Ex-LAUSD superintendent attracted millions from foundations — will they stay the course? | 89.3 KPCCNews that former Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy is taking a job at The Broad Center, an education reform nonprofit funded by philanthropist Eli Broad, came as little surprise.
Deasy attracted millions of dollars from Broad and other education reformers while he was superintendent from 2011 until his resignation in October. The foundations supported Deasy's push for tougher teacher evaluations, an expansion of charter schools, the controversial iPad program and other changes that riled labor unions.
The foundations contributing to the LA Fund, a fundraising nonprofit established by Deasy, helped to expand the district's free breakfast program into the classroom, growing participation. The goal now is to feed 650,000 students by the end of the school year.
The fund further helped to pay for field trips and art supplies, items that were cut from recession-era budgets. Other foundations focused on supporting Deasy's travel and paying the salaries of dozens of his top staffers.
So now that Deasy's gone, the question is: will foundations withdraw their support?
Major LAUSD's donors – the Wasserman, Broad and Dell foundations – declined interviews for this story though their contributions have been significant.
Since Deasy took the helm, the Wasserman Foundation, with assets reaching nearly $200 million, donated more than $3 million to the district while also giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to education reform foundations such as Teach for America and Parent Revolution, according to tax records.
The Wasserman Foundation's goal isn't to make incremental change, but to"transform the Los Angeles Unified School District," the organization states on its website.
The foundation covered Deasy's travel expenses, including at least $70,000 worth of dining, hotels and flights from 2012 to 2014, according to records obtained by KPCC listing his district-issued American Express credit card charges.
His expenses included $1,535 for a ticket to Washington, D.C., purchased in April 2014, his largest single expense over the two-year period, and $1,014 for a night in October 2013 at Drago Centro, the fine dining restaurant in downtown L.A.
Many of Deasy's charges weren't as expensive: the smallest transaction was a $2 Los Angeles parking meter fee.
Foundation support isn't unusual among the nation's largest school districts. In the last decade, funding has become commonplace for deep-pocketed foundation donors looking to build relationships with school leaders.
New York's former school chancellor, Joel Klein, helped make education reform "the darling cause" of the philanthropic community and raised hundreds of million of dollars, The New York Times reported.
In Los Angeles, foundations backed Deasy as he pushed forward charter schools and personnel changes making it easier to fire teachers deemed ineffective. He alienated teachers by presenting testimony in support of students suing school officials in Vergara v. California, a case to overturn teacher protection rules. A judge ruled for the plaintiffs and the decision is on appeal.
But Deasy's successor, interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, enjoys greater support amongst teachers, who worked with him during his two earlier superintendent stints beginning in 2000 and again in 2009. It's unclear how much support he would draw from the foundations if he shows less support for the reform agenda.
A spokeswoman for the LA Fund expects nothing will change.
"The fund is still working with the district that they are going to continue to roll out, flagship programs if you will," said Kristen Rockwell, speaking on behalf of the LA Fund.
And while Broad Foundation did not grant an interview, a spokeswoman said by email that the nonprofit's investments in Los Angeles education will continue.
"We have invested more than $65 million in charters in Los Angeles since 2000, and we expect to continue supporting L.A. charter schools. We have provided funding to support LAUSD over the same time period, primarily through our support of the performing arts high school on Grand Avenue and support of LA's BEST," Swati Pandey, Broad's communication manager, said in a statement.
Foundation influenceSupporters argue foundation aid help make schools better, pointing to the higher test scores and graduation rates achieved under Deasy. Critics say foundations are tools of the wealthy to exercise an outsized influence over public school policy at the expense of ordinary voters.
Judith Perez , the president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, a union that represents principals and other school leaders, said some foundations, eager to show results, are contributing to a growing emphasis on standardized testing and instructional time dedicated to exam preparation.
"They have a clear idea for what they feel is appropriate for education nationally,and they want [Los Angeles] to be the laboratory for that," said Perez. "I don't think they've been effective. Despite the huge investment, John Deasy is gone."
Many foundation-funded reform efforts have faced opposition from local unions, which once dominated the school boardroom. For labor, Deasy's departure was a victory, although Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of UTLA, struck a conciliatory tone on the superintendent's resignation.
It may be too early to tell if contributors will follow Deasy out the door. The district did not provide donation records when requested. KPCC obtained tax records on foundations known to support local education initiatives, reviewed district staffing documents and examined Deasy's expense records.
From the documents, a possible clue to the foundations' intentions emerged: the level of their financial support for district staff.
Staffing records show three foundations – Broad, Wasserman and Dell – paid the salaries of 29 of Deasy's deputies and other central office staff while he was in office. Their average salary exceeded $100,000.
This year, foundation-paid staffers dropped to three – a loss of about $1 million annually.
Donations to LA Fund also appear to be on the decline. The nonprofit's assets dipped to $1.8 million, a decrease of 30 percent from June 2012 to June 2013, according to the latest data available.
Such contributions are relatively small, given the district's $7 billion annual budget.
Still, when public officials accept money from foundations, they run the risk of becoming beholden to their funders' wishes, according to Rob Reich, Stanford University political science professor.
"When you are grantee of a foundation you are basically in the position of always currying the favor of the foundation so that when your grant runs out, the beneficent face of the donor will once again shine upon you," Reich said.