Education Reform

Celebrities Fund Public Schools, Not Charter Schools

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We have seen for many years that celebrities and billionaires love charter schools, though it is not apparent why since they are typically no better–and often much worse–than district public schools.

But there are a few signs of change.

The legendary singer Tony Bennett created the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts as part of the New York City school system. He and his wife Susan Crow Benedetto have established arts partnerships in nearly 40 more public schools, located in New York City and Los Angeles. They created an organization called “Exploring the Arts,” which promotes the arts in public schools and encourages youngsters to develop their creative talents. They began their mission in 1999, and it continues to grow.

In Los Angeles, two well-known figures in the entertainment industry asked Superintendent Austin Beutner if they could sponsor a public high school modeled on a successful program that they had created at the University of Southern California. He gave his consent.

This account appeared in Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet blog:

“It can take years for a public school district to conceive, design and build a new school — but here’s a story about the incredibly fast creation of what could be America’s coolest new high school.

“It started a few months ago, when a friend asked Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, if he wanted to open a new public high school. He wasn’t asking for himself but, rather, on behalf of Andre Young, better known as Dr. Dre, and Jimmy Iovine.

“Young and Iovine, both successful producers and entrepreneurs, had, nearly a decade earlier, helped found a namesake school at the University of Southern California. It combines art, design, technology and entrepreneurship in a multidisciplinary academy that has about 120 to 130 undergraduates and at least 200 graduate students.

“The two men, along with Erica Muhl, dean of USC’s Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, wanted to introduce younger students to the same ideas being taught in the academy, so they investigated the best way to bring their program to the high school level. They decided they wanted to do it in a public district school — not a private or charter school — and that’s where Beutner and Los Angeles Unified came in.

“After a difficult year leading the country’s second-largest school district through the coronavirus pandemic, Beutner is ending his three-year tenure as superintendent on June 30, turning down an offer from the school board to stay. He could have dismissed the idea as too difficult to get through the bureaucracy in the short amount of time he had left in the district, whose student body is 84 percent Black and Latino.

“He didn’t. Instead, he jumped in.”

George Clooney and a bevy of other entertainment industry figures recently announced that they are also underwriting a new high school in the Los Angeles public school system. Clooney is a graduate of Augusta High School in Augusta, Kentucky.

“For the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, the phrase “giving back to the schools” has often meant a cameo appearance on career day or, perhaps more typically, a fat check made out to your own child’s elite private academy.

“But on Monday, the nation’s second-largest district unveiled the latest in a string of star-studded collaborations: a new high school underwritten by, among others, George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Eva Longoria and principals at Creative Artists Agency.

“The magnet school is intended to diversify the pipeline of cinematographers, engineers, visual effects artists and other technical workers in the city’s signature job sector, and is one of at least three joint initiatives started in the past two months between the Los Angeles schools and entertainment industry benefactors.

“Last week, the music producers Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine announced they were starting their own specialized high school in South Los Angeles. In May, a few hundred middle schoolers performed on free guitars with the pop artist H.E.R., signaling the expansion of a yearlong partnership with the Fender Play Foundation. And more high-profile initiatives involving robotics and music are in the works with major entertainment figures, district officials said.”

The chair of the California State Board of Education, Linda Darling-Hammond, disparaged these efforts as “charity,” when what is need is justice.

Since so many media stars like John Legend and a bevy of billionaires from the Walton family to the Broad Foundation to the DeVos family to Charles Koch, and billionaire hedge funders with less familiar names have spent hundreds of millions to support alternatives to public schools, I salute those celebrities who put their money into public schools, not charter schools.

“The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, founded by the singer Tony Bennett, has operated for decades within New York’s public school system, for example. And LeBron James has opened a highly successful public school with wraparound social services in Ohio. But a group of Texas charter schools founded in 2012 by Deion Sanders, the former N.F.L. player, closed in insolvency after three scandal-plagued years.”

It seems unfair to criticize private philanthropy to public schools while remaining silent about the billionaires (and the federal government with its Charter Schools Program, funded at $440 million annually) pouring hundreds of millions every year into the aggressive expansion of corporate charter chains that defund public schools.

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