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LA Unified philanthropy taps wealthy Angelinos for projects near to superintendent's heart

Philanthropist Megan Chernin in the Century City offices of the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education.
Philanthropist Megan Chernin in the Century City offices of the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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The Los Angeles Fund for Public Education was created two years ago to tap wealthy, high profile donors to help the mostly low-income kids in Los Angeles Unified School District. 

Founded by district Superintendent John Deasy, the group has taken on two projects near to his heart: Breakfast in the Classroom and arts education. It has also attracted criticism from the teacher's union - which opposes many of Deasy's policies.

The breakfast program increased the number of elementary school students getting a morning meal by using the first 10 minutes of class to hand out a free breakfast, rather than serving it before class in school cafeterias. But many teachers complained in a union survey about pests and clean-up time.

“Of course that takes away from their planning time, for instruction,” said elementary school teacher and union member Ed Morrow, who helped orchestrate the survey.

Normally, that conflict would have wound up in Deasy's lap. Even though he championed the program at school board meetings early on, he was able to stay out of the fray because the program came to be through the L.A. Fund’s efforts.

The philanthropy spent a little over $200,000 this past school year for retired principals to coordinate the roll out. The money for the breakfasts themselves comes from the federal government.

“We’re feeding kids, we’re feeding hungry kids and that’s giving them the greatest start to the school day,” said Megan Chernin, a philanthropist and the L.A. Fund's CEO.

Chernin said the program is essential because less than a third of district students who qualify for a free or reduced price breakfast were eating one. And making sure they eat breakfast is improving student learning.

Morrow, the elementary school teacher, said he’s glad the city’s affluent want to help the schools. But he thinks the fund could spend some of the money directly on schools -- such as rehiring custodians so that teachers don’t have to clean their own classrooms.

Deasy put the item up for board vote - and it passed unanimously last month.

"I can't say the fund has helped politically at all," Deasy wrote in an email. “From my perspective [the fund] has helped bring arts back to schools and help feed hungry youth.”

Chernin is one of KPCC’s board members but is currently on leave.

L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy recruited her to start the L.A. Fund only months after he took office. He asked her to approach L.A.’s affluent to help a school district where 80% of students are mired in poverty.

“People have so much here and it’s beautiful," she said. " L.A. is a beautiful place to live but most of us don’t see the other side of L.A., we’re cut off from it."

Chernin’s husband is top Hollywood executive Peter Chernin, the former president of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The couple hosted President Obama’s fundraiser last week at their Santa Monica home.

The L.A. Fund’s offices are in a Century City high rise formerly occupied by Warner Brothers studios executives. Its board includes a major pharmaceutical chief, the producer of the films E.T. and Jurassic Park, two investment bankers, and an internet entrepreneur who’s advised PayPal and SpaceX.

“I think these are good people, who care about the plight of youth from a moral perspective,” Chernin said.

The board members and donors the fund has managed to attract have another interest in educating L.A.’s kids, she said.

“These are people who are dependent on the future workforce of the city and with this many youth going through the system every single year," she said, " business-wise it behooves them to invest in their greatest resource.”

Chernin said that at first she and staff set their sights on improving academics.

“But we have really found after a lot of exploration, talking to a lot of people, that we needed to dial it back to some of the basics, around food, around the idea of thinking creatively, arts education, things like that that should be part of every kid’s education,” she said.

Arts education is the L.A. Fund’s other big push.

Of the $4 million it raised this year, nearly half was an in-kind contribution of billboards to tout the importance of exposing students to the arts. Yearbook-type photos of John Legend, George Lucas and other starts towered above major roads with the slogan, “Arts Education Fuels Creative Thinking.”

Arts education has suffered across the country through years of cutbacks. But some advocates are pushing to bring it back.

In October, the L.A. Unified board unanimously approved a measure to make arts education a "core subject," prohibit further cuts to the arts, and ultimately restore some money to arts programs.

“It’s this paradox of being in the creative capital of the world and only having 2% of your instructional time devoted to the arts,” said the L.A. Fund’s executive director Dan Chang. “At the same time nationally everybody’s kind of saying, hey it’s not just about the three r’s it’s about really at the end of the day students need to be creative thinkers, problem solvers, communicators.”

Chang said the ads inspired a few dozen people to donate small amounts that added up to several hundred dollars. 

This program also stirred controversy within the teachers union. Two billboards featured board president Monica Garcia and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, two of Deasy’s strongest supporters. One of the billboards went up in Garcia’s district in January as she was fighting off challengers to her reelection. She won the election in March.

Teachers union backers also questioned why L.A. Fund supporters made big campaign contributions to Deasy-friendly board candidates. Megan Chernin said they're asking the wrong questions.

“So often nobody is talking about children and it’s all about adult issues," she said. "I just find it abhorrent that we’re not talking about children.”