Filling the Civic Gap

Meet Donald Fisher, the private billionaire with unprecedented sway over ordinary San Franciscans' lives

There's much to like about this arrangement. Government social services have been declining for decades, especially in California, so it's comforting to see philanthropists fill some of the gaps. It's also hard to visit a KIPP school without leaving impressed by the dreams of Markia — or the hard work of her teachers, who spend their summers recruiting new students at parks, shopping centers, and anywhere else 10-year-olds congregate.

But it's also easy to imagine an end game in which KIPP and other charter academies supplant regular public schools. As the chain grows, for example, it will hire more and more teachers, whose job includes spending summers recruiting more and more kids. The increased student population will mean hiring more teachers, whose salaries are paid by the state. (A 2000 state ballot proposition backed by Fisher, venture capitalist John Doerr, NetFlix founder Reed Hastings, and the California Teachers Association now requires school districts to provide free facilities to charter schools when they recruit new students.) And more teachers means more recruiting.

As this snowball effect keeps rolling, and as more kids shift to charter schools — the Fisher-backed chain is now contemplating a new S.F. high school — the San Francisco Unified School District will be compelled to close ever more publicly run schools.

The city's school system might thus transform dramatically without a single vote having been cast.

Maybe this change will work out for the best. There's something to be said for enabling principals to get rid of bad teachers, and KIPP (along with many of its sister charter chains) is neither unionized nor encumbered by extensive rules that protect teachers' jobs. It's likewise hard to criticize the idea of encouraging smaller schools, or of focusing on getting kids from poor families into college.

But as the ideologically minded mega-rich like Fisher and Gates take ever greater control of American public institutions, it's worth taking a closer look at one of these unelected philosopher-kings so that we might imagine what sort of future he's got in mind for the rest of us.

In left-tilted San Francisco, it's easy to forget that Republicans such as Donald Fisher can be committed idealists. A bike ride around the city can cure that oversight.

If you peruse the old Presidio Army base (Fisher was among the founding board members who turned it into a national park), or notice in your neighborhood a refurbished public school building (paid for with money from a Fisher-backed facilities bond), or live near a San Francisco Boys & Girls Club (a charity that was among Fisher's early philanthropic ventures), you've come across the handiwork of the founder of the Gap.

If you walk through Golden Gate Park's glories — the Hall of Flowers (Fisher spent $1 million toward refurbishing it) or the new de Young Museum (he gave "substantial money" to it and the under-reconstruction California Academy of Sciences, he explains) — you've seen his work.

If you take in a game played by the S.F. Giants (a club briefly part-owned by Fisher in an effort to keep the team in the city), or walk by the growing University of California campus at Mission Bay (a development spawned by Fisher's matchmaking efforts), you're viewing yet more of his civic artifacts. The Edison Charter Academy, which Fisher paid to establish in San Francisco, and the growing KIPP chain are likewise Fisher's doing. He's also the longest sitting director of the California State Board of Education.

And if you've had your mailbox cluttered with glossy political fliers, answered your phone to hear a recorded political message, or noticed a billboard paid for by an obscure political committee, you've encountered another Fisher hobbyhorse.

He is one of the more prolific, eclectic, and omnipresent political donors in California. Though he's a Republican, he often supports moderate Democrats, and regards Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein as personal friends. State records show that Fisher and his wife donated $1.2 million to political causes around the state last year. But that's no good measure of his efforts to influence state and local politics.

Thanks to the vagaries of modern campaign-finance law, much politicking nowadays is done through nonprofit, charitylike corporations with no obligation to identify their donors. Fisher, by his own account and those of other San Francisco political insiders, has been a Johnny Appleseed for this type of organization. The result has been a citywide political scene influenced by a thicket of secretive campaign-funding front groups with names like the California Urban Issues Project and Citizens for Reform Leadership, which in turn are subsets of local Fisher-launched, business-friendly political groups such as the Committee on Jobs and SFSOS.

This largesse has earned him fans among the political moderates who've benefited from this patronage. When I met Fisher last week, for example, he'd just gotten off the phone with Mayor Gavin Newsom, who's trying to raise money for a San Francisco Olympic Games bid.

But it has also earned him the enmity of the city's more liberal politicians, many of whom have been subject to political mailers sent by groups Fisher has supported.

"I think he's a mean, rich old man who's trying to be relevant and is afraid of dying," says Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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