Opinion: Private money and public schools (Part I)
Last December 3, the California Fair Political Practices Commission recommended fining Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a Democrat, $37,500 for improperly reporting donations to his multiple nonprofit groups. The political watchdog agency agreed to this penalty at a Dec. 13 meeting. The donations included a total of $500,000 between Jan. 19, 2012, and June 5, 2012, from the Walton Family Foundation to Stand Up for Sacramento Schools, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit school reform group that Johnson founded in 2009 with a commitment of $500,000 from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
The money trail, however, goes beyond Mayor Johnson’s untimely reporting of donations to his nonprofits. His local education reform efforts illustrate a broader national trend: corporate funding of education reform via nonprofits to alter public schools. In an era of a growing income gap between corporate America and the general public—the one percent and 99 percent, in the words of the Occupy Wall Street movement—the power of corporate-funded philanthropy to shape public policy has become part of the social landscape. In the case of school reform, breaking public-sector unions is high on this elite agenda. Consider the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nonunion behemoth based in Bentonville, Ark. This family had a net worth of $115.5 billion in 2012, according to the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in America. Its foundation “invested” close to $160 million in K-12 education reform across the U.S. in 2011: http://www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org/about/2011-grant-report.
Sam Starks of Sacramento is director of MLK 365, which calls itself “a non-profit organization (movement) that advances the values of Martin Luther King Jr. as a strategy to empower ordinary people to transform the world around them.” Asked for his view of Walton Foundation donations to reform public schools, Starks replied, “I can’t be mad with someone who wants to improve the quality of education. If the Waltons have money to give to inspire kids, engage parents, activate communities, and support and train teachers for professional development, I will take it. There is a role for industry that does not take away from public schools.”
Starks is a friend of Mayor Johnson’s, and “applauds his efforts” with Stand Up for Sacramento Schools to improve the education of young people. On that note, Starks is very concerned about students dropping out of the public school system, though he staunchly backs it. To this end, MLK 365 focuses on the “opportunity achievement gap,” he said. It is a term for a trend in which nonwhite students are more likely to live in poverty and drop out before they graduate from public schools.
Mayor Johnson’s Stand Up for Sacramento Schools is one of many school reform outfits that receive donations from the Walton Foundation. Walton Foundation donations also support the California Charter Schools Association. What are the criteria for such school reformers to receive donations? Daphne Moore, a spokeswoman for the Walton Foundation, declined an email request to comment for this story.
Meanwhile, the media silence on the mayoral capacity to attract private dollars from the ultrawealthy to reform public schools in Sacramento is deafening. One reason might be that the Sacramento Bee funds Mayor Johnson’s nonprofit St. HOPE Development Company, along with the Walton Foundation: http://www.sthope.org/fund-1.html. With financial help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, St. HOPE, which stands for Helping Others Pursue Excellence, took over Sacramento High School as a nonunion charter operator, after students’ reading and math scores on standardized achievement tests fell in 2003.
It is worth noting that the Gates Foundation is also a donor to Capitol Impact, LLC, a “Sacramento-based consulting firm dedicated to improving policy and practice in California, with a particular emphasis on public education,” according to its website. Sacramento City Councilman Jay Schenirer is a principal in Capitol Impact. According to the Sacramento City Teachers Association, he was actively involved in the chartering process of Sacramento High School while serving on the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education: http://sacteachers.org/community/jayreportcard/.
Despite or because of the efforts of the SCTA, in the SCUSD public charter schools enrolled 4,735 students in 2005-2006 versus 4,454 students in 2011-2012: http://dashboard.publiccharters.org/dashboard/students/page/overview/district/CA-234/year/2012. Crucially, the growth of public charter schools in the SCUSD bucks the national trend.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, about 5,600 public charter schools enrolled over 2 million students in the United States in 2011, representing a 13 percent year-over-year increase. In 2010, California led the nation in public charter schools with 983, serving over 412,000 students (7 percent of the overall enrollment of 6 million pupils statewide). The next four states—in order of total public charter schools—are Arizona, 524; Florida, 520; Ohio, 360; and Texas, 284.
Tuition-free public charter schools operate with a contract (charter) from a public entity. Such schools were 87.7 percent union-free in 2009-2010, according to the alliance. It is noteworthy that education reformers frequently criticize public school teachers for their collective bargaining agreements as if they provide proof of what ails the system. That is not all. State legislatures around the nation are targeting unionized public-sector employment agreements as budget solutions while tax revenues tepidly recover from the Great Recession that emerged from the collapse of a major real estate bubble, commercial and residential.
