenty's plan in an interview with The Washington Post. "But I told him I am concerned with this board of education."

Broad said Fenty told him: "They are not going to have much power."

Broad replied: "Yeah, but they're going to have a bully pulpit to create a little mischief here."

As it happens, D.C. Board of Education President Robert C. Bobb is a graduate of a Broad urban school executive program. This month, Bobb drew notice for raising concerns about Fenty's takeover plan with a U.S. senator at a delicate moment, before an implementation bill had cleared Congress. But Bobb said in an interview that he did not agree with Broad's view that the board's activities might get in the way of school improvement.

Bobb also said he supports Broad's many educational initiatives, among them the 10-month leadership academy he attended in 2005. The academy, Bobb said, taught him a lot about the use of data and getting access to experts and other resources. "He is putting his money where his mouth is," Bobb said.

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