OAKLAND (KPIX 5) – Chris Jackson is running for school board in Oakland's District 7, with local support from the teachers union, and the county democratic club.
"I am amazed by the generosity and the time that our volunteers have spent knocking on doors, helping us out," Jackson told KPIX 5.
But that generosity isn't cutting it. Because Jackson's opponent, incumbent school board president James Harris is getting money from much deeper pockets.
Some of the money gets funneled through an organization called "Go Public Schools in Oakland," which is backing Harris and three other candidates.
Retired University of California researcher Jan Malvin wondered where Go Public Schools gets its money.
It turns out the group's biggest contributor is former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, an outspoken supporter of charter schools. He just donated $300,000.
Another big supporter: the Parent Teacher Alliance, sponsored by the California Charter School Association, whose backers read like a who's-who of American billionaires.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings contributed $3.7 million this election cycle. Gap co-founder Doris Fisher contributed $3.3 million. The Walton family, heirs to Walmart, $2 million. Los Angeles real estate magnate Eli Broad contributed $1.1 million.
And the list goes on.
Malvin discovered the candidates identified by Go Public Schools are also getting tens of thousands from the California Charter School Association.
The group says it's not just interested in charter schools, but also works to improve conditions in Oakland's traditional public schools.
"At the end of the day, this is about power in the hands of parents, power in the hands of educators and power in the hands of community members and a school board that serves them all," said Go Public Schools executive director Ash Solar.
The organization is often at odds with the Oakland teachers' union.
"This is really outstanding to the point of being obscene," said Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association.
The union is spending $40,000 on its chosen candidates, none of whom is getting money from Go Public Schools.
"This election is a microcosm of what is happening across the country in terms of big money trying to buy elections," Gorham said.
It's not just Oakland. The charter school lobby is also pouring money into school races in Richmond, Morgan Hill, Los Angeles and San Diego. Nationwide, it has already spent $22 million on local elections.
"Public schools are the foundation of our democracy. And if you are spinning them off into these private unique boutiques, you are undermining the actual foundation of our democracy," Gorham said.
Charter schools receive public funds but are privately run, with little government oversight. Students can choose to attend a charter school outside their home district, something the California Charter School Association says is a plus.
"Charter schools are providing an opportunity for parents to select a public school in their neighborhood that they feel like is more well-suited to the specific needs of their child," said Gary Borden of the association.
On the campaign trail, Harris said he's staying away from the charter-versus-district debate.
"Nobody who spends a dollar on me is going to tell me what to do," Harris told KPIX 5. "There is one group of people telling me what to do, and that is the voters of District 7."
Pounding the pavement on the streets of District 7, Jackson hopes all that money won't drown out his message. He also said campaign finance reform is needed.
"Just open game with our campaign finance, you get $172,000 in the lowest income district in Oakland," Jackson said.
To be clear, this pro-charter school money is independent - it's not controlled by the candidates and they can't stop the money from being spent.
The director of Go Public Schools said they are spending so much money because it's hard to be heard above the noise of the presidential race and other campaigns.
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