News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

June 27, 2019

Corporate Democrats can’t save public education. A movement united behind Bernie can.

By Florence Rosenberg

After the red-state teachers’ revolt came to blue California this fall, the mass strikes in Oakland and LA shone a light on the damage nearly three decades of relentless school privatization, overseen and encouraged by pro-charter Democrats in Sacramento, has done to our state’s once-thriving public education system. 

In response to the anger in the streets, California Democrats, many funded by the same billionaires who back charter schools and school privatization, passed a series of reforms that take some steps to curb the power of charters. But they don’t go nearly far enough to solve the problem. It’s clear these politicians are trying to walk the line between placating angry teachers and families, and not upsetting their donor class — which is why corporate Democrats are unlikely to put forward or support more reforms that seriously challenge charters.

Democratic socialist and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, announced a sweeping education plan that would ban new charter schools from opening, guarantee all teachers make at least $60,000 a year, and fight years of resegregation in American schooling. 

This is the kind of plan that can only be proposed by a politician who gets his power from a movement of ordinary people, not a small group of elite ultrarich backers. It’s also the only set of demands that can actually restore the promise of a fully public American education system that enables all students to learn and thrive.

Why are teachers (and Bernie) so fixated on stopping charter schools? 

Charters remove millions of dollars from any school district they put roots in. When a student switches from a public school to a charter, she brings a chunk of per-pupil state funding with her. Over time, these losses add up and take a devastating toll on school districts; a recent study of three heavily charterized districts found a yearly net loss of $57.3 million in the Oakland Unified School District, $65.9 million in San Diego Unified School District, and $19.3 million for Santa Clara County’s East Side Union High School District. In Oakland, this money would be more than enough to restore sports and arts programs, hire more teachers and support staff, or update aging facilities.

Instead, teachers are forced to live five to an apartment or commute for hours, because their wages aren’t keeping up with the rapidly rising cost of living. Students are packed 45 to a classroom when research tells us the optimal class size for learning is 13-17 children.  

Meanwhile, charters rake in money. Charters spend some of their state funding on their operating costs, and keep the rest as profit for their CEOs and shareholders. This model provides powerful incentives to cut corners: a recent study by In the Public Interest found that hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money allocated to charters have been lost to waste and fraud.

Our schools are supposed to be overseen democratically by the public, but in practice charters answer mostly to their CEOs and boards. While the bill that passed in Sacramento last month, AB 1505, makes it somewhat easier for cities to slow charter growth, it’s clear that only a complete moratorium on charters could begin to stop the damage. But Democrats quietly shelved a charter moratorium bill after passing AB 1505.

Why won’t Democrats stand up to charters?

The charter industry’s stranglehold on California politics stretches from Sacramento to local school boards. Pro-charter billionaire Reed Hastings, for example, has funded or sat on the boards of the Aspire, KIPP, and Rocketship charter companies as well as the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). He’s spent millions of dollars funding the campaigns of Gov. Gavin Newsom, Oakland assemblymember Buffy Wicks, and pro-charter school board members from Oakland to Los Angeles.

Hastings isn’t shy about his goal: he wants to entirely replace California’s public education system with profit-generating charter schools. At a keynote address to the CCSA convention, Hastings said:

“The work ahead is really hard because we’re at 8 percent of students [in charter schools] in California, whereas in New Orleans they’re at 90 percent, so we have a lot of catchup to do… We have to continue to grow and grow.”

Hastings is far from the only pro-charter billionaire funding California Democrats at all levels of government: conservatives like the Fishers, Michael Bloomberg, and the Walmart Waltons all spend millions influencing local and statewide races, mostly investing in corporate-friendly Democrats like Wicks and Newsom.

While politicians like Newsom and Wicks are supposed to represent the ordinary people who voted for them, their real constituents are the billionaire donors who fund their campaigns. If they upset the billionaires by going too hard on charter schools, the money will dry up — and so will their political careers.

Bernie’s political revolution can save public education

By contrast, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders raised two-thirds of his 2020 campaign funds from ordinary people donating small amounts of money, an analysis by the LA Times found. His political goal is to build a movement that can transfer power and resources from the wealthy 1 percent to the rest of society, which means he can’t expect support from billionaires and CEOs.

Ultimately Bernie relies on something more important than money to create change in society. He says “not me, us” because individual lawmakers, even those with the best ideas and intentions, don’t have enough power on their own to take on the billionaire class, the oil and gas companies driving global warming, the charter companies wrecking public education, or the insurance and pharmaceutical companies profiting lavishly from healthcare. These industries hold the government hostage to their agenda with millions of dollars in lobbying funds and with threats to move jobs overseas if they are challenged. 

Only millions of working people, united in a movement to remake the world, can ultimately force the billionaires and their industries to make big concessions. Unlike politicians, working people can unite and refuse to work, grinding the entire economic machine to a halt until their demands are met.

These kinds of movements used to be the norm in America, where ordinary working people fought together to keep children out of mines, to give women and black people the right to vote, and to win the weekend. To begin to restore a truly vibrant, democratic, and thriving public education system we have to look to a united working-class movement, just as Bernie does. Only when masses of ordinary people come together to fight for their interests — at the ballot box, in their workplaces, and in the streets — can they win the social transformation we so badly need.