Rick Shea versus Walmart and Company
By Dr. Gregg Robinson, President, San Diego County Board of Education,
Dr. Jim Miller, Vice President, American Federation of Teachers Guild, Local 1931
Somebody is trying to buy control of San Diego’s education system and few in the local media seem to have noticed until Sunday’s San Diego Union-Tribune finally covered it. The Voice of San Diego has been quiet on this front, perhaps because, as the SDUT article reports, its co-founder Buzz Woolley is part of the action. He and his fellow corporate education reformers have San Diego in their crosshairs and are spending big money to drive their agenda.
As Jeff Bryant recently reported at OurFuture.org, there is a huge amount of money behind this new corporate effort to “disrupt” public education:
As education historian Diane Ravitch explains on her personal blog, “Public education in California is under siege by people and organizations who want to privatize the schools, remove them from democratic control, and hand them over to the charter industry.”
Ravitch points to Eli Broad, who made his money in the home building and insurance industries, Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, and Michael Milken, of junk bond industry fame, as members in a group of “billionaires” who push legislation to expand charter schools and limit regulation of the industry.
The big money, top-down campaign to expand charter schools in California is well documented in a recent series of articles by Capital & Main. One article in the series adds the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy related to the family that owns the Walmart retail chain, to the list of charter “power brokers” who invest billions in creating and expanding these schools.
Big money from these foundations and philanthropists, according to the report, pours into the charter industry to direct fund charter schools, pay for “academic studies” that promote charters, and create “grassroots” organizations that make charter school advocacy look like a parent-led movement.
To influence policy, these same organizations finance “powerful political lobbies such as the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA)” and “contribute millions of dollars to school board elections in order to replace those perceived to be anti-charter with pro-charter board members, as seen in recent elections in Los Angeles and Oakland, two cities where charter-expansion partisans have been particularly aggressive.”
And now they are playing big in the San Diego County Board of Education (SDBCOE) race with many of the usual suspects chipping in to tilt the balance of power in our county in their favor. Yes, Walmart and other big corporate money is pouring into San Diego to influence our kids’ schools.
That’s why Alice Walton, the second richest woman on earth and a Walmart heiress, Michael Bloomberg, founder of a business media empire, Reed Hastings, owner of Netflix, Doris Fisher of the Gap clothing stores, and a number of other billionaires want to participate in stopping Rick Shea from being re-elected to the San Diego County Board of Education.
This election is an obscure race that few even know exists, yet it has become the focal point of a high-stakes political shoot-out. The total cost of this race is likely to run into the millions of dollars this season, while in the past, those costs were unlikely to pass a few thousand dollars. This puts this minor election on track to be the most expensive race for a county office of education seat in the history of San Diego.
While the County Board oversees the education of thousands of our area’s most vulnerable children, this, unfortunately, is not the reason for the attention. Instead, the key lies in the SDCBOE’s relationship to charter schools. Thus this race is a stalking horse for the nationwide battle over educational reform with teachers and their organizations on one side and a corporate elite pushing charter schools and other market-based reforms on the other.
To explain this situation a little background is necessary.
The San Diego County Office of Education performs three major responsibilities. First, it educates the most vulnerable children in our community, including foster youth, homeless children, and students in the juvenile justice system. Second, it provides services to San Diego County school districts. These include textbook selection, aid in implementing such curricular reforms as the Common Core, training updates for teachers, and oversight of the budgets and spending plans of every school district in our county. The third responsibility is to act as a kind “appellate court” for student expulsions, inter-district transfers, AND charter school appeals.
While the first two areas compose nearly 95% of the SDCBOE’s work and time, it is its appellate responsibilities, and, specifically the oversight of charter schools, that have caused so much controversy. When a charter school proposal has been turned down by a local school board, that charter organization may appeal to the SDCBOE to override that decision. Thus the SDCBOE has the ability to force a charter school into a district no matter what a local school board or parents want.
The role of charter schools in education is a complicated one. Most research indicates that charters are like traditional schools: there are some good ones and some bad ones. This complexity, however, has been lost on charter school advocates, no less their billionaire supporters.
For these groups, charter schools are the silver bullet of educational reform: sign kids up for these semi-private institutions that drain funds from traditional public schools and all will be well. For the billionaire backers this is a twofer: on the one hand, the market-oriented reforms that underlie charters appeals to them ideologically, and on the other, these schools undermine the nemesis of billionaires: unions. While there has been an upsurge of unionization among charter schools, they are still by and large non-union.
Recently, charter schools have faced a string of bad news. One of the larger groups of charters–the Magnolia chain with schools nationwide and here in San Diego–is controlled by a Turkish imam accused of supporting the attempted coup in Turkey.
In addition to this, data on test scores and graduation rates, once charters’ more selective admittance practices are controlled for, have not been as stellar as claimed. Finally, financial controversies have dogged many charters resulting in a number of them collapsing mid-year leaving their students in the lurch.
All of this has meant that the SDCBOE has been selective in the charters approved: some have been supported and some turned down. Generally, the SDCBOE follows the recommendations of staff, which has the time and expertise to make a rigorous evaluation of charter school proposals.
This then explains the billionaire interest in the SDCBOE race. With this board sitting at the choke point of charter schools, the California Charter Schools Association and its billionaire backers went in search of a human rubber stamp, which they found in Republican Mark Wyland.
Rick Shea, the incumbent, is far from a rubber stamp.
Shea has 35 years of experience as a classroom teacher and probation officer working with at-risk youth in the county schools. He has extensive classroom experience, was head teacher for the county for many years, and became the special assistant to the superintendent where he worked on budgets and curriculums. There have been few people to serve on the SDCBOE with Shea’s breadth of educational experience.
Wyland, on the other hand, is a career politician who was termed out of the state senate. While he was in Sacramento he opposed educational funding, voted against establishing a Pre-K program, was an opponent of teaching about climate change in our schools, opposed a ban on a carcinogen in baby bottles, and voted against Whistle Blower protection for UC employees. After being termed out, he ran for the state tax board (California Board of Equalization), but was forced to bow out after his opponent filed a defamation lawsuit against him.
But for the charter school forces, all of this doesn’t matter–Wyland is willing to give them the blank check they want, so they are willing to throw their millions behind him.
Shea has the support of all current SDCBOE members, numerous board presidents throughout North County (the area he represents), five teachers of the year, and many community organizations. If credentials and community support made the difference, the election would be over. But post-Citizens United, money talks louder than ever in politics, and Shea has much less of it than his billionaire supported opponent.
Last spring, the Charter Schools crew defeated one of us (Gregg Robinson) when Walton money came in and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) was outspent 3-1. Now, the billionaires club is dumping in big money again (close to half a million dollars as of this writing), aiming to take control of the board and, with it, the future of our schools.
Why is AFT involved in this race when it doesn’t represent any of the educators served by this board? The answer is simple: it is fighting to maintain the integrity of our public education system. For this union, it’s about the principle of quality public education for everyone.
Control over the SDCBOE hinges on the outcome of this race. If Shea loses, control goes to the California Charter Schools Association; if he wins, it stays in the hands of the community and those committed to student-centered education.
This is truly a big conflict in a very small place. And one where people have the chance to say no to millionaires and billionaires trying to buy an election to serve their interests—rather than the interests of the children, who shouldn’t be pawns in this kind of game.
It’s wealth against commonwealth and if the plutocrats win, democratic control of our schools goes by the wayside and our children lose.