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John Merrow: The Broad Prize Now Goes Only to Charter Schools

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Today, the Broad Prize for the nation’s best charter schools will be announced in Nashville at the annual meeting of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The finalists are IDEA Public Schools, Success Academy Charter Schools and YES Prep Public Schools.

John Merrow laments here that the Broad Foundation–and its billionaire leader Eli Broad–has given up on public schools and has decided to drop some money into charter schools. There was no Broad Prize for urban districts either last year or in 2016. This is only right and just, because Eli Broad favors charter schools over public schools.

Eli Broad launched his Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education in 2002, when the first award of $1 million went to the Houston Independent School District. Houston must have been an unusually stellar district because it improved so much that it won the Broad Prize again in 2013. The next year, 2014, was the last year that the prize was awarded, and it went not to a big urban district but to Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia and to Orange County Public Schools in Florida. Eli Broad, mastermind of American education (a title shared with Bill Gates) decided that urban districts were no longer improving fast enough to satisfy him, and he suspended the Broad Prize for Urban Education. After all, how many times can you give the prize to Houston?

If you go to the Broad Foundation website, linked in John Merrow’s post, you may gag on some of its “beliefs.”

Like the first one: We believe public schools must remain public. Nothing about charter schools is public, except the money they get from government. Otherwise, they are managed by private boards, which do not hold open meetings, with finances that are neither transparent nor accountable, and with disciplinary rules that do not comply with state requirements for public schools. In short, they are not transparent, they are not democratically controlled, they are not accountable, and they are thus NOT public schools.

One would hope to believe that the Broad Foundation actually does believe that teachers deserve to be treated with respect as professionals, but you learn on this website that Broad is a major funder of StudentsMatter, the group promoting lawsuits to strip teachers of their right to tenure and seniority, both of which protect academic freedom.

Merrow writes that it is not surprising that Eli Broad has dropped the award for urban districts:

But that’s not really new news, as the Foundation’s own pie chart reveals. Since 1999, the Foundation has made $589,500,000 in education-related grants, and 24% of the money, $144,000,000, has gone directly to public charter schools. No doubt some of the ‘leadership’ and ‘governance’ dollars have gone to public charter schools, which at best make up 5% of all schools. Over that same time period, 3% of the money, $16,000,000, went to winners of the Urban Education Broad Prize (for college scholarships).

In other words, the Foundation’s pro-charter tilt has been evident for a long time. Now it’s getting steeper and more pronounced.

Mr. Broad hoped that urban districts could improve “if given the right models or if political roadblocks” (such as those he believes are presented by teachers unions) “could be overcome,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The suspension of the prize for urban education could signal a “highly public step” toward the view that traditional districts “are incapable of reform,” Henig said. Mr. Broad seems to have already taken that step in his home city of Los Angeles, where he is backing an effort to greatly expand the charter sector.

Apparently it’s pretty simple for the folks administering the Broad Prize in Urban Education: Successful School Reform boils down to higher test scores. I see no public sign that anyone at the Foundation is questioning whether living and dying by test scores is sensible pedagogy that benefits students. And no public evidence that they’ve considered what might happen if poor urban students were exposed to a rich curriculum and veteran teachers. If poor kids got what is the birthright of students in wealthy districts!

In the mind of Eli Broad, higher test scores means great schools. Period. He doesn’t believe that public schools are capable of improving because they are hobbled by such things as teachers’ unions, and job protections for teachers.

Are you waiting with bated breath to learn which charter chain wins the Broad Prize? I’m not. He is a dilettante whose money has convinced him that he deserves to privatize the public schools of America. He has forgotten that he was educated in public schools. Like other billionaires, he doesn’t trust democracy. Privatization suits him. Like the rest of us, his days on this earth are limited. He may be remembered for his gifts to the art world, for the museum he built and named for himself, for his contributions to medical research. But in education, his name will be reviled for his contempt for a democratic institution on which tens of millions of children depend.

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