Why Is Oakland the Latest Hotspot for Activist Ed Philanthropy?

Big things are happening with education in Oakland right now, and lots of funders are involved. One driver of the action is the city's rapid gentrification, fed by spillover from San Francisco, which has simply run out of affordable housing in the midst of a tech boom. West Oakland is now what Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was a decade or so ago—the nearest outpost for hipsters and art-types, across the water from all of the action in the local financial core. And many of those people are worried about finding good schools for their kids. Meanwhile, rising attention to inequality in the Bay Area has generated new interest in grappling with the entrenched poverty and lack of opportunity that Oakland has long been known for. And a number of local ed leaders have some cool ideas for doing things differently. 

This is why both Bay Area funders (like Rogers and Rainin, as we have reported) and national players (Walton, Schwab, Bloomberg, etc.) are investing heavily in education in Oakland.

The Walton Family Foundation has recently invested in a cradle-to-career initiative in East Oakland through the Castlemont Community Transformation Schools (CCTS) and its launch of two academies. These academies (at the primary and junior levels) are meant to provide “high-quality cradle-to-career pathways” for children in East Oakland. One interesting note about the Castlemont initiative is that it was founded by YouthUprising, a grassroots nonprofit that arose out of the aftermath of violent racial tensions in the late 1990s in one of the nation’s most diverse cities. CCTS’s CEO, Lisa Haynes, previously served as Youth UpRising’s Chief of Career Development.

Walton has targeted Oakland as part of its new Building Equity Initiative, a $250 million push to support charter schools in 17 cities. The Walmart heirs are not alone in their pursuit of broader school choice in Oakland, though. Foundations like Bloomberg, Schwab, and Scully (along with Reed Hastings of Netflix fame) have all chipped in to support a new approach to local “scale” in education reform in Oakland. The New Schools Venture Fund has recently spun out a new entity, called Educate78 (so named because Oakland is 78 square miles) specifically dedicated to incubating new schools in Oakland and supporting school leaders and organizations there, as well. It is rare to see a venture fund in education such as New Schools Venture Fund spin out anything, let alone a school design and leadership development outfit that is geographically focused on a single city.

The funders’ investments in Educate78 suggest a slight shift toward deeper technical support and incubation of charter models rather than a traditional approach of merely funding a charter management organization or a one-off mom-and-pop charter school. We even see Educate78 partnering with local grassroots organizations like Oakland Community Organizations, perhaps as a way to create an environment friendly to their particular approach to reform in Oakland. This seems to signal that funders are encouraging (or at least tacitly approving of) such collaboration among their grantees and community partners in response to resistance to their pro-charter agenda.

As noted above, funders like Walton appear to be looking at scale and depth during this phase of the charter school movement. These funders still appear to believe that more charters equals better educational outcomes for kids, and they are placing their bets on going deeper in key cities like Oakland as a method for broadening their proof points for this approach. It just so happens that Oakland is in the midst of other trends that also make it ripe for deeper investment in education, and funders are not holding back.

Related: K-12 Spotlight: What One Family Foundation is Doing for Oakland Public Schools