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Los Angeles’ 1% Disrupted Democracy and Dismantled the Public School System

Nearly 1000 marched against the “philanthrocapitalist’s” plan for unregulated charter schools.

On Sunday, September 20, 2015, the new Eli Broad museum opened in Los Angeles – and nearly a thousand parents, students, and teachers seized the occasion to march against the “philanthrocapitalist’s” plan to groom 130,000 public school students in Los Angeles Unified to attend unregulated new charter schools in the district.

Philanthrocapitalism describes a certain kind of “weaponized generosity” where donors offer their self-interested charitable giving to remedy the very lack they create elsewhere. The cultural critic Slavoj Zizek has called this the “chocolate laxative” – the sweet treat that constipates is also the flavor of the cure.

Eli Broad is the city’s chief benefactor for numerous charities; his wealth comes from decades of real estate developments in the Midwest, Southern California, and from the insurance industry. He has particular interests in expanding charter schools in Los Angeles and nationwide. He appears to invest a lot in the city of Los Angeles but when you look more closely, his giving defunds the public sector and Broad ends up with the better part of the deal. For example: originally, Broad wanted to lease the expensive downtown Los Angeles parcel the Museum sits on for $1 a year over 99 years. Said one county supervisor, “Instead of a project that generates sales and property taxes, we’ll now have an art museum that generates no property or sales taxes and Mr. Broad will get the land for free.” It’s now leased for $7.7 million a year for 99 years, and the 501c3 Broad Foundation housed inside the museum still doesn’t put much by way of revenue back into the city.

A coalition of grassroots groups such as Schools LA Students Deserve, members of United Teachers of LA (UTLA), Vet the Supe, and students and parents spoke to local press about their concerns in a small public park adjoining the new downtown Los Angeles museum.

Alex Caputo-Pearl, head of UTLA, challenged Eli Broad’s largesse by pointing out how the wealthy Angeleno publicly backed Proposition 30, a ballot initiative that restored funding to California’s schools after the devastation of the Great Recession, but in private donated money to defeat Prop 30 and impose a separate union-busting ballot initiative targeting the state’s unions. Broad funded out-of- state groups that then funneled the money to anti-tax and anti-union groups in violation of the state’s campaign financing disclosure laws. The San Diego Reader reported:

After the election was over, the [state] Fair Political Practices Commission went after the group and its allies for breaking campaign disclosure laws. Yesterday, October 24, a $1 million settlement was made public, coupled with an $11 million demanded “disgorgement” of the stealthy campaign cash to the state. The really big donors to Americans for Job Security came from Los Angeles and San Francisco… LA developer Eli Broad, no stranger to San Diego big-money politics, was down for $500,000.

Parent and New Orleans public education advocate Karran Harper Royal testified how New Orleans’ all-charter Recovery District has removed “choice” from parents. She pointed how out how charter lottery systems means “charter schools now choose families. They cast out the ones with expensive to educate disabilities or who test poorly.” Those families withouttransportation or other means to travel to another neighborhood fall back on the school that’s closest. Chances are it’s a low-performing public or charter school. “What kind of choice is that?” asked Royal. “I’m here to tell you the New Orleans model is a terrible model to follow. But that’s what Eli Broad is trying to build – an all-charter district like New Orleans. And you should fight that.”

Student leader Cecilia Jimenez from Dorsey High School and art teacher Jay Davis at Hawkins High School pointed at the self-serving hypocrisy of a donation of private art to a public museum by Broad when defeating Prop 30 would’ve meant no funding for arts instruction in any California public schools. Luckily Prop 30 passed despite Broad’s covert attempts to quash it.

When “Generosity” Means Top-Down Control

Also at the Sunday rally, Roberta Eidman, founder of Vet the Supe, said she was extremely disturbed at the lack of transparency in Broad’s plan for the public school district. “It gets more and more disturbing as news of The Plan trickles out. We only learned about it because somewhere along the line, someone, leaked it to media. As a resident of Los Angeles, I have to wonder: how much has been going on that hasn’t been leaked?” She and other bloggers at K-12 News Network have pointed out how Broad practically installed John Deasy as past Superintendent of LAUSD. Deasy’s now being investigated by the FBI and the SEC for the appearance of bid-rigging his much-touted – and failed – $1 billion iPad deal. “Broad reportedly paid for ex-Supe John Deasy’s staff and living expenses. Try telling me that Deasy wasn’t really a Broad employee all along.”

