In a few days, a charter school organization will receive the $250,000 Prize for excellence from the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation. Three finalists– IDEA Public Schools, Success Academy Charter Schools and YES Prep Public Schools–were announced weeks ago. The winner will be made public at the annual meeting of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in Nashville on June 27. The four previous winners of the prize are KIPP, Noble Network, Uncommon Schools and Yes Prep.
But there’s another, more important piece of the story. Without much publicity and for the second year in a row, the Broad Foundation is not awarding the $1,000,000 Broad Prize for Excellence in Urban Education, which has been given to a public school district. It turns out that the NAEP scores of most of the Broad Prize winners have been flat for years. These districts have been living and dying by test scores, and it’s not working, or not working well enough for the Foundation’s judges.
Ben Weider of the blog 538 deconstructed the issue in a well-reasoned piece, “The Most Important Award in Public Education Struggles to Find Winners.” Not long after, the Foundation decided to ‘pause’ the $1 million award, citing ‘sluggish’ changes in urban schools. No prize was awarded in 2015, nor will one be this year, the Foundation’s Director of Communications told me. As Howard Blume of the Los Angeles Times has reported, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad has shifted his focus to charter schools.
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!
Just the dismal conclusion that traditional districts are incapable of reform, and doubling down on charter management organizations, despite the truly offensive record of some of them, including current nominees, of excluding special needs children and driving away students who seem likely to do poorly on standardized tests.