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Group Led By Billionaire Proposes Overhaul Of LA Public Schools


A new and controversial plan could significantly transform public education in Los Angeles in the coming decade. Los Angeles has the second largest system in the country after New York City. The plan, initiated by a group of rich and powerful leaders - city leaders - led by philanthropist and billionaire Eli Broad, proposes placing half the city's students in charter schools. That's according to a 44-page memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times. For more, we turn to L.A. Times education reporter Howard Blume. Good morning.

HOWARD BLUME: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: To begin, give us a brief description of what this memo reveals.

BLUME: It describes a plan, as you said, to put 50 percent - more than half a million students in total - in charters over the next eight years. It envisions creating 260 charter schools for at least 130,000 students. And this plan was essentially being designed outside of public view with no larger community or political discussion.

MONTAGNE: And as I suggested, some pretty influential people and foundations are listed in this proposal as potential donors. Name some names because they're recognizable.

BLUME: Basically, if you had a billion in your bank account in Los Angeles, you were on the list, and in some cases, wealthy people from outside Los Angeles. The three foundations most mentioned as funders for this would be, of course, Eli Broad's Foundation, also the Walton Family Foundation - that's the fortune created by the Walm-Mart stores. I mean, Elon Musk of Tesla is on the list - Stephen Spielberg, Donald Sterling, the former owner of the LA Clippers. Basically again, it's a list of really rich people.

MONTAGNE: What is their problem with LA public schools?

BLUME: The reputation of the LA school district has taken a beating in recent years. There were a couple of technology debacles. One plan was to provide an iPad to every student using school construction bonds - that effort has been aborted. And on the whole, test scores are relatively low and certainly below state-average.

MONTAGNE: One of the big criticisms is that - were something like this to go into effect - the better kids - the more motivated, the ones with parents more involved - will end up in these charter schools and the public school system will fall further and further down because it will be unfortunately loaded down with kids who have more problems and less ability.

BLUME: Yes, that is a concern. Charter schools as a whole, even though some of them are excellent, they tend to serve students from more motivated families because they opt-in to the program. They also tend to have fewer students with limited English-speaking skills. Some charters have been known to counsel students out who are - present behavior problems. The traditional school district cannot do that. There are some critics who say the LA system already has fewer resources to deal with students who are harder to educate and more expensive to educate, including the moderately and severely disabled.

MONTAGNE: So where does it stand - it's a memo - is this going to happen?

BLUME: Well, there's nothing in California law that can stop it. Having said that, however, intense political opposition, which is being generated in some quarters, could have an effect at various levels, including on funders because this plan is estimated to cost $490 million. And opening a charter school is difficult; opening 260 is really difficult - finding staff and land and everything else. So it remains to be seen exactly what will happen.

MONTAGNE: Los Angeles Times education reporter Howard Blume, thanks for joining us.

BLUME: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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