Filling the Civic Gap

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

These efforts all seem to lead in the same direction — a publicly run school system that shrinks year by year, replaced by privately run schools backed by the foundations of Fisher and his fellow entrepreneurial philanthropists. It's a radical transformation that might have seemed impossible a few years ago, but it was likewise improbable that a 1980s discounter of Levi's might transform into the country's leading producer of casual wear.

It's easy to watch the steady decay in California's public services, such as schools, and the steady ratcheting up of foundation spending taking its place, and to admire the philanthropists who've bridged the gap. It's tempting to view the many millions of dollars of personal wealth now poured into independent expenditure committees — like the ones that helped elect our mayor, funded recent state Senate and Assembly elections, and turned the tide on state ballot propositions — and feel indifferent. After all, magnates come in all stripes; many have opposing views, and oftentimes their donations cancel one another out.

In any case, there's a strong possibility that Markia, the 12-year-old KIPP Bayview student, wouldn't be fantasizing about attending Exeter if it weren't for Donald Fisher.

But Fisher's long game (or as long as a 77-year-old can have) goes beyond trying out new ideas in a handful of schools with the goal that they might seep into public education at large. Rather, he's an old union-buster who made billions by outwitting what he saw as lumbering, outdated organizations such as Levi Strauss, and who sees the same complacency and inefficiency in public schools. Now, his political donations, his lobbying, his philanthropy, and his leadership of institutions such as the State Board of Education, EdVoice, and the California Business Roundtable may shift public education on a scale similar to the changes he created in American retailing.

I'd be loath to tell a billionaire to stop donating to a charitable cause he sincerely believes will improve the lives of the least fortunate. But we haven't really thought out what happens when we give up our democratic powers to a growing army of ideological philanthropists.

That said, there are ways to resist this trajectory. Every time a candidate, ballot measure, or lobbying front group is the beneficiary of large donations from ideologically motivated tycoons, voters get the option of accepting this trend as unavoidable and maybe even beneficial. (Or they can resist the urge to support these well-funded candidates and measures, and reject the view that the Donald Fishers of the world should determine everyone's best interest.)

Fisher's own example and advice might be useful for those who believe citizen control of the public realm is worth fighting for.

"I don't think we can sit back and wait for someone else to take the lead, just so we don't have to expend energy or money," Fisher writes. "We've got to utilize the recourse it takes to advance our causes and hold up our part of the deal."

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