Conservative Funders Target S.F. Schools

How SFUSD’s failure to close the achievement gap for Black, Latino, and Pacific Islander students left it vulnerable to an interloper.

When it comes to academic success for Black and Latino students in San Francisco public schools, the numbers are grim.

In a report released last November, San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Vincent Matthews wrote that 74 percent of Black students are among SFUSD’s lowest-performing kids, along with 61 percent of Latino students and 65 percent of Pacific Islanders. For decades, fixing this so-called “achievement gap” — between white and Asian students on the high end, and Black, Latino, and Pacific Islander students on the other — has been a mantra among district officials. And despite their efforts, it hasn’t budged.

“In the last three decades, SFUSD’s achievement gap based on race has fluctuated but not systematically decreased,” Matthews wrote.

Enter Innovate Public Schools, a new San Jose nonprofit that says its mission is to help local parents gain a voice in schools and improve public education, especially for low-income students of color. Innovate’s methods include mobilizing parents in underserved communities, publishing its own spin on available education data, and working with public-school and charter-school teachers to overhaul poorly performing schools — but the details on how this happens are unclear. While Innovate’s aims are directly in line with what many local parents and education advocates want, Innovate may not be as earnest it seems.

For starters, it’s funded by the conservative Walton Family Foundation, whose billions come from Walmart, and which is a major backer of charter schools. (Twenty-five percent of charters nationwide receive money from the Waltons, according to their website.) Charter schools are publicly funded, but run independently from public-school districts. There are 13 charter schools offering elementary, middle, and high school education in San Francisco, but it’s unclear what portion of the city’s education money they receive. 

Innovate CEO Matt Hammer says the Walton Family Foundation has no control over Innovate’s agenda. But education policy analyst Diane Ravitch says that behind the scenes, the Walton family’s goal is to “demolish the teachers union in San Francisco.”

When Innovate held a press conference last October to unveil its report highlighting SFUSD’s entrenched achievement gap, it did so with members of the San Francisco NAACP — even though both the state and national NAACP have placed a moratorium on supporting charter schools, largely for their failure to help Black students get ahead.

Alison Collins, public-school advocate and parent leader for SFUSD, says she was suspicious of Innovate as soon as she heard about the organization. Collins, who is of mixed race and identifies as African American, has been rallying parents — especially around achievement inequities — for years, but Innovate’s report got press attention like she’d never seen. They’d also recruited parent volunteers she’d never heard of before.

“This isn’t a huge city. You see the same people at meetings,” Collins says.

Hammer grew up in the Bay Area. He attended public schools in San Jose, and later assisted with Black community organizing in Mississippi for several years. He returned to the Bay Area in 1995, and turned his attention to improving local public schools. He founded Innovate in 2012. His kids are also public-school students in Campbell, he says.

“Our interest grows out of … the pain that families feel when they feel like their kids are getting a third-rate education, they won’t get a college education, and won’t be able to thrive in the Bay Area,” he tells SF Weekly.

Hammer rejects the idea that Innovate is exclusively interested in creating charter schools. Instead, he says Innovate’s goals are to turn around existing public schools, create new public schools and bring change and equity throughout SFUSD. For example, Innovate encourages public-school teachers and administrators to go through its “Start-Up Schools Fellowship,” which teaches educators how to start new public schools, or rethink existing ones, in ways that support Black and Latino students. Leaders at Mountain View’s Mariano Castro Elementary School did so, he says — and performance among the school’s Latino student population has shown modest gains, according to state assessment data.

However, when asked what Innovate will do differently from the already-existing public or charter schools to create those gains, Hammer sounds like he’s grasping at straws. “Um. Ah. Well, if you look around the country, there are lots of examples of schools getting turned around,” he says. “It’s about finding a good principal, supporting them to get a great team and aligning resources to help teachers become great.”

In San Francisco, Hammer cites the Knowledge is Power (KIPP) charter schools as “doing a great job,” along with The Mission Preparatory School — another charter.

That’s not exactly true, Collins says. KIPP schools, like many charters, make their sites look good by nudging low performers out, she says. Education policy analyst Diane Ravitch agrees. “Charter schools have never closed achievement gaps,” she says. “They get high scores when they winnow out most kids and boil the school down to only those who get high scores.”

Charters that don’t cook their numbers don’t really serve Black students better than public schools do, says Julian Vasquez Heilig, education chair for the California NAACP. Citing a 2015 study on urban charter schools from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Heilig says, “both charters and neighborhood public schools have had a negative impact on African American students.” Margaret “Macke” Raymond, director of CREDO, called that interpretation a “gross misrepresentation” of the center’s research.

Hammer says he’d like to focus his attention on the Mission and Bayview neighborhoods, where the bulk of the city’s lower-income Latino and Black students attend public schools. Among eight schools in these neighborhoods, 70 percent of students are among the lowest-performing, according to Matthews’ report, so it’s a fair place to start.

In spite of Hammer’s insistence that Innovate isn’t focused on charters, one of its first efforts in San Francisco was support for a new KIPP elementary school in the Bayview, which the San Francisco Board of Education rejected in November.

SFUSD’s inability to close the achievement gap has left it open for groups like Innovate to come in and promise new solutions. But they’re not the first: Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth has been pushing for better education opportunities for kids of color since 1975. In recent years, SFUSD has developed new policies aimed at creating educational equality, says Kevine Boggess, director of policy at Coleman. “But what we haven’t seen is a lot of policies and practices fully implemented — there is this gap between what’s on paper and what families are seeing in the schools.”

Collins agrees the district has “amazing policy,” but implementation is uneven from school to school — and even from classroom to classroom — and nobody’s being held accountable for the inequities.

“When you ask what’s going on, there’s this attitude of, ‘You can’t make people do stuff,’ ” Collins says. “What do you do? You should fire people” who aren’t stepping up to help students of color succeed. “It’s not ‘the system.’ There are actual people who are in charge of things,” she adds. “Parents are the lever for change. If you’re frustrated, let me help you find that person who’s responsible.

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