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Harris counters that charters provide choices to families that have been historically under-served by the public school system. He also added that the last three charters were granted only on the condition that the schools increase the number of Black students enrolled, provide more special-education services, and change discipline policies so that students aren't easily suspended and expelled.
Harris also said he still supports common enrollment despite the vigorous opposition it ran up against earlier this year. "That was the temperature check, so we decided not to adopt any changes," he said. "But we have to repair the existing system because it's broken."
In district one, London is being challenged by Don Macleay, who claims that London, Harris, and others on the board have failed to keep watch over the district, and that they have given Superintendent Antwan Wilson too much leeway to set policy. "The board should be overseeing the district, but I don't think they're doing it," he told the Express.
In public forums, Macleay has voiced his concern about the district's students. He says the board should declare Oakland's truancy and drop-out rates an emergency, and focus resources on keeping kids in school, so they don't fall into the clutches of the criminal-justice system.
Mike Hutchinson is another reformer hoping to put a check on charter schools and expand the policy-making power of the board, which remains weak in relation to the superintendent's office. He and three other candidates are running against incumbent Roseann Torres.
Torres was elected in 2012 with support from the charter-school industry, but she quickly fell out of favor after opposing some charter-friendly proposals such as common enrollment. One of her big achievements was passing a new ethnic studies curriculum.
Hutchinson, a well-known education activist, wants to implement a moratorium on new charter schools in order to force the district to focus its resources on improving its public schools. His main critique of Torres is that she hasn't been firm enough in defending public schools.
Two of the other candidates for district five work in the charter-school industry. One of them, Huber Trenado, is a teacher at the Lazear Academy, an Education for Change charter. His campaign is being heavily supported by pro-charter organizations and individuals, including members of the Rogers family, whose wealth comes from the Dreyers Grand Ice Cream company.
The Rogers have spent millions over the past decade funding pro-charter school initiatives in Oakland through their family foundation. The other candidate running for district five, Mike Hassid, works for a technology-consulting firm whose clients include charter schools.
In district three, four candidates are aiming to replace incumbent Jumoke Hinton-Hodge. One of them, Kharyshi Wiginton, has earned the Parents United endorsement for her reform positions that are similar to Hutchinson, Jackson, and Macleay's.
Hinton-Hodge will be hard to beat. She's endorsed by London and Harris, as well as Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, and has financial backing from deep-pocketed pro-charter sources like Laurene Powell-Jobs, the widow of deceased Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. One of Powell-Jobs' nonprofits, the XQ Institute, announced last month that it intends to spend $10 million to open another charter in Oakland.
Outside money is likely to play a big role in this year's school-board races. In addition to being able to tap wealthy individuals like the Rogers family and Powell-Jobs for support, pro-charter school candidates such as Harris, Hinton-Hodge, and Trenado are also benefiting from independent spending by a committee that's funded largely by Arthur Rock, the Silicon Valley billionaire investor.
Earlier this year, Rock contributed $49,900 to Families and Educators for Public Education, a campaign committee set up by GO Public Schools. This committee has already made the maximum allowable contributions of $1,500 directly to Harris, Hinton-Hodge, and Trenado's campaigns. And, as of last week, Families and Educators for Public Education reported independent expenditures of $14,701 to support Hinton-Hodge, $26,433 to support Trenado, and $37,042 to help Harris in his race.
Jackson's total haul to date is only $9,622, a fraction of what the pro-charter committee will independently spend to support his opponent Harris. Wiginton has only raised $2,315. Hutchinson hasn't filed a campaign-finance disclosure form yet, but his campaign is said to be running on a shoestring budget. None of them have benefitted from independent expenditures by a third party, according to records filed with the Oakland City Clerk.
The role of big money in local races is controversial. For some, big expenditures by political action committees funded by Silicon Valley elites reflects mainstream support for candidates who are promoting innovation and market-based solutions to the problems besetting Oakland's schools. For others, big outside donors distort the democratic process.
"They're spending their money to preserve a school board that is far too comfortable allowing groups like GO Public Schools, Educate 78, and the California Charter Schools Association to influence what happens in our district," said a skeptical Davis.
"They'll dump as much money as they have to into this race," Jackson said about pro-charter groups. "But we'll fight them with facts, by having conversations with neighbors and parents and families about the impacts their policies are having."Correction: the original version of this story stated that Salesforce's recent $2.5 million donation was to the Frick Impact Academy. The donation was in fact made to all Oakland schools.