How 4 billionaires have taken control of education policy in Oakland
- Mike Hutchinson -
Public education is under attack both nationally and here in Oakland. There has been a well orchestrated and highly financed takeover of our schools in order to privatize them through policies proponents refer to as education reform. The most known aspect of education reform is charter schools, but these reforms also include Common Core, high stakes testing, outsourcing, virtual schools, school closures, over reliance on technology, teacher evaluations tied to students test scores, and takeovers of parts or even entire school districts. Oakland now has over 40 charter schools and the highest rate of charter schools in the state of California. Most of the charter schools are run by private companies based outside of Oakland and were started by application, not by parents, educators, or the community. Charter schools are not required to take all students, are non-union, have not out performed public schools, receive public facilities for little or no cost, receive tax payer support, do not pay on Oakland’s debt to the state, are not subject to public oversight, are exempt from parts of the ed code, and in Oakland, have almost entirely been started in low income communities of color. Oakland has had charter schools that have lost accreditation, abused students, and stolen money. Even if Oakland’s School Board rejects a charter school application, the county or the state can overturn Oakland’s decision and grant the charter. These education reformers have largely been successful in rewriting policy due to an unlikely alliance between conservative Republicans (ALEC, Koch brothers, Jeb Bush) who oppose public education and teachers’ unions, “Wall St Democrats” (hedge fund managers, DFER Democrats For Education Reform, Gov. Coumo, Eva Moskowitz) who see how much money there is to be made in privatizing public education, and Silicon Valley (Zuckerberg, Laurene Powell Jobs, Reed Hastings) who think that their new wealth allows them to dictate public education policy.
The three biggest funders of education reform nationally are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. The Gates foundation, the largest foundation in the world, funds many projects, groups, charters, and companies across the country. They were the biggest funder for the creation and implementation of new national academic standards referred to as Common Core, at a cost of nearly a billion dollars. After these new standards were created and copyrighted, the US Department of Education tied federal funding for states to the adoption of common core as part of the Race To The Top (RTTP) program which was run by Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s chief of staff and former COO of Newschools Venture Fund Joanne Weiss. States were faced with a choice of adopting Gates’ common core or risk loosing tens of millions of dollars. So far in 2015 the Gates Foundation has given $385,000 to Aspire charter schools, $700,000 to the Center for Reform in School Systems (CRSS), $800,000 to the California Charter School Association (CCSA), $1,049,195 to Great Oakland Public Schools (GO), and over the last six years They have given over $15m to Newschools Venture.
Walton, the family behind Wal-Mart also gives hundreds of millions of dollars to education reform groups and nationally is one of the biggest financial backers of charter schools. In 2014 alone Walton gave over $200m to educational causes with grants of almost $17m to Teach for America (TFA) and $4.6m to CCSA, and in Oakland they gave $250,000 to GO, $200,000 to Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), over $2.5m to Newschools Venture Fund and even $162,500 to ED Trust West.
Eli Broad is a real estate developer based in LA. His foundation also gives millions of dollars to a large number of education reform causes. During 2012-2013 the Broad Foundation gave grants of $100,000-$100,000,000 to Aspire, CRSS, Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), Green Dot Charters, TFA, and Newschools Venture Fund. Broad also established the Broad Academy and The Broad Residency in Urban Education to train educational leaders. Alumnae of these programs, much like the alumnae of TFA, have been placed in leadership positions across the country. Many of the cities suffering from education reform policies have Broad trained superintendents, especially cities where the education system has been taken over by the mayor or state. Denver, Memphis, and the state of Louisiana all have graduates of Broad’s programs as superintendents. Another Broad graduate, John Deasy, was the superintendent in LA. He was involved with a controversial plan to purchase thousands of ipads. He has since resigned and now works for the Broad Foundation and is helping to push their $450m plan to convert half of LA’s public schools to charters. In Chicago mayor Emmanuel appointed Broad graduate Barbara Byrd-Bennett as superintendent, she had previously been an administrator in the Detroit takeover district and in Cleveland. She has since resigned and pled guilty to receiving kickbacks from one of the companies Chicago Public Schools does business with and is currently facing seven years in the federal penitentiary. Oakland had 3 state appointed superintendents who were Broad graduates while under the state takeover. The first, Randolph Ward, was reportedly chosen for the job after Mayor Jerry Brown (who is currently the California Governor) and State Superintendent Jack O’Connell asked Eli Broad to recommend someone. Ward was followed by Vince Matthews and Kimberly Stratam. Former GO executive director and co-founder of the Oakland Public Education Fund (OPEF) Jonathan Klein is a Broad graduate as is Ash Solar GO’s current executive director. Former Oakland city manager Robert Bobb is a Broad graduate and now is the superintendent of schools in Detroit. Oakland’s current superintendent Antwan Wilson is another graduate of the Broad Academy. Two things are clear about these foundations run by billionaires and all of the so-called education reformers, their policies have not raised academic performance nor closed the achievement gap, and they only give money to groups and people who agree with their generally unproven education reform policies.
