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Robin Hood Inspires Los Angeles Schools Chief On Poverty Battle

John Deasy
John Deasy, the incoming superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, at his office in Los Angeles. Deasy hopes to launch a nonprofit within two years that would emulate the New York-based Robin Hood Foundation, which raises money from wealthy executives from finance, entertainment and other industries to fight poverty. Photographer: Patrick Cole/Bloomberg

When former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation official John Deasy attended last year’s record-setting Robin Hood Foundation gala, which raised $88 million, he was convinced that other cities could mobilize wealthy business and finance executives to support poverty-fighting programs.

“I was trying to understand how a sector comes together around a whole issue like poverty eradication,” said Deasy, 50, now the new superintendent of the Los Angeles school system, during an interview in his 24th floor office overlooking the city’s sprawl and mountains. “When we care about world issues they can seem to be out of our hands, but a single city’s lift is in our hands.”

Deasy, who took the helm of the 750,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District last month, said he wants to help launch a charity as early as two years from now that would “emulate” Robin Hood.

The charity would be a separate nonprofit that wouldn’t bear the name of the New York-based Robin Hood co-founded by hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones. Deasy said he has had conversations with Emary Aronson, the managing director of Robin Hood’s relief fund and education, to get advice on how to launch a poverty-fighting nonprofit.

“We would love to work with John Deasy and share with him everything we’ve learned over the last 23 years,” Robin Hood executive director David Saltzman said in a phone interview. “Nothing that we do is proprietary. I’d love for people to benefit from what we’ve learned.

Saltzman said he didn’t want to expand Robin Hood’s mission beyond New York. The organization now funds about 200 poverty-fighting programs and schools in New York.

Funding Posts

In addition to his Robin Hood plans, Deasy said he would like more than a dozen senior posts in the school system to be funded by philanthropists and nonprofits such as the Gates Foundation, billionaire Eli Broad and other sources, rather than by taxpayer dollars.

Deasy now heads the U.S.’s second-largest public-school system, after New York City, with about 750,000 students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, and a $408 million budget deficit. The former education director of the Gates Foundation, Deasy’s career includes superintendent posts at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District from 2001 to 2006, and Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools system after that.

Donor support for a Robin Hood-like foundation in Los Angeles would come from the city’s entertainment, advertising, finance and real-estate executives and employees, he said.

“We have our own share of hedge-fund managers here in Los Angeles,” Deasy said. “I think that’s the natural place to look for support.”

Education Fund

One of his first tasks was overseeing the creation of the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education. The nonprofit is modeled after New York’s Fund for Public Schools, which lets donors decide which improvements they would like to support.

The new fund, launched on May 19, will operate separately from the Los Angeles school system and eventually will have its own endowment, he said. It will begin accepting donations in September.

The fund aims to improve teaching effectiveness, student health initiatives and arts instruction.

“This is an amazing city for the arts and we have a good arts program that’s always in peril because the state has historically underfunded its schools,” Deasy said. “Students have limited access to the arts, and we want to make sure they have a robust and well-rounded education that includes the arts.”

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