The project of free market education reform is so widespread in America that many cities and states insist on claiming the title of “ground zero” of education privatization. Whether or not Oakland can claim that unfortunate title, it’s clear that the privatizers have made huge headway in the city: Oakland is now the city in California with the highest percentage of students in privately run charters, and the city’s school district is aiming to deepen its downsizing project by closing twenty-four of the city’s eighty-seven public schools.
Which makes the teachers’ strike that kicked off today in Oakland all the more crucial.
Stopping and reversing the privatization offensive will take mass collective action. It will also require understanding the billionaires and their political proxies who are behind these attacks on public education. Here’s a crash course on the powerful enemies of Oakland’s public schools.
The Rogers Family
Recently deceased, Gary Rogers was the CEO and owner of the multibillion-dollar ice cream company Dreyer’s. His Rogers Family foundation was and remains the largest financial contributor to GO Public Schools, a front group through which the ultrawealthy have funded the takeover and privatization of Oakland public education.
To ensure the election of pro-charter candidates to the school board in 2012, 2014, and 2016, Rogers teamed up with fellow billionaires including former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Walton Family, which founded Walmart, to spend millions dollars in campaign contributions. By all accounts, their investment has paid off. If the Rogers Foundation and GO get their way, well over 50 percent of Oakland schools will soon be charters.
The rich may be greedy, but they are not stupid. Rather than openly announce their hopes to bust unions and make profits in the $600 billion industry that is public education, Rogers and his friends have funneled their money into GO, which claims to be an organization to improve schools for Oakland students and parents. Its website affirms that “quality education is the path to opportunity for our kids and can interrupt historical inequity and oppression. Student needs drive our work.”
The irony of such claims is that, in practice, the spread of charter schools has greatly exacerbated educational inequities.
In Oakland, and across the nation, charters systematically cherry pick certain students, while leaving high-needs children — with disabilities, traumatic family backgrounds, or a lack of proficiency in English — to regular public schools. As such, it’s not surprising that privatization has greatly increased racial resegregation in Oakland: 19.2 percent of charter students are African American, compared to 29.5 percent in district schools.
At the same time, charters drain over $57 million in funds from Oakland schools yearly. This is why Oakland Education Association president Keith Brown has said that “the privatization of education is a blatant attack on our black and brown students.”
Ever since the state takeover of Oakland public schools in 2003, the district has been led by a revolving door of apparatchiks trained by Eli Broad, the fourth-richest person in the United States, worth over $7.4 billion.
Though Broad has no professional experience in education, this hasn’t stopped him from using his immense personal fortune to impose his vision upon Oakland schools. After making a killing in the home building and insurance industries, he founded the Broad Academy in 2002 to train a new generation of privatizing school leaders.
By 2012, the center was boasting that it had “filled more superintendent positions than any other national training program.” In Oakland, Broad graduates include superintendents Randolph Ward (2003–2006), Kimberly Statham (2006–2007), Vincent Matthews (2007–2009), and Antwan Wilson (2014–2017).
The Broad Foundation has also directly influenced decision-making in Oakland by granting $6 million for “staff development” and paying for the salaries of no less than ten top administrators. Under the tutelage of Broad trainees, the number of students in Oakland charters has skyrocketed upwards to 30 percent.
Part of the reason why Eli Broad has, until recently, largely avoided public vilification is that he’s a liberal — as well as a major funder of the Democratic Party establishment, including leading lights such as Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, and Chuck Schumer. “The unions no longer control the education agenda of the Democratic Party,” Broad bragged to the Wall Street Journal. The unspoken subtext: billionaires like him do.
His trainees have also smartly draped themselves in the veneer of corporate antiracism. Former Oakland superintendent, and Broad Academy graduate, Antwan Wilson thus framed his corporate reforms — which, among other things, wrecked the district’s budget — as a means to achieve social justice.
Behind this rhetoric, however, lies a neoliberal ideology that blames public services and individuals for social ills like economic inequality.
As Wilson explained to the New York Times, he had a “visceral reaction” when he was told that fixing poverty was the solution to fixing education: “it’s actually educating [poor students] that gives them a chance to fix some poverty.”
With a net worth of $95.4 billion, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is one of the richest men in the world, second only to Amazon owner Jeff Bezos. Gates has also been a longstanding corporate education philanthropist. In 2017 alone he pledged to donate $1.7 billion to education over the coming five years.
In Oakland, Gates in 2015 spent over a million dollars to support GO Public Schools. And now he has stepped up his influence over Oakland by granting $10 million to the City Fund in July 2018. The goal of this grant, explained a foundation spokesperson, is to “support both high-quality charter schools in Oakland and school leaders in [the district].”
The City Fund is not just another foundation. It has positioned itself as the well-funded spearhead of a nationwide push to impose a “portfolio model” upon all major urban districts. In this system, schools compete with each other for survival — and those that don’t do well on metrics such as standardized testing get closed.
In a leaked presentation designed to attract corporate funding, the City Fund pointed to the entirely privatized New Orleans school district as a positive example to be emulated and it explained that “our goal is to make the model normal. After enough adoption we believe the model will transition from being a radical idea to a standard policy intervention.”
According to this presentation, only such a radical transformation in “every major city in America” would be capable of improving educational opportunities for children because all other attempts to improve schools have failed.
Yet as Matt Barnum notes in Chalkbeat, the data shows that two policies have been shown to be effective: racial school integration and increased school funding. Neither of these policies, however, correspond to the interests of the billionaire class.
This Gates-funded portfolio plan is already moving full steam ahead in Oakland. Late last year, new superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell announced her plan to close twenty-four public schools in the next five years. Protests have already erupted to stop the closure of Roots International Academy in East Oakland. Parent organizer Ady Ríos laid out the stakes to Majority:
They’re not targeting the rich with closures. They’re targeting us: the poor, the children that need the most. … We are behind the teachers one million percent. I won’t be sending my kid to school during the strike. We are holding to the light of hope that the strike will win, and the win will help Roots too.
As Bernie Sanders is so fond of pointing out, there is something fundamentally wrong with a system where a tiny handful of billionaires can use their immense fortunes to hijack the political process. The concerted offensive by Gates, Rogers, Broad, and their political cronies to impose their vision of privatization on public schools is anti-democratic in every sense of the word.
Fortunately, for the first time in decades, large numbers of working people are taking strike action to put an end to the unilateral dictates of corporate America. At its heart, the Oakland strike, and the national teachers’ revolt, is a struggle for democracy — for a society in which the working-class majority, not the superrich, determines governmental policy. As Oakland union leader Keith Brown said just before today’s strike, “only the power of the people can defeat the power of the billionaires.”