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L.A. school reform effort draws diverse group of wealthy donors

They hail from New York, the Silicon Valley, Arkansas, Los Angeles and elsewhere. They are a rich and diverse lot, including Republicans, liberals, Hollywood notables and international corporate executives.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, pomegranate juice titan Lynda Resnick, anti-Obama mega-donor A. Jerrold Perenchio and the widow of Steve Jobs.

Together, they smashed records for spending by outside groups in last month's L.A. Board of Education elections. These major donors poured about $4 million into the Coalition for School Reform, a political action committee spearheaded by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

On the surface, they have little in common. But this group united in Los Angeles behind education issues that have become national in scope, including the growth of publicly funded charter schools and the use of student test scores in teacher performance evaluations. Most want to reduce job protections for teachers and support the education agenda of the Obama administration. Some even want to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers.

They believed that a successful stand in the L.A. Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school system and a hotbed of unionism, would have a sweeping effect.

The coalition received mixed results: It won one race, lost another and ended up in a runoff in the third.

Critics have questioned the motives of the outside donors, noting their ties to corporate interests. The criticism is fair, but skepticism about their motives is misplaced, said Rick Hess, an education analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, who has not wholly endorsed the donors' agenda.

For the most part, "political donors, whether we agree with them or not, are presumed to believe in the candidates or measures they're funding," Hess said. "I've yet to see a single convincing piece of evidence that some of the donors to education efforts are deceitful about their 'real' agenda."

Still, their stand here was about more than individual candidates.

A consistent theme was supporting the growth of charter schools without excessive regulation. Charters are independently managed and publicly financed. Most are non-union. Some see them as a strategy to weaken teacher unions and a way around ossified school district bureaucracies.

The California Charter Schools Assn. advocacy arm gave $312,000 to the coalition and spent an additional $30,000 on its own independent campaign aligned with the coalition. It spent $50,000 more on an "information" campaign that targeted an L.A. board member in the months prior to the election.

The advocacy group, under federal law, doesn't have to disclose contributions, but has acknowledged that its largest donors include Bloomberg, who also gave the largest single donation to the coalition — $1 million; Hastings, who gave $100,000 to the coalition; and Carrie Walton Penner, part of the founding family of Wal-Mart, which has vigorously opposed organized labor in its operations. (The Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation also is the largest funder of the California charter association.)

The coalition also received indirect support from the Walton foundation. It's a major funder of StudentsFirst, headed by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. She recruited donors by describing her goal as opposing the political muscle of teacher unions. Her advocacy division gave $250,000 to Villaraigosa's coalition.

Another motivation for donors was to show support — through a successful school board campaign — for revamped teacher evaluations pushed by L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. This approach, which uses student standardized test scores as a key measure, is sweeping the country as states adopt such systems in line with incentives from the Obama administration.

Donors were persuaded that Deasy's job — and policies viewed as leaving a national mark — could be on the line if the election didn't go the way of Villaraigosa's endorsed candidates.

Deasy has "done a fine job in trying circumstances," said Broad, a national figure in education. The wrong outcome, said Broad, who gave $250,000 to the coalition, could have resulted in Deasy's dismissal or resignation, which could "set the school district back years."

Deasy's job appears safe for now, even though the coalition has succeeded in just one race. Incumbent Monica Garcia, a strong Deasy ally, won outright; Kate Anderson lost to incumbent Steve Zimmer — who had the support of employee unions; and Antonio Sanchez will be in a May 21 runoff.

A mostly new, relatively untapped source of coalition money has been Hollywood, a connection that Deasy has nurtured through creation of the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education. The fund, which operates outside L.A. Unified control, is headed by Megan Chernin, spouse of producer Peter Chernin.

Board members of the fund who donated to the coalition were Chernin ($100,000); Jamie Alter Lynton ($100,000), spouse of Sony Pictures chief executive Michael Lynton; and investor-producer Andrew Hauptman ($50,000). Also donating were DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, actress Monica Rosenthal and producers Kathleen McGrath and Frank Marshall — with each giving $50,000.

Another locus of funding is Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. Through its foundation and individual donations, the Fisher family, founders of the Gap and other clothing stores, gave $50,000 directly to the coalition, $250,000 to Rhee's advocacy group and has consistently funded the charter association.

A major contribution ($200,000) came from the Emerson Collective, headed by Laurene Powell Jobs. Apple, which makes the iPad tablet, has expressed interest in bidding for tablet contracts in L.A. Unified. Emerson and Apple said there is no connection between the two entities.

There's also a New York nexus of the like-minded wealthy advocates, with substantial ties to Wall Street, including Joel Klein, former New York schools chancellor under Bloomberg.

"Joel has long been a big supporter of education reform efforts across the country and will continue to back candidates and causes focused on ensuring that every child has access to a world-class public education," spokesman Justin Hamilton said. A Bloomberg spokesman echoed that sentiment.

Klein now heads a company called Amplify, which sells tablet computers that are tailored for schools. Amplify's parent corporation, News America, donated $250,000 directly to Villaraigosa's coalition. News America is a subsidiary of News Corp., the international media conglomerate headed by Rupert Murdoch.

At the time, Amplify sought L.A. Unified tablet contracts, but isn't any longer, Hamilton said. The company has an ongoing, unrelated $7.6-million contract for a reading-assessment program.

With wealthy donors, the overlapping of ideology with corporate priorities should not be overlooked, said Jeffrey R. Henig, an education policy expert at Columbia University.

In some cases, he said, "sincerity might conveniently align with self-interest."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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