Billionaire businessman Eli Broad, one of the country’s most active philanthropists, founded the Broad Superintendents Academy in 2002 with an extraordinarily optimistic goal: Find leaders from both inside and outside education, train them, and have them occupying the superintendencies in a third of the 75 largest school districts—all in just two years.
Now hosting its 10th class, the Los Angeles-based program hasn’t quite reached that goal, but it’s close. The nation’s three biggest districts have Broad-trained executives in top leadership positions: Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer in New York City; John E. Deasy, the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified; and Jean-Claude Brizard, who became the chief executive officer of the Chicago schools last month. In all, 21 of the nation’s 75 largest districts now have superintendents or other highly placed central-office executives who have undergone Broad training.
But as the program has risen in prominence and prestige—758 people, the largest pool ever, applied for the program this year, and eight were accepted—it has also drawn impassioned criticism from people who see it as a destructive force in schools and districts.
They say Broad-trained superintendents use corporate-management techniques to consolidate power, weaken teachers’ job protections, cut parents out of decisionmaking, and introduce unproven reform measures.
One of those critics is Sharon Higgins, who started a website called The Broad Report in 2009 after her school district in Oakland, Calif., had three Broad-trained superintendents in quick succession, each appointed by the state.
She said she grew alarmed when she started seeing principals and teachers whom she called “high-quality, dedicated people” forced out. She contends in her blog that Broad superintendents are trained to aim for “maximum disruption” when they come to a district, without regard for parent and teacher concerns.
“It’s like saying, let me come to your house and completely rearrange your furniture, because I think your house is a mess,” Ms. Higgins said, adding that other parents around the country have reached out to her to complain about their own Broad-trained school leaders.
‘Corporate Training School’
Likewise, James Horn, an associate professor of education policy at Cambridge College in Massachusetts, keeps up a drumbeat of criticism in the blog Schools Matter. In one post, he referred to the academy as “Eli Broad’s corporate training school ... for future superintendents who are trained how to use their power to hand over their systems to the Business Roundtable.”
In an interview, Mr. Horn said that school officials trained by the program graduate with a hostility to teachers. His critique goes beyond the Broad superintendents program to include many of the foundations that have emerged as major players in efforts to reshape education over the past decade.
Mr. Horn points not only to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, of Los Angeles, but also to the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, of Bentonville, Ark., as examples of what he sees as a worrisome trend of “venture philanthropy” in education. Venture philanthropists typically emphasize the imperative of getting measurable results for their investment and maintain close ties to the organizations they fund.
“What venture philanthropy is doing seems to me to be wielding influence not to help public institutions, but to destroy public institutions, or take control of them,” Mr. Horn said. “This is a dangerous place, where corporations and government get mixed up.”
The Broad Foundation has helped support Education Week’s coverage of school leadership and the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, but it is not a current funder. Editorial Projects in Education, the newspaper’s publisher, received a Gates Foundation grant for organizational capacity-building that expired May 31, and it was a recipient of earlier Gates funding.
Whatever the larger issues surrounding the role of education philanthropy, supporters of the Broad Superintendents Academy say the criticism of the training program is off base.
Erica Lepping, a spokeswoman for the Broad Foundation, says that the academy exposes program participants to many viewpoints, and that the graduates themselves come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including education, and hold different points of view.
The academy does promote a management model of “continuous improvement” that is used by successful businesses, nonprofits, and school systems, she said.
Thomas W. Payzant, a trainer and mentor for graduates of the Broad Academy and a former superintendent of the Boston public schools, says that the program’s graduates have to be willing to shake up districts that have been failing students for years—and that such change is going to be painful and sometimes resented.
“You don’t go into a leadership role with a notion that you’re just going to coast,” said Mr. Payzant, a professor of educational leadership at Harvard University and a member of the interview committee that evaluates potential academy participants.
“You want to be able to show improvement, and often improvement in the education sector means change that will make some people very uncomfortable and will not be popular,” he said. “That’s what leads to pushback. People say, ‘We were fine before you got here.’ But when you look at the data, there’s lots of room for improvement.”
When the superintendent-training program was first launched, it was billed as a bipartisan solution to a “growing leadership crisis” in public education. Mr. Broad, who made his fortune in home building and insurance and is a prominent contributor to Democratic political candidates, partnered with John Engler, a Republican who was then the governor of Michigan, to create the program.
Academy organizers said they were making a point of seeking out skilled executives who might not have any experience in education. A press release announcing the program suggested it was a negative that the vast majority of superintendents were trained as teachers, without a background in “complex financial, labor, management, personnel, and capital-resource decisionmaking.”