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Oakland Teachers Step Up Fight Against Billionaire Charter School Profiteers

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In the Wake of the Oakland Teachers Strike

The recent Oakland teachers strike was hugely successful, with nearly all teachers refusing to work, 3% student attendance, and every school board meeting for the duration of the strike shut down. The teachers, support staff, and classified workers sent a huge message to the political establishment and billionaires trying to privatize our public education. Now, the NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF), a billionaire backed anti-union, anti-public education organization has the arrogance to host their national convention in Oakland’s front yard. We will not stand by and let this happen.

What Charter Schools Mean for Oakland

OUSD and the school board claimed they would save money by closing dozens of Oakland’s public schools, but in fact the district’s own data shows that closing schools doesn’t save money. The real reason they are closing public schools is to open real estate for charter schools, while OUSD already loses $57 million to charter schools every year. Thus more charter schools leads to further defunding district schools and more schools declared ‘failing’ and fit to be closed. The school board, the district administrators, and the billionaires will not stop until there are no public K-12 schools in Oakland, just like New Orleans.

While charter schools in California are now legally supposed to be non-profits, this doesn’t stop the charter administrators from paying themselves hundreds of thousands. A recent report showed out of $4 billion spent by the Department of Education to open charter schools, over $1 billion was also lost to waste and fraud. This report also found as many as 3 in 10 charter schools that receive government grants never opened, or opened and shut down. Being forced to change schools is emotionally damaging to students and families, and entrepreneurs are pocketing public money at their expense.

The line between public services and private entrepreneurship is being hidden under a deliberately confusing network of interrelationships. Jonathan Klein is the CEO of GO Public Schools, a rabidly pro-charter organization that gets major funding from NSVF. Klein also helped found Revolution Foods, a for-profit business that does $150 million in sales per year making school meals and getting contracts in place of school district kitchens, many of which were once unionized jobs., At OUSD headquarters, there are six figure administrators whose only job is to coordinate with charter schools.

Charter Schools Are a Union Busting Tactic

It is not the parents, students, teachers and staff of charter schools that are our enemies, but the billionaires who pull the strings in Oakland education. These billionaires see busting the teacher’s union, the OEA, as a necessary step to reorganizing Oakland schools along their lines. When a public school with a unionized workforce gets closed and reopened as a non-union charter, it not only opens the school up to profiteering, but it also undermines the union. This attacks the core power behind the movement’s ability to fight back.

As the first step towards turning charter schools back into public schools with no involuntary displacement of students, OEA should continue to work to bring all charter school workers into the union. If OEA is growing, its power to defend the community against unwanted cuts and closures is incalculably greater.

Billionaire-Backed “Community” Organizations

Another tactic used by billionaires is to hide their influence through a complex network of non-profit organisations that appear to come from the diverse working class communities of Oakland. They try to give legitimacy to the outsiders like the NSVF by hiring highly paid organizers that will pose as concerned activist community members. In Oakland, organizations like REACH have been created to fill this role. They cynically encourage racial divisions by trying to associate the pro-charter forces with black and latino communities, and imply the teachers and community fighting for public education are white gentrifiers.

For Oakland’s black and brown populations, public education, like all public services, has not worked well. While public education is meant to be equal, it has more often reflected the existing segregation, with more resources going to the hills than the flatlands. Exploiting this reality, the billionaires pump money into charters as an alternative to OUSD schools. They see this money as an investment to dismantle public education, with a long term goal of making K-12 education private, dramatically further impoverishing Oakland’s poorest communities.

The Newschools Venture Fund’s Assault on Public Education

The main funding behind the Newschools Venture Fund (NSVF) comes from the Walton Family (Walmart), Mark Zuckerberg & Priscilla Chan, and Bill & Melinda Gates. To them, our public schools represent an underutilized goldmine that is waiting to be turned into a profit generating machine. They see charterization as a necessary stepping stone to privatization, given the opposition they would face if they simply argued to end free public education.This is a fight for the values our kids will grow up with and the ideas that will shape the next generations.

The NSVF and GO Public schools need more real estate to open new charters and are demanding more district public schools are closed. Charter schools’ corporate partnerships and funding give them a huge edge over their public counterparts that are dramatically underfunded.  They have achieved over 30% charterization in Oakland and the only thing stopping them from pushing this figure further is the OEA and community fighting back.

The Democratic Party Establishment

There is bipartisan agreement from the political establishment on the issue of ‘education reform’ as they call it. The Democratic Party’s Race to the Top initiative, put together by the Obama administration, awarded funding to schools based on their compliance with adopting merit pay for teachers, high stakes testing systems, and removing caps on the number of charter schools. At the local level, the California Democratic Party holds nearly every elected seat in Oakland and controls the supermajority on the school board that is holding Oakland’s education budget hostage, passing cuts like the $22 million taken away from classified workers. Conspicuously, most candidates for the upcoming presidential democratic primary race have been silent on their plans for K-12 education.

Over the course of decades, the NSVF and GO have been able to take advantage of their vast bank accounts to buy a school board that will vote in lockstep for pro-charter measures and cuts to our schools. The sitting school board was elected under false premises – the community in Oakland did not vote for them in order to close schools and siphon funds away from public education! We need to replace every single one of them with a school board member from the growing movement for public schools who rejects all money from corporations or charter non-profits like the NSVF and GO!  

The Fightback

A strong protest of the New Schools Venture Fund summit will send a clear message to the billionaire organizers that they are not welcome here. This is an important organizing meeting for them where they can spread their ideas, draw in new people and plan their strategy going forward. Disrupting their efforts will be a direct impediment to their agenda and would be an important victory for Oakland’s working people. Join us on May 8th to stand up for public education and build the working class movement against the billionaires!

These capitalists have a massively outsized influence over not only our public education, but also our whole political system and day to day lives. Three people own as much wealth as the bottom 50%, while the vast majority are struggling for basic rights like quality education, healthcare, and a reliable roof over our heads. The fundamental debate is: do we want public services with union jobs democratically controlled by communities, or do we trust the private market to value our needs over profits for the elite? We need to build a mass movement independent of corporate cash and corporate-funded politicians to tax the rich to fully fund education and fight for the needs of working people.

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