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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.

Other academy fellows include Prince George's Superintendent John E. Deasy; Deasy's chief of staff, William Hite; and John Q. Porter, a Montgomery County deputy superintendent recently named to head the Oklahoma City schools. The academy said it has placed its fellows as superintendents in Pittsburgh; Houston; Oakland, Calif.; San Diego County; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; and other significant urban systems. This year, several current and former high-ranking military officers have been chosen to be academy fellows, a sign of Broad's interest in cultivating nontraditional educational leadership.

Broad began his management training efforts after visiting school leaders around the country. "We didn't see any great competency in any of the notable areas that one would expect to find," he said.

The human resources departments in many districts, he said, were appalling. "There were a whole lot of clerks that weren't very welcoming," he said. "They took forever to make decisions . . . or even get paychecks out in time. . . . It took forever to requisition what a school needed, and maybe you would get a plumber three weeks later, and maybe you wouldn't."

There is a restlessness to the 73-year-old Broad, a lifelong tendency to get things done and move on to the next challenge. Tall, with a thick Midwestern accent from growing up in Detroit, he started his career at a young age as a certified public accountant in Michigan and then at 23 turned to home building. With partner Donald Kaufman, Broad became a visionary force in the industry, developing single-family homes as mass commodities. He had the same impatience with the traditions of the insurance industry, making SunAmerica into an annuities giant.

His interest in education, he said, grew from that same yearning to make big changes, right now. He said that when he thought about national problems he might help solve with a windfall from SunAmerica's merger, he decided "K-12 education was a big problem becoming a bigger problem, and not too many people were doing anything about it."

Like other business leaders who have become involved in education, Broad is used to a corporate system where the top executive makes the decisions and the company board, with rare exceptions, goes along. School boards, on the other hand, often consider themselves in charge of major decisions, with the superintendent just there to carry out orders. School board members, including those in the District, have often engaged in political battles that critics such as Broad think have taken attention away from raising student achievement.

Broad's fondness for one-man rule in school systems is seen by some education experts as anti-democratic. "Education is a communal activity and not a competition and bottom-line activity," said educational psychologist and author Gerald W. Bracey. "Inefficiency in schools does not bother me that much because democracy is an inefficient and messy process."

Broad, an active member of the Democratic Party, said he has no problem with the American political system. He said he has been telling Fenty and other city leaders that they must get voters excited about the changes they are making if they are going to succeed. "You've got to start off convincing the public and the parents about why this all has to happen, why they are going to be the beneficiaries of all this," he said.

In part to convince voters that schools must get better, Broad and Gates have announced a $60 million, nonpartisan political campaign called Strong American Schools geared toward the 2008 election. It is "aimed at elevating education to the top of our list of our nation's priorities," according to a statement, and urging presidential candidates to support national education standards, effective teachers in every classroom and extended learning time.

Former Colorado governor and Los Angeles superintendent Roy Romer, chairman of the campaign's steering committee, said the group plans to build a large and powerful list of supporters who will hold the winning candidate to the promises he or she makes on those issues.

In addition to his school leadership academy, Broad has established a residency in urban education program, an institute for school boards and an annual $1 million prize for excellence in urban education. The Broad Prize is the nation's most prominent award for school systems. Broad also has backed innovation through charter schools.

"Eli Broad was way ahead of the curve in recognizing that improving our schools and school systems would require the same kinds of practices that go into building and sustaining high-performing organizations in every sector," said Richard Barth, chief executive officer of the KIPP Foundation, which supports 52 public schools in 16 states and the District.

It is too soon, several experts said, to assess the results of Broad's initiatives. Broad said he does not discount the possibility that efforts such as Fenty's might flop with the public. One reason there are not more wealthy people spending money on education, he said, is that "people get frustrated."

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