News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
February 20, 2019
By Katie Ferrari
Today, nearly 30 percent of Oakland’s students attend 34 charter schools. Charters drain resources from traditional public schools and frequently discriminate against students of color and students with special needs. They are publicly funded but not democratically accountable, and their teachers are typically not unionized. With public school teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland calling for an end to charter expansion, now is a good time for a crash course in Oakland’s own history with charters.
In 1992 California became the second state in the country to legalize charters. Oakland’s first charter, Jingletown Charter School, opened in 1994. Five years later, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) had only three charters. Then Jerry Brown became mayor.
Lifelong Democrat Brown has worked hard to polish his liberal reputation. But throughout his decades in public office, Brown has sided with corporations and billionaires against working people and their children. First as mayor and then as governor, Brown helped his wealthy friends and supporters to dismantle public education to make way for a privatized school system. Brown’s choices have contributed to the current education crises in California and Oakland, taking power and resources away from working people.
Jerry Brown has friends with deep pockets and even deeper love for charters — or, as they like to call it, “education reform” and “school choice.” Three of these billionaire friends live in California, which means they have a personal interest in making sure their property taxes are not raised to support a vibrant, unionized public school system in the state.
First there’s Reed Hastings, Netflix founder and Bay Area resident, with a net worth of $3.7 billion. In 1998, Hastings was a key driver of AB554, the State Assembly bill that lifted California’s charter cap and made it easier to start a charter school. In 2000, he donated $1 million to the Proposition 39 campaign and was appointed to the state Board of Education by Governor Gray Davis. Prop 39 further drained traditional public school resources by mandating they share facilities with charters. In 2015, Hastings donated $2 million to Rocketship Charter Schools, which runs overcrowded, tech-heavy elementary schools in the Bay Area and other states. Hastings is devoted to ending the “monopoly” that public schools have over education. He wants to replace democratically elected, publicly accountable school boards with privately appointed ones.
Then there was Don Fisher, The Gap founder and San Francisco resident, who had a net worth of $3.3 billion when he passed away in 2009. Fisher and his wife, Doris, have donated over $80 million to the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), one of the largest charter chains in the country. Brown’s wife, Anne Gust Brown, was The Gap’s chief administrative officer until 2005.
And last but certainly not least, there is Eli Broad. A close friend of Jerry’s father, Pat Brown, Broad founded two businesses and has a net worth of $6.7 billion. His Broad Academy trains school superintendents in his privatization philosophy, with the aim of placing them in “a third of the 75 largest school districts.” By 2012, the Academy had “over 30 sitting superintendents in large urban systems,” including, with Brown’s help, OUSD. In 2015, Broad’s plan to turn 50% of Los Angeles public schools into charters was leaked.
Brown was mayor of Oakland from 1999 to 2007. On his watch and with his enthusiastic approval, the number of charters in OUSD skyrocketed to 35 by early 2008. In 2000, Brown wanted to open a charter school of his own: a military academy for middle schoolers that would “put competitive pressure on the Oakland schools and force them to get better.” OUSD’s school board rejected Brown’s proposal, but his friends Hastings and Fisher were on the State Board of Education and approved his charter application. Brown’s Oakland Military Institute opened in 2001. Brown’s second charter school, the Oakland School for the Arts, opened the next year. Neither school has proven to be especially “competitive” with traditional public schools: the millions Brown has raised for the schools have yielded only average test scores.
In 2003, OUSD discovered a $37 million budget deficit. The district wanted to avoid the state takeover that would accompany a state loan, so it planned to fill the hole by borrowing from its construction fund. A respected bond counsel approved this plan, noting that it did not violate any existing laws. Tom Henry, the CEO of California’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Team (FCMAT) opposed this plan, and Mayor Brown questioned it heavily. (During a state takeover, FCMAT would be responsible for monitoring the school district’s financial progress.) Phone records later obtained by the Oakland Tribune revealed over 40 phone calls on key dates between Brown, Henry, and Randolph Ward, who would end up in charge of OUSD when it was placed under state control, in the two months before the state takeover. On March 14, Henry spent over an hour on the phone with a top deputy to the state attorney general. On March 26, the attorney general said that OUSD’s plan to use construction funds to cover the debt violated local and state laws.
The state ultimately bailed out the district with a $100 million loan and placed it under state control, or receivership, to get its finances back in order. The democratically elected school board would no longer control OUSD. Instead, Brown and Jack O’Connell, the State Superintendent of Public Education, put Ward, a Broad Academy graduate, in charge. When he ran for state superintendent in 2002, O’Connell’s largest campaign donors had been Reed Hastings ($250,000), venture capitalist and education reformer John Doerr ($205,000), and Eli Broad ($100,000). Brown described the state takeover as a “total win” for Oakland.
Between 2003 and 2006, Ward shut down 14 traditional public schools and opened 13 charters. His successor, Kimberly Statham, was another Broad Academy alumnus. She opened 4 more charters between 2006 and 2007. Vincent Matthews, yet another Broad Academy alum, controlled the district from 2007 to 2009, and opened 7 more charters.
The state finally relinquished control of OUSD in 2009, but not without a fight. FCMAT had been recommending the state return oversight to the district since 2007, but O’Connell repeatedly ignored the advice. In late 2007, Assemblyman Sandré Swanson introduced AB45, which would have gradually returned power to the Oakland school board. Broad donated over $350,000 to EdVoice, a Sacramento nonprofit whose board he was on, to aid in its lobbying efforts against AB45. By the time OUSD was returned to local control in 2009, the district had $89 million in debt and enrollment had dropped from 55,000 in 2002 to 38,000.
As governor, Brown continued to choose charters over students and teachers. In October 2018, he set OUSD up for another state takeover––and potentially further charterization. The district was still paying off the original $100 million loan it received in 2003, and now expected a budget deficit for the 2018-19 school year of $30.3 million. AB1840 gave $20.4 million to plug the deficit. OUSD is not expected to repay this aid, but it comes with serious strings attached: the district must make $6.8 million in cuts this year, including $3 million in staffing, and another $20 million in cuts by 2023. The Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) and FCMAT will determine whether OUSD is holding up its end of the bargain. Both of these agencies have a track record of pushing austerity and privatization: they are the ones who pushed OUSD into receivership back in 2003.
Governor Brown also consistently vetoed legislation that placed stricter controls on charters and demanded more accountability. In 2014, Brown vetoed AB913, which would have subjected charters to the same conflict of interest prohibitions that govern regular public schools. In 2015, he axed AB787, which sought to ban for-profit charters, because he was concerned it would restrict the ability of non-profit charters to use for-profit vendors. Brown vetoed accountability legislation again in 2016, this time saying that AB709 went “too far” in prescribing how the undemocratically elected boards of charters should operate. In 2018, he finally approved a ban on for-profit charters by signing AB406. However, the new law’s effectiveness seemed doubtful: shortly after it passed, a spokesperson for K12 Inc., the largest for-profit charter school corporation in the country, said the company believed it wouldn’t have to change its operations to comply with AB406. In October 2017, California had fined K12 Inc., which was running 14 virtual charters in the state, $2 million for faulty accounting and overpayment of supervisory fees.
Supposed liberals like Jerry Brown say they will help us if we elect them. The truth is that Democrats and Republicans alike fight for privatization and against working people, because both parties cater to the interests of the ultrarich. The recent victories of teachers in West Virginia, Denver and Los Angeles show that we get politicians to do as we say when thousands of working people mobilize. That’s how we win.