In the meantime, the question remains as to how Stand Up for Sacramento Schools spends Walton Foundation donations: $500,000 in 2012 and $200,000 in 2011. Dr. Aisha Lowe, executive director of Stand Up for Sacramento Schools, declined to reply when asked about the group’s spending of Walton Foundation donations. Instead, she directed a reporter to the Stand Up for Sacramento Schools’ website. A search of the site, using the term “Walton Family Foundation,” turned up no information.
Mariah Sheriff is Mayor Johnson’s director of governmental affairs in education. Unlike Lowe, Sheriff agreed to speak on the record. Then she reversed course, declining to proceed with a phone interview. Instead, Sheriff followed Lowe’s suggestion that a reporter visit the websites of Stand Up for Sacramento Schools and Mayor Johnson for further information on his education reform actions. Asked why a phone interview was off the table, Sheriff replied, “We currently aren’t taking media requests.”
That Mayor Johnson’s director of governmental affairs in education refused to answer a reporter’s questions about Stand Up for Sacramento Schools’ spending of $700,000 in donations from the Walton Foundation speaks volumes about the transparency of Stand Up for Sacramento Schools. On its website, Stand Up for Sacramento Schools claims to uphold the values of classroom accountability for students and teachers in public education. Where is the accountability for Stand Up for Sacramento Schools?
In the meantime, for Johnson’s Stand Up for Sacramento Schools, crucial questions of import remain unanswered. Whose decision is it to reject media requests concerning philanthropic donations to Stand Up for Sacramento Schools? Where is the accountability to the Sacramento public? Is the point of Stand Up for Sacramento Schools’ media strategy to keep hidden its use of philanthropic money from the Walton Foundation? If so, why is that the case?
Alice Perez is Stand Up for Sacramento Schools’ director of governmental affairs. That such a position exists, unpaid or not, suggests at minimum that the education reform group is actively engaged in politics, the formation of policies and laws that impact public life at home and work. Like Lowe and Sheriff, Perez declined to reply to a request for comment as to the group’s use of funds from the Walton Foundation. Is this the approach of a political novice? Think again. Perez is no stranger to education politics. She is in a second term as vice president on the 17-member board of governors for the California Community Colleges. Former Grand Old Party Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her to this post in 2007.
In addition, speaking of politics, Mayor Johnson does not stop his public education reform efforts with Stand Up for Sacramento Schools. He is the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ second vice president and Education Reform Task Force Chair. In his USCM capacity, Johnson signed a statement about the teachers’ union in Chicago and the public school system there after a strike ended in late summer 2012. It is worth noting that, like the USCM, the Chicago teachers’ union backs education reform in public schools. However, the union’s ideas for reform are at odds with those of the USCM, which is nominally a nonpartisan group of elected officials, including Johnson and USCM president, Philadelphia Mayor Ray Nutter: http://www.usmayors.org/pressreleases/uploads/2012/0918-statement-chicagoteachers.pdf
For instance, the Chicago union won the right for teachers to make their own lesson plans. This is not a concept of education reform that USCM reformers favor. Johnson, for example, spoke in Connecticut in fall 2012, calling for an appointed Board of Education in Trumbull and Fairfield to replace an elected one. John Bagley, a former NBA player, like Johnson, protested in a Connecticut Post column.
It is unclear if Johnson, also a member of the Democrats for Education Reform, was speaking on behalf of it, as he has done at DFER national forums. Asked to explain how Johnson’s speech in Connecticut helps public schools in Sacramento, his former spokesman, Joaquin McPeek, said the mayor was in Bridgeport to support his fellow U.S. Conference of Mayors colleague and mayor, Bill Finch, in his education initiatives.
“As Chair of the USCM Education Reform Task Force, Mayor Johnson is often requested to speak about education issues to diverse audiences around the country,” McPeek said in an email. He added that no taxpayer dollars were involved in Johnson’s travel to Bridgeport.
Back to Bagley’s column, in which he writes, “Maybe "KJ" and his `reformers’ can explain why the city of New Haven, which has an appointed board, has more failing schools than Bridgeport. This is true, despite the presence on their appointed Board of Education of the former director of CONNCAN, the Connecticut leader of takeover policies.”
If a mayor appoints members of a local school board of education, then citizens lose their right to vote for their representatives. Democracy, people’s control over their lives, loses. Corporations, though while not human, have constitutional rights such as free speech, win. When cities such as Sacramento have a mayor whose education reform groups take corporate donations, the power of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other large corporations over public policy grows. (Corporations exist to realize return on investment. Democracy aims to empower citizens to improve their lives and those of future generations.)
(Find Part II here)
Disclosure: Seth Sandronsky is a freelance journalist in Sacramento, Calif. Email email@example.com.