Opponents of the burgeoning charter-school industry like to paint it as a corporate wolf in “reform” clothing — stealing money from struggling district-run schools while receiving an even steadier cash flow from billionaires.

And the latest cash prize from L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad probably won't quiet them any.

But it should. The stipulations attached to Broad's new annual giveaway are exactly the kind of goals reformers need to be luring charter companies toward:

Each year, he'll award $250,000 to “the charter management organization that demonstrates the best academic outcomes for traditionally disadvantaged students, including closing achievement gaps,” reports Education Week.

It's actually kind of a modest gift — Bill and Melinda Gates spend somewhere around $200 million on education reform every year. Broad himself has doled out millions as well. But much of that money gets thrown around pretty indiscriminately. In contrast, the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools is only available to one of only 20 charter companies who meet the following criteria:

  • Five or more charter schools in operation as of 2007-08
  • 1,500 students or more enrolled each year since 2007-08
  • At least 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch since 2008-09
  • At least 40 percent of students from minority groups since 2008-09
  • At least 75 percent of its schools meeting federal urbanicity criteria since 2008-09

Most frighteningly, Broad found that only 5 percent of the nation's over 5,000 charter schools are run by a company that's eligible for his prize. (And that privileged focus gets much, much worse: See LA Weekly reporter Gene Maddaus' “Charter Schools: Getting Your Child on the List.”)

Ursula Wright of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools tells Ed Week that the prize “is a great way to endorse what is really working in the charter sector.” Agreed.

That's precisely why Broad's new prize is the perfect catnip. Like any industry, the fast-growing charter business is vulnerable to capitalism and bought-off “democracy” — the same evils that have turned teachers unions and school districts so top-heavy and resistant to reform.

To curb all that, and help shrink the achievement gap, Broad's review board will bestow the quarter-million-dollar prize onto the charter management organization that shows the highest level of student achievement in poor communities.

Full criteria:

  • Performance and improvement results on mandated state tests in reading, math and science
  • Performance and improvement results on mandated state tests in reading, math and science adjusted for poverty
  • The reduction and magnitude of achievement gaps between ethnic groups and between low-income and non-low-income students
  • In the case of high schools: State-reported graduation rates; Advanced Placement exam participation and passing rates; SAT and ACT exam participation rates and scores
  • Demographic data (e.g., student enrollment, income, language, special education, ethnicity)

Best part is, Broad minions will then visit the winning schools and write up a report on their most effective practices. Because that's the other thing that's really missing from the politicized charters-vs-unions dialogue: dorky, wonky investigations into what works and what doesn't, regardless of who's in the director's chair. (Take notes, Mayor V.)

Now if only Broad could find it in his heart to refuse $52 million from the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency for his museum's fancy parking garage downtown — money that might otherwise fight L.A. blight. Kind of goes hand-in-hand with all this urban schooling PR, if you ask us.


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