RALEIGH — The fortunes of Wake County public schools in future years could rise or fall on the educational theories and donated dollars of a California billionaire who is devoting chunks of his fortune to education reform.
Los Angeles magnate and philanthropist Eli Broad, 77, made bundles in both home construction and insurance before funneling nearly $400 million since 1999 into programs designed for urban school districts.
Part of that investment went into new Wake County Schools SuperintendentTony Tata, who plans to seek millions in donations from Broad (rhymes with road) and other philanthropists while putting to use the training he received from the Broad Superintendents Academy.
It makes sense to seek support from national foundations that support education reform of the type Tata is proposing, the superintendent says. He's looking at greater use of merit pay for teachers, reorganizing the central office and developing new ways to hold schools accountable.
"We are at the starting blocks as opposed to in the race," Tata said. "You've really got to have a plan before you can go out and begin fundraising, go out with a holistic plan that will generate interest."
Supporters of Broad tout his education efforts as helping to reform historically underperforming urban school systems, creating more efficient schools focused on improving student achievement. But critics argue that he represents a dangerous trend of wealthy businessmen who know little about education using their money to get cash-strapped public schools to try out their theories without public accountability.
"They know how to cut costs," said Fenwick English, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Education, who has labeled Broad the top enemy of public education leadership in the U.S. "But what they don't know is teaching and learning."
With a net worth of $5.8 billion, Broad, who is active in Democratic Party politics, ranks 54th on Forbes magazine's list of U.S. billionaires.
A mentoring system
Along with wife, Edythe, Eli Broad heads foundations holding assets of more than $2 billion, with a stated mission of advancing "entrepreneurship for the public good in education, science and the arts." A piece of the education effort is the superintendents academy, whose graduates run more than 40 school systems across the country.
They include retired military officers such as Tata and educators such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Peter Gorman.
Each Broad graduate is given continuing support, including a mentor. Gorman, Tata's mentor, said that all the academy's graduates will not go about their jobs the same way.
"There are just good leaders and managers," Gorman said. "There are people who are skeptical of Broad and what they're doing and Eli Broad in particular. But you have to accept that when you start that program."
Foundations including Broad's have provided millions of dollars to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district for school-reform efforts that have included performance pay for employees.
"You have to be careful with funding," Gorman said. "You have to find those who are committed to what you're doing."
Using money wisely
There's disagreement among education reform experts about the direction of the Broad Superintendents Academy. Critics such as English, the UNC professor, say Broad training tends to produce leaders who emphasize efficient, top-down operations over educational basics.
English, a nationally known academic expert in school curriculum audits, said wealthy benefactors such as Broad, Bill Gates and the Walton family are taking away public accountability for the education system through the involvement of their foundations.
English pointed to privatization of school services and school closures as examples of Broad cost-cutting techniques.
Erica Lepping, spokeswoman for the Broad Superintendents Academy, disagreed.
"You will see efforts to make sure that central office resources are used efficiently," she said. "How to do that is up to the local leader. Merit pay is not a commonality; closing schools is not."
Lepping said graduates of the 10-month course are focused on improving student achievement and are trained to achieve basic goals. The goals include making sure systems make best use of their resources, including money; setting measurable academic goals with community buy-in; holding staff members accountable for reaching goals and giving them power to make changes.
But Broad-trained leaders have wide latitude on how to achieve those goals, Lepping said.
Tata agrees. "I'm my own person, and that is in every respect," he said. "I'm not coming into Wake County with any preordained blueprint."
Given the circumstances of Wake's school budget, probably for years to come, it only makes sense to leverage his training at Broad for means to economize, get access to best practices and data, and to attract private-sector support and donations, Tata said.
"It's interesting when you take a look at Washington, where Michelle Rhee had $80 million in contributions, and Charlotte, where they've received $20 million," said Tata, a retired Army brigadier general.
"We've not cracked seven figures" in Wake County, he said.
In Charlotte and some other systems with Broad-trained leaders, meeting goals has involved cutting central-office personnel, instituting merit-pay programs for teachers and closing underenrolled schools.
Gorman downplayed the idea that Broad-trained superintendents do similar things because of their time in the program.
Approaches such as school closures and staff reorganizations reoccur, he said, because they're working in school districts facing deep funding cuts and operating too many schools. He said that's not the case in Wake.
Tata's budget proposal for the next school year involves cutting 46 central-office positions and starting a pilot pay-for-performance project. Overall, Tata has proposed cutting more than 200 positions in Wake, while protecting the classroom, maintaining staffing at some under enrolled schools that would have seen cuts, and lowering class sizes in fourth and fifth grades.
"Looking at it from a business perspective, I don't see it as a negative," he said. "This to me is a business. Our front line is our teachers and students."
Tata goes to work
A little more than six months after taking office, the Republican-majority Wake County school board voted in June to ditch previous standards for a Wake superintendent, a job which previously required specific education experience.
After a private search, board Chairman Ron Margiotta announced in December that members had chosen Tata, then chief operating officer of the District of Columbia schools, as the new head of Wake's 143,000-student system.
From among the proposals in his budget, Tata says, a plan will emerge that will improve student achievement, produce a school assignment plan that will please most people, and make the most of taxpayers' money.
Tata said he talks weekly to Gorman, learning, among other things, what it's like to have an argumentative school board as his boss. In his previous role in Washington, the city's mayor held the ultimate authority.
Ken Libby, an Oregon-based education researcher and writer who has extensively studied the Broad foundations, acknowledges he's a critic. He said Broad won't be acting like a puppet master in Wake.
"Broad won't be pulling the strings because they hired one of his superintendents," Libby said. "He will have some influence because he trained him and is providing money. But he doesn't directly call the shots."
Dan Domenech, executive director of the Virginia-based American Association of School Administrators, is a former superintendent of Fairfax County, Va., schools. He also spent time as a corporate executive. Some of his assistants while he was superintendent went through Broad, both educators and noneducators.
"Mr. Broad is trying to develop leaders who can step into difficult school systems and get the job done," Domenech said. "It is much better that he has retired generals and businessmen who are willing to go through the process of learning about education than to have an educator who starts the job with no training at all."
Domenech said it's time for educators to work with people such as Broad instead of viewing them as enemies.
"They occasionally do things that rub traditional educators the wrong way, but there is a problem with the public school system," Domenech said. "We can't continue to do what we've been doing and be surprised at what we've gotten."
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