Tim Rutten: A school bailout worth the money

Equal access to a high-quality education may be the defining civil rights issue and economic challenge of our time.

Year by year, the social and material distances that separate Americans from one another are growing at an accelerating rate. The wealthiest and, not coincidentally, best-educated among us now enjoy advantages over the middle class and the working poor unseen since the burnished indifference of the Golden Age. Among the most damning of these increasing disparities is access to a decent education.

The children of the wealthy and the upper middle class are prepared for their futures in private schools or first-rate public systems in wealthy suburbs. The majority of children, particularly those in large urban areas, must make do with diminishing state resources and school systems too often dominated by ossified and self-interested educational bureaucracies. As a consequence, institutions that ought to be gateways to the future become de facto mechanisms for rationing the American meritocracy’s one indispensable component: opportunity.

The result is not only social disaster but also economic catastrophe, as more and more of our workforce becomes unsuitable for a global economy in which education and competitiveness are synonymous.


That’s why Los Angeles simply cannot afford to let one of its genuine examples of successful educational reform and, therefore, hope — ICEF Public Schools — go under. And yet, that’s precisely what may happen. ICEF operates 15 college preparatory charter schools educating about 4,600 students in South Los Angeles’ Crenshaw corridor and nearby Inglewood. Some of the region’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods are in this area, and more than 98% of the students who attend ICEF’s schools — many of them kindergarten through 12th-grade campuses — are African American or Latino. Nine out of 10 who enter graduate; an astonishing 90% of the seniors are accepted by four-year colleges and universities.

It’s a record of academic success accompanied until recently by financial management whose guiding principle might charitably be described as wishful thinking. ICEF, or the Inner City Educational Foundation, was founded in 1994 by a visionary private school teacher, Michael Piscal. Within four years, ICEF had opened its first charter school and since has gone from strength to strength. The group’s finances, however, were a mess. Partly it was a case of too-rapid expansion. Partly it was a matter of state cutbacks in educational funding and late state budgets that strained the individual schools’ fragile finances. There never has been any malfeasance; simply an inability to say no to good ideas the group couldn’t really afford.

A variety of rescue plans came to nothing, and a month ago, ICEF Public Schools hovered on the brink of collapse. At that point, former Mayor Richard Riordan and financier-for-all-seasons Eli Broad — two of the city’s most consistent advocates for educational reform — stepped in and each donated $1 million to temporarily stabilize the finances. They also covered individual schools’ bills for things such as rent.

Riordan became chairman of ICEF Public Schools’ board and has gone to work reforming the system’s governance and raising additional funds. He’s already recruited a leading charter school administrator, Parker Hudnut, to take over operations. Currently the charter schools point man for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Hudnut is in the process of winding down that commitment and hopes to join ICEF this week.

“The vast majority of ICEF’s 15 schools are succeeding admirably as academic institutions,” Hudnut said. “These kids are beating all the adults’ expectations. To be blunt, though, there’s been a lack of appropriate management by the adults. Monies were spent that just weren’t there. The one thing ICEF hasn’t done well is live within its means, and that has to change. The human capital here — students, teachers, parents — is great. We just need to support and empower them with the management they deserve.”

Riordan agrees and points out that ICEF has been spending “40% more per school than other charter schools” in the city. He says he’s optimistic about raising the $9 million in private support it will take to put all 15 schools on a sustainable basis. Riordan said Monday that he’s secured $4 million of that and hopes to raise the rest: 80% from foundations and 20% from individuals.

It’s hard to imagine a better or more worthy investment in all our futures. Surely in this city of visionaries, the will, as well as the money, is there. As Riordan put it, “It’s all about the children.”