Newschools Venture Fund is based in Oakland and is representative of how education reformers have bought control of education policy. Gates, Broad, Walton, Dell, Bloomberg, and even Pearson Inc are among those who invest in Newschools Venture Fund. Newschools then uses that money to leverage policy changes by using it as seed money for charter schools and companies that profit from privatization and by giving it to Astroturf community groups like GO. Joanne Weiss was COO of Newschools Venture Fund for 8 years during which time they according to their website, “pioneered the venture philanthropy investment model and helped build and grow the charter management organization sector, seed many educational technology companies, and was a key investor in innovative human capital solution providers in education.” Weiss also sat on numerous boards including Aspire Charter Schools, Green Dot Charters, and Revolution Foods. She left Newschools in 2009 to become US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s chief of staff and director of the controversial Race To The Top (RTTP) program. RTTP is a federal grant program where states have to compete for funding by proposing “reforms” like adopting Common Core standards or expanding charter schools. Through these grants, President Obama’s Department of Education spent over four billion dollars pursuing education “reforms” including spending hundreds of millions of dollars directly on new charter school start-ups.
In Oakland, in addition to Newschools Venture Fund, which mainly funnels money from across the country, the main force behind education reform and charter schools is our local billionaires the Rogers Family, who created a foundation after they sold Dreyer’s Ice Cream to Nestle in 2006 for over a billion dollars. The Rogers Family Foundation created and controls both GO and the Oakland Public Education Fund (OPEF). Jonathan Klein, who is a Broad graduate and previously worked for TFA, was brought into OUSD by the first state appointed superintendent fellow Broad graduate Randy Ward, to be his chief of staff. From there the Rogers Foundation hired him to run its education policy and to be the Executive Director of GO. Klein is a co-founder and board member of the OPEF. Klein was also a co-founder of Revolution Foods with his sister and his wife was the founder of the county approved Urban Montessori charter school, which is housed at the former Elizabeth Sherman Elementary School. The current executive director of GO, Ash Solar, is also a Broad graduate and comes back to Oakland from the Memphis Achievement District.
Again Rogers has been the biggest backer of charters and education reform in Oakland, and like other foundations they only fund groups that share their beliefs. In 2014 Rogers gave grants to, GO, OPEF, OCO, Youth Uprising, Ed Trust West, New Leaders, TFA, Urban Strategies Council, CCSA, EFC charters, Aspire charters, Lighthouse charter, North Oakland Community Carter, and Urban Montessori charter school. Although they may meet the legal requirements, it’s hard to find the separation between Rogers’ three main projects, GO, OPEF, and GO Leadership Center. Besides Rogers, GO also receives funding from Gates, Newschools Venture Fund, Walton, and Bloomberg among others. Together Rogers’ “projects” do everything from raising money, to contracting with OUSD for services, to providing staff to the district, to organizing and advocacy, to running a PAC that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get five of the current seven school board directors elected. School Board Directors Eng, Hinton-Hodge, Sinn, Torres, and Harris were all endorsed and heavily supported by GO, board president Harris was even a founding member of GO. London did not ask for GO’s endorsement but almost always votes with the GO majority so Gonzales is the only current board member who ran against a GO candidate, and won but unfortunately she usually sides with the GO school board members resulting in unanimous votes. In all of these races GO’s candidate ran and won against candidates endorsed by both the Democratic Party and our teachers union OEA. It could be argued that the victories were largely due to the unprecedented amounts of money, totaling in the millions, GO’s PAC and their allies have spent. Their candidates always outspend their opponents, often by more than 10 to1. Oakland now has a school board whose elections were paid for by the billionaire education reformers Rodgers, Walton, Gates, and Broad.
With the elections in 2012 GO’s candidates gained control of the Oakland school board and unanimously pushed its education reform policies. In the spring of 2013 superintendent Tony Smith unexpectedly resigned. The School board took the unprecedented step of appointing one of their own, District 6 School Board Director Gary Yee, as interim superintendent. This gave the GO dominated school board complete control over the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). It also gave Yee and board president David Kakishiba the complete authority to set the school board agenda. The first action they took was finding a replacement to fill Yee’s board seat. Although there were many well qualified applicants, two in particular with close ties to OUSD and years of experience, they chose an education novice Annie Campbell-Washington who was a donor to GO and had ties with then councilmember and current mayor Libby Schaff. During the little more than a year under this leadership many questionable things began to happen.
