Why the Hollywood Elite Are Giving to Los Angeles Schools

Tuesday: A group including George Clooney is set to start a film and television school in the city’s public school district.,

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ImageGeorge Clooney is part of a group planning to underwrite a new high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
George Clooney is part of a group planning to underwrite a new high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.Credit…Magdalena Wosinska for The New York Times

Good morning.

In the last couple of weeks, Hollywood elites have begun dipping their toes into another hot industry.

No, it’s not space travel or NFTs. It’s public education.

Not just any public eduction, either. As my colleague Shawn Hubler and I reported on Monday, a group of entertainment industry heavy-hitters — including, among others, George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Eva Longoria, Mindy Kaling and principals at Creative Artists Agency — is planning to underwrite a new high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

It’ll be a magnet school aimed at diversifying the pipeline of cinematographers, visual effects artists and other workers in the city’s most famous job sector.

“Everyone is recognizing that the industry needs to do better,” Clooney told Shawn over Zoom last week, speaking from his Italian villa.

The bold names involved in what will be known as the Roybal School of Film and Television Production are just one part of a more complicated story, though — one that tells us about the current state of public education and philanthropy.

The Roybal school is one of at least three partnerships started in the past two months between the nation’s second-largest school district and entertainment industry benefactors, who have, historically, mostly donated to their own children’s private academies.

Most recently, the music giants Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine announced they were starting their own specialized high school in South Los Angeles.

Hollywood’s sudden interest in its local public schools is at once novel and part of a long pattern, Sarah Reckhow, an expert on education philanthropy at Michigan State University, told me.

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Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles public schools, visited with Crenshaw High School students in May.Credit…Sarah Reingewirtz/Los Angeles Daily News, SCNG

Education, broadly speaking, has long been a popular cause for the rich, famous and charitably inclined.

“As different issues ebb and flow in the agenda, they fund it in different ways, through different funding vehicles and with different schools,” Reckhow said. “It’s making a mark in your own community.”

In this century alone, Bill Gates; Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; LeBron James; and MacKenzie Scott have each tried their hands at reshaping American education in some way.

While such philanthropy is doubtless born of good intentions, its prevalence reflects a fundamental inequality baked into the way children are schooled in the United States.

“It’s very typical and very unequal, and it often just compounds other inequalities,” Reckhow said. The recent announcements, she said, “are well within that norm.”

Across California in particular, districts in smaller, wealthier communities expect parents to pony up thousands of dollars for supplemental foundations. And within the L.A. school system, the complex network of magnets and charter schools means that, simply, some children have access to opportunities that others don’t.

This inequality, Reckhow said, has long been an accepted part of how education is delivered in the United States.

“It’s systemic,” she said.

So in some big districts, school officials have served as high-profile boosters, soliciting philanthropic contributions.

That has been the case with Austin Beutner, the Los Angeles superintendent; the joint initiatives are coming together just as he prepares to leave the job — a testament to his pull as a wealthy investor with a deep Rolodex of contacts. Iovine and Clooney both told us Beutner’s involvement was essential to moving their efforts forward.

“We were trying for two years to put together a high school,” Iovine told me. “Then we met Austin.”

For Iovine and Dr. Dre, the L.A.U.S.D. partnership will ideally pave the way to scale up a multidisciplinary curriculum developed at the academy they founded at the University of Southern California in 2013. The approach to learning, Iovine said, better reflects the kind of thinking necessary for modern entrepreneurship.

Kelly Gonez, president of the L.A.U.S.D. board of education, said that it was exciting to build those connections with industry leaders. The challenge for the district going forward is to ensure that any future initiatives align with what district leaders believe students need.

One step in that direction has been to create an office dedicated solely to helping get public-private partnerships up and running. But, she said, Beutner’s willingness to make requests on behalf of students is something she hopes the system’s next leader shares.

“It’s making it a call that says, ‘By opting out, you’re making a choice about the future,'” she said.

For more:


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Cherry Avenue Auction in Fresno.Credit…Brian L. Frank for The New York Times

Compiled by Manny Fernandez

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View of the Morro Bay Rock, known as the “Gibraltar of the Pacific.”Credit…Monica Almeida/The New York Times
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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

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