Eli Broad, pictured in 2014 / Image via Shutterstock

The meaning of Eli Broad, billionaire education philanthropist, crystallized on the left many years ago: Broad is “a direct affront to democracy. Who elected Eli Broad to decide what the shape of the [Los Angeles Unified School District] should be? Who gave him the power to redirect public funds to private entrepreneurs?” wrote education historian Diane Ravitch on her blog in 2015.

Broad, who died at 87 last Friday, gave at least $600 million to charter schools and other non-traditional approaches to traditional public education since 1999, the Los Angeles Times reported. He was part of a small handful of wealthy individuals, including Bill Gates and the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, who, for a time, had the upper hand in a political battle to reshape public education during the last 20 years.

All, wrote Ravitch, “share an animus toward public schools and a passion for privatization of what belongs to the public.”

Boosters of traditional public education like Ravitch have long sought to paint Broad as the monopoly man, Rich Uncle Pennybags, giddily selling off the public trust – with a wink and a tip of his top hat – to line his own pockets. But the true legacy of Broad ­and most so-called “reformers” is much more complicated.

Exhibit A: Broad’s opposition to Betsy Devos as education secretary.

“At the risk of stating the obvious, we must have a secretary of education who believes in public education and the need to keep public schools public,” Broad wrote in a letter to senators.

Anyone who bought into the caricature of Broad would surely have been confused by his “serious concerns about her support for unregulated charter schools and [private school] vouchers,” he brought up in the letter.

Broad went onto say that Devos’s investments in some actually private education companies posed potential conflicts of interest for her in the job.

Politics is a game of reduction. And it served the left well to paint Broad and other education philanthropists as “privatizers.” But the vast majority of them – unlike Devos – didn’t really support public money going into private companies, or even public vouchers for private schools. They supported public money going into nonprofit charter schools, which they hoped would improve public education in places where it desperately needed improving.

There is one critique accurately leveled against Broad and his chums that carries the actual scent of privatization: They have a strong anti-union streak.

The vast majority of charter schools are not unionized – though that is changing. And it is clear that seriously diminishing union influence was a central part of the strategy for Broad and other billionaire reformers.

But their big reforms haven’t paid off as they thought they would. While there are some shining stars among charter schools, on the whole they have very mixed results and have hardly been a panacea to the achievement gap.

And one need look no further than the state where I was educated to understand the effects of breaking up unions. North Carolina is a right-to-work state, where bargaining is literally prohibited. Teacher pay there is well below the national average and it’s impossible to attract good teachers to the rural areas where they are needed most when they hardly make a living wage.

The achievement gap between students of color and White students and rich and poor students is very real. One incidental benefit of the charter school movement is that it put pressure on traditional public schools – and society as a whole – to do something about it. But now the influence of charter supporters has plummeted. And we are witnessing the rise of traditional public school promoters like deputy education secretary nominee Cindy Marten, whose strategy is to tell us that all is well within public education.

Rather than make money off of public education, as his critics hinted, Broad poured a fortune into it. But billionaire philanthropy – unless it comes in the form of tax revenue with no strings attached – is inherently political. And, as Ravitch pointed out, that poses problems for the democratic ideal.

Broad was not, as his critics would have liked to paint him, an evil destroyer of public education. In fact, he rightfully identified a problem: that the current system doesn’t work for some of the most vulnerable students. His tactics to solve it were sometimes misguided and, perhaps always, arrogant. But as he himself wrote, with fairly unrestrained pride in his autobiography, “I am unreasonable.”

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org or 619-693-6249.

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