by Félix Pérez; image above: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings (l), Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Eli Broad
Los Angeles voters go to the polls tomorrow in two of the most closely watched school board races in recent memory. On one side are parents and educators in the nation’s second-largest school district; on the other are a group of out-of-town billionaires who are allies of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and who are pushing unchecked charter school expansion.
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The charter school cabal, operating through the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), is spending millions of dollars to take over the Los Angeles school board so that the majority of its members are charter supporters. Among the billionaire bankrollers in the exclusive group are Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Eli Broad, who made his fortune in home construction and insurance, the Walton family, owners of the Walmart empire, and Doris Fisher, co-founder of the GAP. Billionaire DeVos has relationships with the corporate education reformers through her chairmanship of the American Federation for Children, a national advocacy organization that promotes school vouchers.
With the CCSA as the conduit for their campaign, Hastings, Broad and the other funders are trying to unseat school board President Steve Zimmer, a high school teacher and counselor in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 17 years. Ziimmer was outspoken in his opposition to Broad’s plan to place half of the district’s 640,000 students in charter schools. Broad’s plan was not adopted.
Also on the billionaires’ target list is Imelda Padilla, a member of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women and former community organizer. Padilla is running for the open Sixth District seat.
The races have generated intense interest of late from the billionaires’ club. Hastings, who has contributed close to $5 million to CCSA since last September, contributed another $1 million last week. Broad gave $400,000 early this month
We Are Public Schools, a coalition of public school educators, parents, students and community members, sums up CCSA and its funders this way:
We believe a handful of billionaires have too much influence over our local elections, and we ask that legislators stand by our students and families, in support of our neighborhood public schools. Our elections should be determined by our communities, not outside money from billionaires with a sordid history of failed privatization schemes like Betsy DeVos, the Walton family and Eli Broad. It is about our students, parents and communities and deciding the best direction forward: Do we save public education or do we privatize it?
We Are Public Schools is supporting Zimmer and Padilla.
The fallout from We Are Public Schools’ stance against the billionaires financing CCSA isn’t theoretical. The Los Angeles Unified School District is already losing more than $500 million a year because of students leaving community schools to attend privately operated charters. Educators, organized by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, and parents have been knocking on doors and making phone calls. They recognize that the billionaires won’t stop with Los Angeles. A win there would serve as a high-profile springboard for their charter and voucher expansion agenda.
In its investigative report into the billionaires’ attempt to win control of the Los Angeles school board, the group Hedge Clippers revealed that CCSA, “directly and through its network of entities, has been the biggest spender in the 2017 election for Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school board members to represent Districts 4 and 6, having spent over $4 million to date. Nearly all of CCSA’s political campaign funding comes from millionaires and billionaires.”
The blockbuster report details a shadowy network of donors and unmasks their identities. According to the report:
The campaign contributors that provided most of the funding for CCSA in the second half of 2016 were out-of-town billionaires. In addition, many CCSA donors share other traits. A number of them are backers of Trump and DeVos, a political leaning that is out-of-sync with the majority of Los Angeles voters.