The Broad Foundation's education initiatives began 15 years ago, but the organization is just now getting its first president, and his surname isn't Broad. Bruce Reed is tasked with minding the foundation's investments and its work on K-12 reform, which has shaken the educational apple tree. The foundation spends about $60 million a year on things like training school superintendents and supporting charter schools. Reed, an Idahoan, changed coasts after three decades deeply entrenched in D.C., working on campaigns and/or policy for Al Gore, the Clintons, Barack Obama and, most recently, Vice President Joe Biden. He switched reform teams but didn't leave the playing field.
When Eli Broad hired you, did he ask you to change anything at the foundation?
His first request was that I [look] back and see what worked, what hasn't, and how we can make the most difference. There are things we plan to do: The foundation's work is well known in L.A., not so well known nationally. We're looking to partner with other like-minded foundations — Bloomberg, Gates, Walton, the Emerson Collective — to do more to press the cause of education reform nationally.
We're trying to provide more and better options in urban schools by increasing the number of good charters and closing down bad charters.
Are there too many bad charters?
Yes. In places where the authorizers never look back at the results. The challenge is to get rid of the ones on the low end and expand the high end. There are high-quality charter management organizations that do extraordinary work. It's much harder for the first-timer or mom-and-pop shop trying to figure this out as it goes along.
Charter supporters emphasize "autonomy." Autonomy from what?
School districts have made the mistake of thinking they know best. Centralized bureaucracies need to focus on things they do well: managing facilities [and] transportation, making sure the rules are fair. But they're not good at telling a teacher or principal everything he or she ought to do.
"Accountability" is another charter movement word — accountability to whom? Private reform groups like yours, or the public? Parents? Charters use public education money.
We oppose vouchers, we oppose privatization, so all the money we give goes to public school efforts, but the schools and other organizations that help schools don't have to take the money. One of our main obligations is to track what works and what doesn't. That's not the practice everywhere in the philanthropic world.
Is a business model, with the emphasis on the bottom line, a good one for reforming schools?
I don't see it as a business model. It's imperative for any organization, public or private, to hold itself accountable for delivering the goods. Education is not a business, but public schools owe the public a great product.
Do for-profit charters challenge that?
Most of the best charters are nonprofit. We believe in keeping public money in the public system. The best charter school operators, like the best principals and teachers, don't go in this for the money
Personalized learning is a new emphasis in school reform. Isn't charter education already personalized?
It should be, but the new technology can make it easier for teachers to tailor education to a student's needs.
What about the iPad experiment to bring technology into LAUSD classrooms?
The impulse is the right one. Schools shouldn't be the last holdout in the information age.
A 2013 Stanford study found that charter school students do better than other public school students in reading but about the same in math, when you correct for demographics.
We're seeing a great test of charters in New Orleans, where the system is almost 100% charter so there's no "creaming" — they take everybody. And they've cut the achievement gap twice as fast as the rest of the state.