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

October 27, 2020

Billionaires are trying to buy the Oakland school board… again

By Kevin Sun

Pro-charter school organizations have poured more than $1 million into the Oakland School Board Director elections this year. These groups, including GO Public Schools, Power2Families, and the California Charter School Association, have received independent campaign expenditures from right-wing billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix), and Doris Fisher, co-founder of the Gap clothing store. Other big-ticket donors include deepwater drilling CEO Stacy Schusterman and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Arthur Rock. All are billionaires, all from outside of Oakland, all pouring tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars into our local school board elections.

Charter schools are private schools that receive public funding. They’re mostly non-unionized, so teachers are put in a weaker position than in traditional public schools with strong public sector unions. These unions win wages, benefits and give workers a voice in their workplaces. Charter are often used as publicity stunts, since billionaires can claim they are trying to help disadvantaged students when all they are trying to do is hoard money. A third benefit is that they move a public good into private hands, weakening democracy overall.

We’ve been here before

Mike Bloomberg has been a long-time influencer in Oakland’s often-overlooked school board elections. Before this election season, Bloomberg had donated more than $500,000 since 2016 to GO Public Schools, a pro-charter organization that receives funding from other billionaires like the Waltons and Eli Broad. GO supports school board candidates who in return pass favorable resolutions for charter schools. In 2014, Bloomberg donated $500,000 to Marshall Tuck for Tuck’s unsuccessful bid for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Tuck is a former president of LA-based charter management organization Green Dot.

As Mayor of New York City, Bloomberg made moves to take unilateral control of schools in the city, implementing harsher testing standards that drove teachers from already under-resourced schools, increased exclusion of minorities from prestigious schools like Stuveysant, and the closure of 150 schools. Many of the properties of the closed schools were then given to charters. This is all while Bloomberg was overseeing the “stop and frisk” program, which saw many black and brown students stopped and harassed by police simply for existing in public.

Pro-charter and GO-funded school board members have pursued a similar agenda in Oakland, attempting to close scores of schools in Black and brown neighborhoods while inviting charters to replace them.

A History of Community Struggle Against Charterization

Oakland’s school board troubles date back to 2003, after a politically orchestrated state takeover of the district’s finances, by which the district would receive a $100 million loan and cede control over its budget to state administrators, ostensibly to relieve OUSD’s debt of $37 million. The administrators during the state control had come from the Broad Academy, founded by Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad to train professionals on pro-charter public education policy. The Broad alumni immediately began closing traditional public schools and opening charter schools. After 6 years of havoc in Oakland’s schools, with 14 public schools closed and 24 new charter schools opened, the district left state control in 2009 with $89 million of debt. The Broad Foundation later released a report titled “School Closure Guide: Closing Schools as a Means for Addressing Budgetary Challenges”, using Oakland as a case study for how to convince different parties of school closures, from school board members to affected families (read Majority’s earlier coverage of the debt crisis).

Parents and teachers knew what was going on, and they organized to fight back. These school closures were happening primarily to under-resourced schools in the black and brown Flatlands neighborhoods in East Oakland where charters now dominate. On October 26, 2011, the school board voted to close five elementary schools, two of which in the Fruitvale area became charter schools. Parents and teachers organized and protested the board’s decision, even going so far as to occupy Lakeview Elementary, one of the five schools, in the spirit of Occupy Oakland to stop the closures. Their occupation was eventually broken up by the OUSD police

Last year, teachers hit the picket line to demand, among other things like wage increases and more student services, a moratorium on school closures. During the strikes, GO Public-funded school board member Jumoke Hinton-Hodge strangled Darnisha Wright, an OUSD teacher. Darnisha had just received a glowing performance review, but was summarily fired from her position at Markham Elementary after she announced that she would be suing the board.