Kakishiba helped author the Lake Merritt Station Area development plan that made the lakeside land on which the Paul Robeson Building, OUSD’s administration building, and Dewey High School stand available to developers. Three weeks later in January of 2013 the Paul Robeson Building was mysteriously flooded. Instead of using the insurance money to rebuild our district property, the school board voted in closed session to use the settlement money to rent office space at 1000 Broadway in downtown Oakland. Then they set up a 7-11 committee to try and secretly sell the Paul Robeson Building and Dewey High to the developers Urban Core. Now, almost 3 years later the building remains abandoned and condemned while OUSD continues to rent office space at a cost of $4-$6m a year. This office space OUSD also subleases, at a loss, to OPEF and just spent three quarters of a million dollars to refurbish.
That board also began to institute policies that were very favorable to charters. The board eased the regulations under Prop 39 and allowed even more public school facilities to be given to charters. Voters passed Proposition 39 in 2000 and among its provisions was one calling for all school districts to make underutilized facilities available for charter schools. OUSD leadership changed the definition of “underutilized”, making it easier for charter schools to obtain our public facilities. For the first time the school board gave multi site offers and instead of determining whether schools are underutilized, OUSD began determining that individual classrooms were underutilized, which led to classrooms at over a dozen public schools being offer to charter schools for lease. This past year one of the American Indian charter schools was given 3 different Prop 39 offers, which is prohibited by law. This board also approved the quality school development policy that was written by Yee and Kakishiba. The policy intentionally creates a process for charters to apply to take over public schools if they are deemed failing. Many of the charters who stand to benefit from the new quality school development policy, and who receive facilities under prop 39, directly support GO or are supported by the same people who support GO.
Lastly, that board hired Antwan Wilson, a Broad graduate from Denver, as superintendent. To find Wilson the school board hired a headhunting firm that identified 20 candidates. The school board narrowed down the choices, interviewed 3 candidates, and chose Wilson. There was no community, parent, or union employee input into the process. Even stakeholders only met Wilson for the first time after he had been officially hired and after he had already been introduced at a press conference as the new superintendent. Wilson had no experience in Oakland or even California and no experience in running a school district but he did go to the Broad Institute and he does come from one of the three cities that are focus districts for Walton and their money.
Wilson has been superintendent for a year and a half and education reformers continue to intensify their push in Oakland. The weakened GO controlled school board continues to defer to the superintendent and across the district there is a severe lack of authentic community engagement and input. School board meetings have been repeatedly changed to limit public comment in violation of the Brown Act and there has been an ever-growing number of contracts going to people and companies connected to GO and its funders.
One of the first things that Wilson did when he was hired, even though he had promised he wouldn’t, was author a new strategic plan with no community input. This new Pathways to Excellence strategic plan is being used to guide policy changes, which Wilson now says need to be made in order to be better “aligned”. Next Wilson set up 9 committees. The superintendent selected the committee members and these committees were charged with creating changes to the school board’s policies. Some of this work culminated in the rollout of the Quality School Development policy. The policy was written so that charters could apply to take over public schools that were deemed failures, but only charter operators currently operating in Oakland could participate. Due to a huge outcry from the community, OUSD has so far not given any of the schools to charters, but now the superintendent is planning on continuing the QSD policy this spring by putting more schools into this still uncertain process.
There is also a serious conflict of interest when it comes to hiring and the awarding of contracts. Some of this comes in the form of outsourcing. OUSD continues to contract with companies to provide services and even employees, to replace district employees. The most infamous example of this is interim facilities chief Lance Jackson. Jackson is a consultant who works for SGI and has been the appointed the head of facilities for almost a year, running the department, negotiating construction projects and being paid $30,000 a month.
Another aspect of this outsourcing is the practice of education reformers paying for staff within OUSD. OPEF pays for various staff within OUSD and this staff is often at OUSD meetings representing the district. Isaac Kos-Reed’s position within the district to help with messaging and public relations was first paid for by the OPEF and then when that contract expired the school board hired him and now he runs the communications and public relations department. The Panasonic Foundation pays for school board trainings and retreats. Panasonic also pays for CRSS (Center for Reform in School Systems) to lead these trainings. CCRS is run by Donald McAdams an education reformer from Houston who has close ties to the Broad Foundation and receives additional funding from Gates. At OUSD and school board meetings it is now often hard to tell who is a district employee, who works for a foundation, and who is a consultant.
