As founder and chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools, the most prominent L.A. charter school operation, Steve Barr has become a major reformer within the Los Angeles Unified School District. In just over five years, Barr has opened 10 charter schools in some of L.A.'s most troubled neighborhoods. Charter schools receive public funds, but they are run as largely independent campuses, able to design their own curricula and sometimes hiring and firing teachers. As Barr's charter operation has expanded, he has run into opposition from district administrators and board members but has also become a beacon for reformers. Case in point, the foundation of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad gave Green Dot $10.5 million last year to open up 20 more schools. Barr had never expected to have a career in education reform, though he always had been active in progressive politics, starting with his high school days in Cupertino, when he volunteered for Jerry Brown. After graduating from U.C. Santa Barbara with a political science degree, he did stints in the campaigns for Democratic presidential candidates and also worked in television. After the death of his brother and mother, though, he decided to focus on school reform. Barr, 47, lives in Silver Lake with his wife and toddler son.

Question: Why did you decide to get involved in the charter schools movement?


Answer: It all goes back to one day about 15 years ago, when I was in my early 30s. I was wrapped up in my career in the political world when I got a call that my brother had died of an apparent drug overdose. That set me thinking: "What was so different about our two lives?" One answer was education. When I looked at my brother, he had a lot to offer, but he was never given the chance at school. He wasn't given the amount of attention he needed to succeed.


Q: So how did the lives of you and your brother diverge in high school?


A: We had just moved to the Cupertino area and in high school, we were surrounded by the kids of Hewlett Packard engineers who felt college was an entitlement, not a dream. That rubbed off on me. But my brother didn't fit in as easily as I did. He got into trouble by doing too much drugs. He had to go into the U.S. Navy because a judge told him he either had to go into the Navy or go to jail. I never took any drugs. I went on to college. I drove a Volvo; he drove a motorcycle. After he left the Navy, he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident and got addicted again to painkilling drugs. He died of an accidental drug overdose.

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