Not to be outdone by the school board, the OUSD police reappeared after the board voted to close Oakland’s dual immersion School of Language (SOL) and Kaiser Elementary last September, families began to regularly protest school board meetings, shouting “No school closures, Oakland is not for sale” and demanding the reversal of the closures. After protestors shut down several meetings, the board began to hold their meetings in isolated rooms away from the public, and they enlisted district cops to manage the public who refused to leave. Police attacked the protestors and 6 people were arrested. There is now a lawsuit against the city filed by one of the people attacked.

But though the summer of Black Lives Matter protests, and through the Black Organizing Project’s successful push to get police out of schools, the school board has continued devaluing Black, brown, and working class students’ lives by funneling public resources to private charters. For example, in 2014 Oakland passed the real-estate tax Measure N to reduce drop-out rates and fund college prep programs. Last month, in the September 9th meeting, the board approved over $2,000,000 of Measure N funds to Oakland charter schools, while allocating less than $20,000 for public schools. 

This November, voters could pass proposition 15, a real estate tax on big businesses that would reclaim $12 billion for schools, hospitals, and parks. But the Measure N experience shows that funding alone can’t shift the balance of power in society away from the rich and toward the multiracial working class. While the California proposition would be the largest property tax increase in California history and would raise millions every year (and although you should absolutely vote yes on 15 and sign up to phonebank), responsible stewards who are accountable to the working class, not billionaires, will need to be in place at the local levels in order to ensure that money does not turn into more public-private partnerships.

Keep Oakland Public!

When we see the dramatic impacts that the school board directors have on their communities, and the relatively little attention that is paid to their election, it’s easy to see why billionaires like Bloomberg would invest their money to plant their own candidates in order to drain public resources, weaken public sector unions, and lower their own tax burdens at the expense of the communities around our schools. Instead of schools that serve our whole community including English Learners, special-needs students, houseless people and refugees, we get schools that implement the same broken-windows administration that we saw in New York City under Bloomberg, that teach students to “compete in a free-market capitalist society” rather than teaching us to keep each other safe, to lift each other up. As a result of billionaire meddling in our elections, five out of seven of Oakland’s current school board members consistently vote for more school closures and more public funds for charters.

But when our public schools are under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back! The Oakland community is tired of billionaires running our school boards and two champions of public education have risen to meet their demands, Mike Hutchinson in District 5 and Ben Tapscott in District 7.

Mike is an Oakland native and founder of the Oakland Public Education Network (OPEN) advocating for greater board accountability and keeping schools public. He worked in public schools for 20 years before the school he was coaching at, Santa Fe, was closed, which led him to begin organizing to fight for public schools and students. He is a seasoned activist, having fought for Oakland public schools for over 10 years. He speaks at nearly every school board meeting, even as they creep into one or two in the morning, and shares his extensive knowledge of board operations through OPEN.

“Coach” Ben Tapscott has been an activist longer than most of us have been alive, helping organize farm workers with Cesar Chavez when he was a teenager. He later became OUSD’s first black coach, teaching his athletes at McClymonds High School the importance of their academics. He later formed the New McClymonds Committee to combat school closures and blew the whistle on soil contamination on West Oakland’s public school campuses. Coach has at the top of priorities improving literacy rates, recognizing literacy as a key tool for fighting Oakland’s school-to-prison pipeline. Coach connects Oakland’s underfunded schools and teachers and students’ literacy struggles to a history of not teaching Black or Indigenous students to read, going all the way back to slavery.

Both Mike and Coach have refused to take any money from billionaires or their front groups, including GO, and they both are adamant about stopping school closures and having well resourced public schools. You can learn more about Mike’s campaign on his Facebook page and Coach’s campaign at Bay DSA’s Classroom Justice campaign has also been phonebanking and canvassing for both candidates every weekend. As socialists, we understand the fight is not over even if both Mike and Ben get elected. We must organize parents, teachers and students to demand control over our schools. At Classroom Justice, we’ve organized direct actions, produced and delivered coloring books, and are campaigning for real change in the school board. We want to create an organization to protect public schools from the reaches of private investors only seeking profit, and to protect our communities during times of crisis, such as COVID-19. If you want to join the fight to keep Oakland schools public give us a ring at