Fund set up to raise money for L.A. Unified merges with group starting two charter schools

Former L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy and Hollywood philanthropist Megan Chernin had ambitious goals in 2011 when they announced the creation of a nonprofit that in five years would raise $200 million for district students.

They said the Los Angeles Fund for Education, with fundraising prowess and freedom from bureaucratic constraints, would help revolutionize a district that had long struggled to educate its children. 

The nonprofit fell far short of that fundraising goal. Now, the LA Fund has announced a merger that will shift its mission away from an exclusive focus on the district.

The LA Fund has joined forces with LA’s Promise, a nonprofit that manages three district schools, to create LA Promise Fund, a new organization whose goals will include forming charter schools.

“We were left no other option” but to open charter schools, said Chernin, who serves on the boards of both groups. “We just want to have a larger impact and we want to be more efficient about our impact.” 

Chernin said the merger is, in part, a reflection of the groups’ limited ability to work successfully with L.A. Unified, for which she faults the school district.

The new nonprofit’s leaders say the decision also will reduce operating costs, allowing it to serve more students.

“We want to create the maximum opportunities for the most disenfranchised youth of Los Angeles and we realized that together we could have a great impact,” said Veronica Melvin, the chief executive of LA’s Promise, who will head the new group.

But the new direction offers another sign that philanthropists who were attempting to overhaul the nation’s second-largest school district from within now are looking for other avenues. 

The fund took in  about $7 million from its inception to 2014, according to the most recent tax documents available. Melvin puts the total over five years at $20 million, saying that it met targets for individual projects and that $200 million was never “the internal strategic goal.” ow, the LA Fund has announced a merger that shifts its mission away from an exclusive focus on the district.

The merger comes as Los Angeles Unified contends with another reform effort, originally spearheaded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, that sought to more than double the number of charter schools in the city over eight years, a move that would slash the district’s enrollment and state funding.

That proposal evolved into a plan put forward last week by the nonprofit Great Public Schools Now, which says it wants to hand out grant money to expand not just charters but any effective schools in L.A.’s low-income neighborhoods – even potentially expanding good traditional public schools.

The LA Promise Fund could be among the organizations that benefit.

L.A. Unified officials recently rejected a bid by LA’s Promise to start two charter schools, saying the organization needed to concentrate instead on improving achievement at the schools it already manages for the district. The charters later were approved by the county.

“I hope this new effort is about collaboration and not competition,” Board President Steve Zimmer said about the merger.  “My door, our door, is always open to collaboration. What we’ve learned is that conflict and competition does not help kids.”

Deasy came up with the LA Fund and pursued donors interested in seeing a specific set of reforms at the district. 

But after he resigned under pressure in October 2014, a political shift in the school board left donors who supported his goals without a powerful ally to pursue their favored reforms, which included making test scores a key factor in teacher evaluations and opening more charter schools.

Some blamed Deasy’s departure for the LA Fund’s anemic fundraising. But even while he was in office, the donations didn’t pour in.

To raise an amount like $200 million, “you have to be responsive, you have to work very carefully with your donors, you have to listen to your donors,” said Antonia Hernandez, president and CEO of the California Community Foundation, who said she applauds Chernin’s efforts and supports the merger. She added that, for the LA Fund,  “the conditions were not ideal for conveying a sense of confidence to the people giving money that it would be well spent.”

The LA Fund helped launch Breakfast in the Classroom, a program to provide food to all students at the start of the school day, which brought in additional federal funding. Previously students had the option of arriving before school to receive a free breakfast. 

The fund also organized an advertising campaign that stressed the importance of arts education and sponsored teams of girls at 44 schools that competed to develop solutions to community problems. Another of the nonprofit’s initiatives linked teachers to classroom grant opportunities and students to internships.

Leaders of the newly merged organization say the projects will continue and will be open to schools throughout L.A. County.  

While L.A. Unified students are expected to derive some benefit, the mega-district now is left without an outside foundation devoted to supporting the 550,000 students in district-operated schools. By contrast, the target of the Beverly Hills Education Foundation is to raise an average of $1,000 per student, or about $4 million annually for its more than 4,000 students. 

The LA Promise Fund, which will have a budget of about $6 million, hopes to create a pipeline of schools, extending from kindergarten through 12th grade. 

“We wanted and would still love to do that with LAUSD, but it wasn’t on the table for us,” Chernin said. “So we figured we could create charters.”

Times staff writer Joy Resmovits contributed to this report.

howard.blume@latimes.com

zahira.torres@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

Twitter: @zahiratorres

Editor's note: The Times’ Education Matters initiative receives funding from a number of foundations, including one or more mentioned in this article. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Baxter Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the California Endowment and the Wasserman Foundation. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.

 


UPDATES:

5:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.

6 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details.

This article was originally published at 6 a.m, June 23.

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