ActivismSan Francisco

Conservative Billionaires Aim to Defund Public Schools in the Bay Area

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 By Vani Ari

When your organization is called ‘Innovate Public Schools but your mission is to siphon money from public schools to build charter schools, you aren’t being too “innovative”. The most cutting-edge aspect of this company is their ability to use slick marketing to sell themselves as a group concerned about the achievement gap.

It’s funded by the conservative Walton Family Foundation, which is funded by Walmart, a major backer of charter schools. As someone that’s been in public education for fifteen plus years, I believe it might be better to fix a system that is for everyone, including students with special needs, than invest in something that will work for a select few. Excellence for a few is elitism and it means certain kids “deserve” a high-quality education and other kids…eh…not so much.

The Waltons are the richest family in America. They have a combined wealth of $133 billion, according to Bloomberg. They inherited their fortunes.

Nikole Hannah Jones, the 2017 winner of the MacArthur Genius grant, said, “As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children … we’re not going to see a change.” As someone that lived in both Detroit and Philly, two towns where charters decimated the public schools, I hope everyone is mindful of what they support.

“As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children … we’re not going to see a change.” – Nikole Hannah Jones

“The model is to start new schools … and let the principal hire the dream team,” said Matt Hammer, Innovate’s founder and chief executive, to the L.A. Times. The implication is that unions, specifically teachers’ unions, are stopping principals from hiring superstar teachers. The reality is that we are in a severe teacher shortage. I frequently meet teachers that move here and leave within a few years because of housing costs. The teachers I know that have been teaching for five plus years in this city and intend to stay are frequently from the city, so besides having family here, they have an emotional investment in serving the children and families in this city. I am guessing this “dream team” doesn’t come from the community, much like the Teach for America teachers whose track record for staying in the communities they work in is dismal.

I know teachers who have to eat the school breakfast and lunch, sleep in their cars, have multiple jobs, and struggle in spite of all that to do a challenging job. These teachers are the “best”, but they are dealing with living in an unaffordable city, which is a struggle for teachers in private and charter schools as well.


Start new schools? Why don’t we just bulldoze communities and start fresh, as if places don’t come with people and history and culture? And these “new” schools he is referring to aren’t public schools. While Innovate does not operate ANY schools, it is currently pushing two charter schools: KIPP elementary and Mary L. Booker Academy. KIPP actually has a reputation of higher teacher turnover than average SFUSD schools. On their website, they have tons to say about how schools are failing the students of color of SFUSD, but there are ten schools they claim are doing well-seven are charters and none are in the city.

The Center for Media and Democracy in 2015 released a study which revealed that “nearly 200 charters have closed in California, nearly one of every five that have opened…Their failures have included stunning tales of financial fraud, skimming of retirement funds, and financial mismanagement, material violations of the law, massive debt, unsafe school conditions, lack of teacher credentials, failure to conduct background checks, terrible academic performance and test results, and insufficient enrollment.”

Closing the achievement gap between black, Latino, and Pacific Islander students and their counterparts is absolutely a problem that needs to be addressed immediately. UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies in 2016 published a study which found that black students and students with special needs were suspended at a much higher rate than their white peers in charter schools. Students that are suspended are often students that drop out and are often students that join the school-to-prison pipeline. This is a tactic to protect high test scores-kick out those who might not test well to skew the data. In 2016, the national NAACP made a statement that charters have “increased segregation”, “appointed school boards that do not represent the public”, and “differential enrollment practices”.

The conservative-backed ‘Innovate Schools’ organization has invested a lot in marketing materials that are sophisticated, polished, and very deceptive.

You know what you need to attend a charter? You need a parent that can take time off to attend the mandatory meetings. Guess who won’t be attending charter schools? Anyone with parents that work two jobs and can’t take the time off or students with absent parents. These kids deserve a quality education as well. Only educating kids that have parents that have the time and money to be involved is another way of deciding who deserves a good education. That future that your child will be a part of…so will the kid that doesn’t get the “superior” education. Both of those kids will get to vote and impact their community.

What are the solutions? Start with quality preschool for all families. Invest in your neighborhood schools and your community and ignore the perpetuation of “good” and “bad” schools, which just serves to segregate people more. Work with politicians to increase the amount California spends on education-we are 41st of 50 states in terms of per pupil spending. Share this article on social media so everyone knows that Innovate is about bulldozing schools to create charters. Most importantly, visit sffamiliesunion.org to learn more about Innovate’s practices, sign a petition, and contact them if you are a family that has had a negative experience with the charter school KIPP.


Vani Ari is a proud public school equity-based educator, who also teaches a second job as an adjunct professor at USF. She can be reached at sfpublicschools@gmail.com.

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