Filling the Civic Gap

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

After Fisher stepped down, he says, he gave some thought to what to do with the next phase of his career, and settled on philanthropy. Though he's known locally for his large donations to museums, UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, and political lobbying groups, Fisher has devoted his greatest energy and money to schools. This endeavor — like his building of Gap Inc. — appears to have been inspired by a fear of losing and a zest for fighting what he views as staid, old bureaucratic institutions (such as labor unions).

"I think of education in this country as the most serious social problem we have today," he says. "If we aren't competitive intellectually, we're going to lose in the world economy. If you look at what's happening in China, India, the Baltic countries, the European countries, you see that we're falling behind. ... I guess I could have focused on health, poverty, homelessness. But I decided education was the thing that was most important to me. ... It's an enormous industry that is quite bureaucratic and basically, in my opinion, not very well run."

His first foray into this area in 1998 was significant: a pledge of $25 million to help establish the for-profit Edison Schools in California. In backing Edison, Fisher applied the same union-battling spirit that he had employed against the ILWU and the Teamsters during the early days of the Gap.

"I liked Edison's philosophy on teaching and appreciated that they weren't held back by the constraints that plagued public schools since they weren't part of the local public school system bureaucracy," Fisher writes. "Public schools had a policy of seniority and tenure that allowed poor teachers to remain in the classrooms. Teachers' unions perpetuated this problem by making it difficult to release inadequate teachers from their schools. But the Edison Schools were generally charter schools and were not unionized. So they could hire the best teachers and fire the worst ones."

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, however, found in 2002 that Edison had lied on its financial statements. The company had falsely claimed in government filings that school district payments going directly toward teacher salaries and other school operating costs were Edison Schools Inc. revenues.

Fisher moved on to other education ventures, working to expand KIPP, which had been founded in 1995 in Houston. He made an arrangement with the Haas School of Business (where he's a benefactor) to run a training program for KIPP administrators.

"I liked the philosophy of training school leaders in business," Fisher says. "You've got to hire and fire teachers, motivate people, raise extra money from what the school system can give you. And I was interested in the fact that the KIPP schools were charter schools. There's a lot more freedom in what could be done there than there was in the public system."

Last year Fisher's family foundation, the Pisces Foundation, spent $8.7 million on donations to trade associations lobbying on behalf of charter schools, and to charter school chains in the process of expanding. It gave $1.2 million to the California Charter Schools Association, a trade group dedicated to lobbying and other activities; $1 million to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, another trade association; $520,000 to a group called GreatSchools Inc., which provides school rating services; $900,000 to Green Dot Public Schools, an L.A.-based charter school group; $1 million to Leadership Public Schools, a San Francisco-based charter school chain with facilities in Richmond, San Jose, Oakland, and Hayward; $500,000 to the Oakland Unified School District, which recently embraced charter schools; and $1 million to Teach for America, which trains top college graduates to teach for two years in struggling schools. The foundation also gave numerous smaller grants to individual charter schools around the country. And Fisher recently pledged $6 million to KIPP's national efforts, on top of the $40 million he's already given, said Steve Mancini, KIPP Foundation's spokesman.

He has complemented the pro-charter, anti-union thrust of his philanthropy with political lobbying and giving. Last month, for example, leaders of the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees urged Californians to boycott Gap stores as retribution for a $25,000 donation by Fisher to oppose the failed Proposition 82, which would have expanded California's unionized public education system to preschools, the vast majority of which are now privately run. The unions also cited a $100,000 contribution to oppose the measure from the California Business Roundtable, of which Fisher is a board member.

Last year, Fisher gave $94,700 to an independent campaign expenditure committee run by EdVoice, a $1.5 million-a-year Sacramento lobbying group Fisher helped found, and on whose board he currently sits.

"Its objective is to be a balance to the teachers' unions in the legislature," Fisher told Philanthropy magazine last year.

Fisher has also used his role as a member of the State Board of Education to lobby for policies that make it easier for charter schools to open new branches and lure students and state subsidies away from public schools.

"If you don't get your charter because the district hardballs you, you go to the county; if they refuse, you go to the state. The state has overridden the counties and districts, and granted charters to groups they rejected, which makes the counties and districts more inclined to grant charters themselves," Fisher said during his Philanthropy interview.

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