In a highly unusual maneuver at the tail end of the Great Recession, Eli Broad’s foundation paid for the salaries of nine supposedly public school officials (who should have been public sector employees paid through taxpayer funds):

Less than two weeks after taking the helm of Los Angeles Unified, Superintendent John Deasy is adding six-figure positions to his reorganized management team – a move he says will help the district meet his ambitious performance goals.

The nine administrative jobs are being added even as the district faces a $408 million budget deficit and 5,000 teacher layoffs next year.

Five of the positions were approved by the school board Tuesday: Jaime Aquino as deputy superintendent of instruction with a salary of $250,000; Maria Casillas, chief of school, family and parent community services, $170,000; Donna Muncey, chief of intensive support and intervention, $171,312; Tom Waldman, director of communications and media relations, $139,080; and Matt Hill, chief strategy officer, $196,352

Of course, when the corruption-riddled Deasy administration fell apart in 2014 after angry voter protests over facilities bond funds misused to purchase the iPads, Jaime Aquino, Donna Muncey, and Matt Hill all departed. Deasy still works at his patron’s Broad Center as “superintendent-in-residence,” presumably training new business-minded school district leaders in the same techniques that landed Deasy in hot water with federal investigators.

More chocolate laxative: Broad-backed mismanagement of LAUSD, which included increased de-funding of public schools which weakens them, makes schools less able to offer music, art, science, afterschool, or reasonable class sizes, which in turn makes Broad’s charter school solution seem almost tasty. Isn’t this reminiscent of the 2015 downtown Los Angeles revitalization project, envisioned as early as the 2000s, from the same man who created the Los Angeles exurbs and profited from suburban sprawl in the late 1960s which depopulated downtown?

Eidman joined union head Caputo-Pearl in calling for open dialogue between school board members and school communities about the criteria for the next Superintendent hire. Grasstops organizations like the United Way of Los Angeles and others that comprise the Civic Alliance have already met with school board members, but the voices of actual parents and students or teachers have not had a similar reception. The LA Times reported that members of the Civic Alliance consisted of “Antonia Hernandez, head of the nonprofit California Community Foundation; Ed Avila, a former city official and leader of the downtown revitalization group Project Restore; Monica Lozano, a University of California regent and publisher of the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión; Nolan V. Rollins, leader of the Los Angeles Urban League; Gary L. Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce; and George Kieffer, a partner in the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and also a UC regent.” Not surprisingly, many of those grasstops non-profit groups are funded by Broad’s philanthropy and the rest are businesspeople with no background in education. And these are the same local leaders who, in the LA Times story just quoted, “pressured the board to choose Deasy without a search.”

A Declaration of War on Public Schools

Eli Broad plans to spend $490 million to fund charter school expansion in Los Angeles Unified. He intends to fund three main areas: paying for staff for charter schools, helping charters score space from existing schools in co-locations or other buildings, and marketing this mass privately-managed constellation of schools funded with public money but with no public accountability to families. He intends to do this – like Deasy’s failed and possibly criminal tenure, or intervening in staffing public officials with eyebrow-raising private funds – without any accountability to the public.

The cure for oligarchy is more democracy. Eidman and any Los Angeles Neighborhood Council cohorts she can organize will demand community say in the superintendent selection process. “City residents were furious that bond money intended for schools and paid back over 30 years was instead going to buy iPads with a life span of 3 years,” said Eidman. “We want to know who the consultants pick and have a chance to interview finalists before a decision is made.” Schools LA Students Deserve parent leader Kahllid Al-Alim encouraged Sunday’s crowd to keep getting their message out: public schools belong to the neighborhoods they serve.

Caputo-Pearl has issued a challenge to debate Broad on his charter school expansion plans. Where is the evidence that charter schools outperform public schools? To date no reputable study (i.e., one not funded by a charter lobby group) substantiates that claim. In fact, public schools mostly outperform private and charter schools, especially in math achievement. So far Broad has not responded.

Caputo-Pearl also says UTLA would enthusiastically support a listening tour by the LAUSD School Board, so publicly-elected members could hear what parents, students, and educators in the communities have to say about possible candidates and criteria for superintendent selection.

Broad has made his intentions clear. But as with mayors in cities that were key bastions of school privatization movement under Bloomberg in NYC (now replaced by the election of DeBlasio), Booker in Newark, NJ (now replaced by the election of Baraka), and Villaraigosa in LA (now replaced by the election of Garcetti), voters have spoken and thrown out city leaders who meddled in public school administration. City residents across America understand what’s at stake when private operators take over the commons. Now it’s up to Angelenos to marshal the same authentic grassroots forces to defy the wishes of one very powerful and extremely wealthy man – the same one who backed a corrupt superintendent and has thus far bent the grasstops groups reliant on his donations to his will.

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