By Kacy Martin
Students and parents in the Oakland Unified School District have a complicated relationship with their superintendent, Antwan Wilson. Wilson has been described as a bold and effective school leader with the district’s best intentions at heart. However, in response to his recently proposed plan to create a single application process for Oakland’s dozens of neighborhood and charter schools, many parents have expressed alarm about a potential shift toward a portfolio model of district governance.
During recent school board meetings, constituents have organized boisterous protests with a clear message: Keep corporate dollars out of public schools. Some protesters have argued that the new application system, similar to that of New Orleans, blurs the lines between charter and public schools and threatens to privatize education. Also involved in the district’s reforms is the Broad Foundation, which is financially backing the new model. This corporate participation in public education has upset some Oakland parents, who, at a school board meeting in October, chanted, “Charter schools are not public schools!” and accused Wilson of doing the bidding of “a corporate oligarchy.”
The Broad Foundation has injected $144 million into charter schools across the country, and it has recently settled on Oakland as the locus of its efforts. The foundation has also produced a handbook about how to close public schools and developed a superintendent training academy, from which Wilson graduated before becoming Oakland’s Superintendent last year.
Some parents in the district approve of these changes, while others disapprove. During a protest this month, local activist Yvette Felarca shouted, “When Eli Broad trained Antwan Wilson, he trained him to come in here and privatize the schools!” Whether or not the views of the Broad Foundation are representative of the voters’ in the district, its power and ability to surpass the will of local citizens is undeniable. The Broad Foundation was not elected to lead and shape the future of Oakland Schools, but it is certainly trying to do so.
As funding for public education shrinks, venture philanthropists step in and districts find it difficult to refuse the help. However, after years of corporate involvement in local schools, parents are beginning to turn the money away.
Protesters in Los Angeles recently sent the same message as those in Oakland. The posters displayed declared, “Billionaires, have a heart. Your plan will tear our schools apart!” and “Billionaires: Pay your taxes so we can get smaller classes!” Parents attended the protest to critique a charter school expansion plan, which was originally launched by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. That proposal detailed a plan to donate $490 million to double the number of charters in L.A. over a period of eight years.
If the language of Los Angeles community sounds familiar, it may because very similar declarations are being made on the national stage. The unexpected popularity of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign echoes the sentiments expressed by Oakland and Los Angeles parents. Sanders expresses concern over the collapse over the middle class, and what he calls the “Koch brothers’ political oligarchy.” His recent landmark win in the Michigan primary demonstrated that critics of the billionaire class exist outside of the fringes.
Rather than kindhearted charity, the large donations given to public schools are an expression of leveraging wealth for political influence. Parents in L.A. and Oakland are expressing concern that publicly elected officials are no longer in the driver’s seat when it comes to who makes choices about their schools. Foundations like Gates, Broad, and Koch are giving for the entitlement to direct how public tax dollars are spent.
With community protests increasing in number and volume, and the popularity of Sanders on the rise, I suspect these philanthropists will need to spend more time defending their so-called expertise in public education reform and answering to citizens who have realized that public education should be controlled by the public.
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