Election 2020 Grassroots Original

Blueprint: How to Beat the Pro-Charter Billionaires

Despite being outspent 3-1, education activists flipped a school board to take their district back from outside privatizers.

In nearly 20 years of privatization push into Oakland, this is the first time since 2003 that Oakland schools will be returned to local control by a school board that values and embraces authentic public education. Remaining hopeful for the future, and look forward to strengthening and improving Oakland’s schools.”

Diane Ravitch 

By Ken Rice

The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), a petri dish for school privatization for the past two decades, might have an answer. I ran and was elected to the Oakland school board and served one term (1997-2000). I raised $12,000. My opponent raised about the same amount. In those days the school board elections were neighborhood races funded by local supporters. There was no out of state money or PACs involved. 

That began to change about ten years ago: Huge donations from individuals and foundations began to pour into Oakland school board races. The money was funneled through the California Charter School Association and GO (Great Oakland Public Schools), a pro-charter organization. The money also came from Michael Bloomberg, the Walton Foundation, Eli Broad, Laurene Jobs (Steve Jobs’ widow), and several more. The goal was to elect a pro-charter Oakland Board of Education. 

Unsurprisingly, the pro-charter organizations were successful. 

The Oakland school board has approved about 65 charter school applications over the last twenty years — many of them in the last 12 years. Of those charters, about twenty have closed their doors — in some cases during the academic year, causing great dislocation to families who had to find another school for their children midyear. OUSD now has 30 percent of its 50,000 students in charter schools, the highest percentage of students in charters of any school district in California. 

What is surprising is what happened in the 2020 election. For the first time in memory no incumbents were running for any of four of the seven school board seats up for election. Thus, there was a possibility of greatly changing the make-up of the school board, whose majority has opted for policies of charter school approval, school closures and lack of responsiveness to the greater Oakland educational community. This was an opportunity to flip the board . . . and flip it we did!

The charter community recognized this opportunity, and poured almost $900,000 into electing their candidates for the four open seats! Yet when the votes were counted, three of their four candidates lost.

Trying to understand how and why this happened can provide an insight into the educational landscape of not only Oakland, but urban cities nationally. While it might be early to know for certain why the charter candidates were defeated, we can make some educated guesses.

The Blueprint

Strong Local Candidates: Two of the three candidates who won had deep Oakland roots. Two had been teachers (one in Oakland, one in San Francisco) and the other had worked in Oakland’s afterschool programs. Two had been community activists around school issues for years. Oakland elections are calculated by ranked-choice voting (RCV). When the RCV was tabulated Sam Davis, the candidate in District 1 received 62 percent of the vote. Sam built a stellar campaign focused around school communities. He held Zoom meetings with each school community in his district hosted by a combination of parents and teachers who worked in those schools. VanCedric Williams, in District 3, got 61 percent. VanCedric, a public school teacher for almost twenty years, had strong support from the teacher’s union as well as other unions. Mike Hutchinson in District 5 got 56 percent. Mike had run for the board previously, networked with other education activists nationwide, and had built a reputation of challenging board policies by going to board meetings for years and reaching out on social media. 

Backing of the Teacher’s Union: Last year, teachers in Oakland led a successful strike. The union’s ability to drum up enthusiasm with their members was one contributor to that success. Teachers recognized that if their future demands were to be met, they needed to have a responsive board. Specifically, the current board was considering a plan that would close up to 24 schools in Oakland, mostly in Brown and Black communities. At the same time, none of the 44 charter schools in Oakland were under threat of closure. Teachers made the connection between a charter-friendly board and school closures of the public schools and were determined to change the direction of the district’s blueprint. Teachers phone banked, texted, walked to drop off literature, and held zoom meetings in support of the three candidates who won. As Sam Davis noted, many voters tend to rely on their friends and neighbors who know something about the schools. The friends and neighbors were telling each other to vote for the candidates they trusted.

Building a Coalition: The three teacher-union supported candidates were also endorsed by the Democratic Party. This wasn’t an accident. Educational activists pushed the local Democratic clubs to endorse candidates who would not be overly pliant regarding charters and wouldn’t owe their election to big money. These clubs, in turn, pushed the local Democratic Party apparatus.The California Democratic Party has taken a critical stance towards charter schools, calling for more public oversight, and this was replicated locally. Organizers noticed that as people walked to the polls on election day, many of them carried the Democratic Party door hanger with them. Some of these candidates were also endorsed by the county’s labor council, union locals, individual Democratic Party state officials and various organizations, including the Network for Public Education, Educators for Democratic Schools, Democratic Socialists of America, and Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club — many of which also helped to call, text, and walk precincts.

Oakland students, teachers and families have been organizing for several years over funding for youth support programs, a teacher strike, the closing of schools, funding for charters and other issues. In addition to major gains for progressives on the school board, Oakland’s youth also won the right for those 16 and up to vote for school board members in the future.

The Word is Out

You can fool some of the people all of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, or so Lincoln believed. Over time, the general public has begun to understand that there is an attempt to buy their votes. As I dropped off a flier at one home, a parent came to the door and asked, with hostility, “This isn’t the candidate who is getting all that money from Bloomberg, is it?” Several media sources reported on money from Bloomberg ($500,000 from Bloomberg alone!) and others pouring into Oakland’s local election from far away. 

After recovering from the astonishment that anyone would spend that kind of money for a school board election, voters became leery of candidates receiving those huge amounts of money. In District 1 where I live — and the charter candidate received nearly $300,000! — I found glossy fliers in my mailboxes more times than I could keep track of.

