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Gabrieli touts education role despite issues

As he casts himself as an innovator who can get results, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Christopher F. Gabrieli plans to highlight his key role in the longer school day experiment that was recently funded by the Legislature and will begin this fall at 10 schools in five Massachusetts cities.

But there is one educational innovation voters aren't likely to hear the wealthy venture capitalist emphasize, because it was a failure.

In the late 1990s, Gabrieli and his firm, Bessemer Venture Partners, were major investors in Boston-based Advantage Schools, a for-profit charter school company that crashed because of mismanagement of schools in several states, including two in Massachusetts.

Gabrieli sat on the company's board of directors and still extols the virtue of charter schoos, which operate with public funds but are free of constraints such as labor union contracts.

In an interview, however, he acknowledged that there are built-in problems with the for-profit model in charter schools, and he conceded that Advantage managers dealt ``poorly, dictatorially" with the charter school boards that had hired them. The company was basically fired in Worcester and Malden.

"I consider Advantage a failure, of course, not a total failure but more failure than success," Gabrieli said.

In 2001, Advantage laid off half its staff before being acquired by Mosaica Education of New York, another for-profit manager of charter schools, with none in Massachusetts.

As a result, Gabrieli still holds stock in Mosaica, which he described as "struggling but still in business and OK." He said he doesn't know the extent of his and Bessemer's losses or the current value of Mosaica stock, which is privately held and not traded publicly in the stock market.

``We haven't actually lost it yet, because we have a position in Mosaica," Gabrieli said. ``So, if anything happens to Mosaica, [it's] end of story."

Gabrieli's personal investment in Advantage Schools was in the $250,000 to $500,000 range, according to a 1998 financial disclosure statement he filed in connection with his failed run for Congress.

That losing campaign set in motion events that have made Gabrieli a player in education policy circles. After the race, Mayor Thomas M. Menino asked him to chair a task force to study and recommend steps that could organize and expand the jumble of afterschool programs in the city's 114 schools.

In 2000, Gabrieli and Jennifer Davis, the executive director of Menino's afterschool initiative, launched Massachusetts 2020 Foundation, a nonprofit that Gabrieli has supported with several million dollars of his own money.

That foundation, which has since launched nine targeted initiatives, has been at the forefront of efforts that have raised about $35 million, mostly from philanthropic foundations, for afterschool programs in Boston and several other cities. This year, Gabrieli provided about $750,000 of his foundation's $2 million budget, according to Davis, a former deputy assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration.

With a full-time staff of eight, the foundation also provided research, helped draft, and lobbied for the ``Expanded Learning Time" initiative that the Legislature funded with $6.5 million earlier this month. Governor Mitt Romney, who supports the program, had initially requested $15 million.

Unlike afterschool programs, which are voluntary and often do not reach students who need them the most, the longer day will affect all students in the schools.

The initiative will go into effect in September at a total of 10 elementary and middle schools -- three in Boston and Fall River, two in Cambridge, and one in Worcester and Malden. Each school will redesign the entire school day, which must be at least 30 percent longer than the current six-hour day and will include more instruction in core curriculum subjects, enrichment programs such as art and music, and more time for teacher preparation.

The state appropriation provides $1,300 per pupil in reimbursement for about 4,700 pupils, but it does not cover the full cost. Boston, for instance, will dip into other funds to pay some of the added costs, and the foundation is raising up to $300,000 to pay the cost of an evaluation program conducted by an independent consultant under a contract administered by the state Department of Education.

Gabrieli does not dispute that the extended-day program could add hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the cost of public education if the demonstration program is successful and expanded to other schools. The state now contributes about $4 billion of the $9 billion cost of kindergarten-to-12 education in the state. Local property taxes cover almost all the rest.

``I think there would be plenty of societal consensus to spend more to get more results," Gabrieli said in an interview. ``I'd be willing to gamble on that."

Less money should be spent on ``more of the same," he said, and more ``to encourage districts to come forward with important innovation that they can demonstrate really makes a difference."

The longer day is not Gabrieli's only big-ticket education proposal. He has also said the state needs to increase the so-called foundation budget, that part of the statutory formula that determines how much a district needs to provide an "adequate" education, by fully funding special education costs.

``The foundation budget was calculated in 1993," he said. ``We factually know it's wrong. . . . It should be adjusted up."

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