Even when it doesn’t outsource, OUSD increasingly does business exclusively with education reformers and their allies. Superintendent Wilson has formed a 9-member senior leadership team. On the team are chief of schools Allan Smith, chief of staff Yana Smith and chief academic officer Devlin Dillon all of whom Wilson brought with him from Denver, a school district dominated by Broad graduates and a focus district of the Walton Foundation. Another member is new chief of operations officer Hitesh Haria, who previously worked in Memphis. He was previously brought to Memphis by the pro charter organization Memphis Tomorrow. Also chief of communications and public affairs Kos-Reed who was brought into the district by OPEF, senior business officer Vernon Hal who is responsible for OUSD’s junk bond rating that has cost us tens of millions of dollars, and influential general counsel Jackie Minor who is the 2nd highest paid employee in the district are all members of the senior leadership team. The last two members of the leadership team are the new police chief and Brigitte Marshall. OUSD has a charter school office to help facilitate charter applications, which is run by Silke Bradford, who previously worked for Green Dot charters. She is a member of the district’s executive leadership. So is senior deputy chief of continuous school improvement David Montes de Oca, was responsible for the school closures in 2012, the district Prop 39 offers to charters and the QSD policy and has written many of the administrative regulations for the most controversial board policies. Lastly, recently hired director of community engagement Liz Sullivan who previously was the OCO education director is also a member of the district’s executive leadership.
The Oakland school board has also been giving contracts to companies connected to the same people who paid for the school board’s election. For example just in the past month the school board approved a contract for over $300,000 with Amplify, a company based in New York and run by controversial NYC education reformer Joel Klein (no relation to Jonathan), who was appointed by mayor Bloomberg and is also a Broad graduate, to provide ELL services. Newschools Venture Fund, which funds GO, is also an investor in Amplify. The school board also approved a half million dollars contract for Revolution Foods, which was co-founded by former GO executive director and Broad graduate Jonathan Klein and had former Newschools’s COO Joanna Weiss as a board member. Lastly the board approved a new 2nd charter for Lighthouse charter school, a charter that is heavily supported by the Rogers Foundation and received almost $500,000 in startup money from Newschools. Mayor Libby Schaff even came to the school board meeting to speak on behalf of Lighthouse. Schaff is also a donor to GO and now as mayor has created an education czar position paid for by the Oakland Public Education Fund and filled the position with TFA alum David Silver. This is just a small sampling of what has now become the regular practice.
The biggest winner of OUSD contracts has been the Oakland Public Education Fund. The OPEF subleases office space in district headquarters, provides staff to the district, fundraises money for OUSD and then gives money to charter schools, and is the district’s highest paid provider. Last year the district contracted with OPEF to provide a variety of services ranging from messaging and communications to providing manhood classes through the Office of African American Male Achievement, that together totaled more than $4m. At every school board meeting hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of contracts are approved for OPEF. Last month the school board voted to make them a fiduciary agent of OUSD and contracted with them to manage college savings accounts for students under the new Oakland Promise Plan proposed by the mayor and the school board. The OPEF has become so intertwined and embedded within OUSD that PTAs are told to give their money they fundraise to OPEF so it can manage it for them and if someone tries to donate on the OUSD website they are redirected to the OPEF website. There is no available public information on how much money OPEF is “managing” on the public’s behalf.
The newest education reform being pushed by the superintendent and the school board is a proposed change in the way student enrollment works in Oakland. It is a new system called Common Enrollment, which would allow charter schools into our public school enrollment process. Common Enrollment was developed by a company called IIPSC (Innovation In Public School Choice), which lists 5 partners: Dell Foundation, Walton Foundation, Newschools Venture Fund, Bellwether, and CRPE (a research organization also funded by Walton, Gates, and Broad). Common Enrollment uses an algorithm to match students and schools. Common Enrollment has only been tried in a small handful of cities, like Denver, Washington DC, and New Orleans. In Oakland the superintendent and school board have over the last year been engaged in a process to introduce common enrollment. A committee was formed made up mainly of charter school advocates to begin discussions on how to implement this new system. Three consultants were hired to facilitate the discussion, two of which are the top executives at IIPSC and the third formally ran the common enrollment system in Denver. The district is also co-sponsoring with GO a listening tour to get feedback from certain stakeholders. If this happens charter schools for the first time would be included in the district’s enrollment process. This would mean that a family trying to enroll in their selected public school could be assigned to a charter. It would also guarantee a minimum enrollment level for charters.
Through GO and the OPEF Gates, Walton, Broad, and Rodgers dictate education policy in Oakland, especially within OUSD. With a school board that they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get elected, these education reformers now control everything from the Common Core curriculum to the CRSS led school board trainings to who gets contracts and who gets hired. Our school board approves every charter application, has made it easier for charters to take public school facilities through Prop 39, allows charters to apply to take over current public schools through the QSD policy, and now is planning on funneling even more students into charter schools through a common enrollment system. After going through a state takeover Oakland now has the highest rate of charter schools in California and one of the highest rates in the whole country. Currently the school board regularly approves contracts, charters, leases and policies that are directly connected to their biggest campaign contributors. Elections have consequences. 2016 looms as a pivotal year for education in Oakland. With Next Novembers elections we will either reelect GO candidates who will continue the education reform policies of their billionaire backers or we will elect candidates who will stand up for public education against theses well financed Astroturf organizations.