It is profoundly disturbing and a huge threat to our democracy that this big money trend has filtered down to local school board races. It took many years, but the Oakland community is successfully fighting back against the billionaires’ spending advantage, and when the new board is seated in January it will have a clear pro-public school majority. 

With appealing candidates and strong ground games, Oakland voters have shown that big money can be defeated. While Oakland will never go back to the days when a local neighborhood candidate spent only $12,000 to be elected, this recent victory over out-of-state billionaires’ bucks and their agenda sends a clear signal that our community will not be bought.

Ken Rice
Ken Rice

Ken Rice is former Oakland Unified School District board member, a member of Educators for Democratic Schools and currently has a daughter attending an OUSD school.

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7 comments

  1. Again I thank my lucky stars not to be in the USA!! How money can buy nearly anything is the opposite of democracy. The work to defeat the buying of influence is great, but constant, and sometimes people may not have the energy Ken has.

    1. Then they must do whatever they must do to get the energy.
      The corporate and super rich forces arrayed against our democracy must be countered by like energy plus a little more. “Maybe not having the energy Ken has” is a weak kneed attitude unfitting for claiming
      the quality of education or the right to vote or decent health care for all required by the People. ” Not having enough energy” is no excuse when it comes to seeing to it the well being of the children of today and tomorrow’s is assured. You could think of it this way.Corporations are stealing the future from us. Do you fold your tent, collapse, and put out lunch for them to do the job?

  2. Bravo and Hallelujah!! Lots of darn good work , organization, determination and persistence! Now people who actually know something about education and have a personal and professional drive and connection to it, can respond to the teachers, kids, and parents real needs. Power to the People! I stand to salute you!!!! Saludos!

  3. Greate illustration of how to bury yourself under ten Mount Everest size piles of garbage after already burying yourself under nine. In fact it’s a nearly perfect prescription with nearly perfect evidence, with nearly 100% probability of success.

    The garbage I refer to is authoritarianism. Authoritarian domination, under which individuals, humanity, exercise near zero control over our lives, while cultivating a pretense, a false hope, that we do.

    It’s all a matter of degree. If you imagine your peak potential, humanity’s peak potential, being sky high, out of the stratosphere, and our current position way down at ground level, then you can adjust your worldview accordingly, and see all in a most helpful light.

    This is a radical approach, readical meaning down to the root, because of the urgency, given the pileup of autoritarian garbage out of the stratosphere. The deterioration of our quality of life in the US, since FDR’s New Deal, is most illustrative, and relevant, today. Over these decades the New Deal checks on power were systematically dismantled. The New Deal was, of course, authoritarianism’s great attempt to preserve itself in the face of the reat achievements of the anarchists (in collaboration with socialists/communists) that gradually accumulated since the Rennaisance and peaked in early 20th century, in Europe & America.

    This latest authoritarian attack on our reaching our self-determined peak potential, in the form of privatization of education in the US, is now just one in a multitude of attack fronts on which authoritarianism has gained, or is set to gain, traction. As a result, the US is now seen widely, around the world, as the most massive authoritarian (fascist) threat in world history, by far.

    Many more privatizations of scoietal sectors are in the pipeline. The frogs are having a very hard time sensing the escalation of the water temperature as the boiling goes pressurized. This is why the radical approach is necessary. No more mixed bags of positive/negative. We’re eliminating authoritarianism totally, from the ground up. Starting in the minds of each and all, our worldviews. Total positivity means all sectors, all institutions, all traditions, will be revolutionized, mostly dismantled and replaced. Let’s get to work. Very simple.

  4. I started my teaching career as a sub in the Oakland School District. The schools in the Black neighborhoods were amazingly well run, places where a random sub like me could step in for a few days and seamlessly take over the lessons. I still remember my few days at Sobrante Park. Clearly the administrative-teacher teams that ran those schools placed a high value on education, unlike some of the schools in neighboring Berkeley, where I also subbed. I’m happy to learn that the Oakland community has reasserted itself.

  5. “the astonishment that anyone would spend that kind of money for a school board election”

    A lot of money gets spent on education, and the financiers want it. “Car Guys vs Bean Counters” tells how money guys crumbled the American auto industry, after it had been built up by guys who were really into cars. Closing schools in mid-term is an indicator of that money focus. They put their profits over the community’s quality of life. They hide behind their mythical version of Adam Smith’s “free market”. They neglect the part where Adam Smith describes how the financiers do everything they can to rig the market, organizing and colluding among themselves, including conspiring to deny others the right to organize. They’re self-centered and short-sighted.

    “It is profoundly disturbing and a huge threat to our democracy that this big money trend has filtered down to local school board races.”

    A democracy needs a reliable education system that is designed to serve democracy. A system designed to maximize profit, run by people whose top priority is to maximize profit, is simply not such a system. Those in charge can (and will) pretend to be whatever people want to hear. But the for-profit community has demonstrated repeatedly that it will make such promises to get their way, then jettison them later.

    In parallel, the only reason we have an election system so suceptible to rigging is because the financiers (who own controlling interest in the voting computers, the best tool for stealing elections ever devised) want it that way. Brazil is a vast country that uses paper ballots, and has the votes counted securely and reliably by the next day.

    Similarly, so much Covid money for the ultra-wealthy financiers, and so little for the local businesses. Looks like a replay of 2008. Also looks like an assault on many fronts. And it’s all very similar to events involving a major financial syndicate in London, analysed back in 1890 by L. B. Woolfolk. His story looks extremely applicable today. (He has an economic analysis and a religious analysis, but the economic analysis stands on its own.)

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