Broad Foundation suspends $1-million prize for urban school districts

The Broad Foundation has suspended its $1-million prize for top-performing urban school districts

Billionaire Eli Broad has suspended a coveted, $1-million prize to honor the best urban school systems out of concern that they are failing to improve quickly enough. And, associates say, he's no longer certain that he wants to reward traditional school districts at all.

The action underscores the changing education landscape as well the evolving thinking and impatience of the 81-year-old philanthropist.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Broad Prize: In the Feb. 9 California section, an article about the suspension of the $1-million Broad Prize for urban school districts listed the amount of a separate Broad prize for charter schools as $500,000. The correct amount is $250,000. —
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"Eli has kept a close watch over the prize throughout its existence," said Bruce Reed, president of the L.A.-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. "And over the past year he has become more concerned than ever about the slow pace of progress."

The 13-year-old prize, Reed said, was designed to reward and encourage success in raising student achievement: "We've seen some of that, but not enough and not fast enough."

Some observers wonder whether Broad's expectations for urban systems, including Los Angeles Unified, have been realistic.

"Urban schools are faced with huge challenges, some of which are simply related to concentrated poverty, and so many kids are coming to school with unmet needs," said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University.

All the same, the prize "gave urban districts something to strive for, something to learn from. They need that. I saw districts that were working real hard to get it," he said.

Those districts included New York City, which was honored in 2007, just as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Broad ally who controlled the city's schools, was seeking a third term. Noguera said he was concerned that politics may have intruded on the evaluation process, undermining the integrity of the prize.

Reed said New York won in 2007 because of "incredibly impressive results" over a decade. The foundation has relied on an appointed panel to choose winners.

Broad has been involved in many education-related initiatives. On one hand, he pushed to improve traditional school districts. A branch of his foundation operates a training academy for superintendents and other senior education leaders.

But Broad also has bypassed districts by promoting and funding charter schools, which have siphoned students from traditional schools. (Charters are publicly funded, and independently managed; most are non-union.)

Broad recently established a $500,000 prize for charter organizations, an award that will continue.

Still, Broad was among those who hoped that districts could improve "if given the right models or if political roadblocks," such as those Broad 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 could signal a "highly public step" toward the view that traditional districts "are incapable of reform," Henig said.

Increasingly, the foundation became intrigued by different ways to organize schools, including the so-called "portfolio model," in which different types of independent schools compete for students and must demonstrate results.

One prototype is the all-charter, state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans, which was created in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. (The teachers who'd worked in the old school system lost their jobs.)

"Many of the districts evaluated for the prize are not moving in the direction of a portfolio district, so there seems to be something of a disconnect between the prize and the foundation's mission," said Katrina Bulkley, professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

On the political front, Broad, a Democrat, has donated large sums, frequently to oppose candidates allied with the teachers union. Broad also attracted notice for being among donors whose money was channeled anonymously through several organizations before landing in a committee that unsuccessfully tried to defeat Proposition 30, a temporary tax increase that prevented deep budget cuts to education.

Such activities have not escaped the attention of teacher union leaders.

"The further he and his foundation stay away from public education, the better," said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. "Eli Broad's track record on public education has been shameful."

The annual announcement of the prize received national attention. On hand last September, for example, were U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Critics have questioned whether standardized test scores played too large a role in the foundation's analyses, although evaluators considered a range of data, including graduation rates. They also visited districts to gauge teaching and learning as well as leadership and operations.

Previous local winners of the Broad Prize were Long Beach Unified in 2003 and Garden Grove Unified in 2004. The prize money was intended for student scholarships.

Last year, there were co-winners: Orange County Public Schools in Florida, which won praise for rapid improvement; and Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia, honored for sustained high performance.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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