The latest flashpoint in the big-money expansion by charter school chains in Silicon Valley is Morgan Hill, a bedroom community with rural roots just south of San Jose.

Within the last year both Rocketship Education and Navigator Schools petitioned to open charter schools in the Morgan Hill Unified School District. Following swift mobilization and communication by the union and community groups, the school board denied both applications.

Both charter chains then appealed to the Santa Clara County Board of Education. In January, Rocketship withdrew its application; later that month, the county board rejected Navigator’s appeal.

“When the petitions were filed, we had to act quickly,” says Theresa Sage, president of the 384-member Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers.

Concerned community members wrote a petition contesting the charters and supporting neighborhood schools, and posted it on; it ultimately collected nearly 1500 signatures.

The petition explained that Rocketship’s plan would result in closing a neighborhood school and shifting large numbers of students and teachers to different school sites. The petition also explained that 75 percent of Rocketship teachers are Teach for America interns who have had just five weeks of teacher preparation.

To deliver their message, Morgan Hill teachers and parents packed the November meeting of the county board of education to speak out against the charter applications.

In December the union and the district sponsored a public forum featuring noted educator David Berliner, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Education at Arizona State University, and author of the pioneering book, The Manufactured Crisis, that debunks claims about the failure of American public schools.

“Dr. Berliner spoke about the effects of poverty on test scores,” Sage said, “which is a big issue in our district. We absolutely believe we need to address the opportunity gap. And to do that we need to bring people together behind our public education system.”

A panel discussion following Berliner’s presentation that included two teachers, two administrators and two community members, inspired resolve in the more than 100 community members in attendance.

“One good thing to come out of this experience is that it brought parents to school board meetings, and if that continues, I hope we can engage people we don’t normally hear from.” — —Gemma Abels, Morgan Hill Mentor Teacher

The county’s denial of the Navigator petition and the withdrawal of the Rocketship appeal followed the next month.

About half the district’s 8,700 students are Latino. Critics charged that school test scores are low, especially in those schools where Latinos are the majority. “In some schools poverty is a big issue,” Sage responds. “The poverty rate is 23 percent in our district.”

Until passage of Proposition 30 and launch of the Local Control Funding Formula, Morgan Hill schools received only $5,200 a year per student in ADA, one of the state’s lowest rates. “We have to address that, look at our own practices, and continue our commitment to increasing student achievement. That means working with the district and engaging our community. But a corporate takeover isn’t the right answer.”

Sage charges that the charter wave exploits years of budget austerity. “We’ve had a cut of $16 million since 2008,” she explains. “So this charter push has come in at the peak of the impact of those lean years, and it’s been very aggressive.”

The charters proposed in Morgan Hill aren’t schools organized by active community members looking for local control. Rocketship had proposed opening a new charter in Morgan Hill as part of an expansion that includes 20 charters county-wide, schools in Milwaukee and Nashville, and plans for more in Memphis, New Orleans, Texas and Washington D.C.

Rocketship’s charter application in Morgan Hill specified that its staffing ratio would go from 35.9 students per teacher in 2014-15 to 41.3 in 2016-17. Seventy-five percent of teachers are hired from Teach for America, and the learning lab is staffed by non-credentialed paraprofessionals. According to an article in EdSource, “Rotating students from four classes per grade into the lab, operated by lower paid, non-credentialed tutors and staff, eliminated the expense of one teacher per grade or about $500,000 per school.”

Morgan Hill mentor teacher Gemma Abels insists that existing staff and the district are committed to carrying out the mission of public schools to provide a rich education, beyond teaching to the test. “We want our students to know how to use technology in life, art and music,” she explains. “We’ve taken furlough days and even increased class sizes in order to keep programs so that kids have a wide range to choose from.”

In 2012 the union and the district initiated a dual Spanish/English immersion program at one elementary school, covering culture as well as language, for kindergarten to second grade. They also organized a second academy with a focus on math and music. Two more with a science focus will open this fall.

The union’s partnership with the community includes Project Roadmap which supports first-generation college-bound students. Sage and Abels emphasize the need to increase parent involvement.

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Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’ ideological push for charter schools

In 2012 the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, run by the high-tech industry, formed an organization to promote charters, Innovate Public Schools. It got its first $750,000 from the Walton Foundation, and $200,000 from Silicon Valley sponsors. Investment in charters is tax deductible.

With eight charter schools and 12 more already approved in Santa Clara County, Rocketship is a major force. Company founder John Danner is on the board of a company that sells Dreambox educational software. He recently left Rocketship to start another educational software company, Zeal, whose main client is Rocketship. 

Rocketship holds its national board meetings (where parents are supposed to have input) in the exclusive members-only Silicon Valley Capital Club.

Rocketship’s subsidiary, Launchpad LLC, buys land and then builds and leases schools to Rocketship. To get its charter school petitions approved, Rocketship is part of an education reform establishment that spends heavily on politicians and local school board races.

The Santa Clara County Schools Political Action Committee (created by the California Charter Schools Association) and Parents for Great Schools raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the 2012 election — $50,000 from Netflix founder Reed Hastings, $10,000 from Rocketship board member Timothy Ranzetta, and $40,000 from John Fisher, son of GAP founders Don and Doris Fisher, among the world’s wealthiest clothing manufacturers. John Fisher, who started the $25 million Silicon Schools Fund, promotes “blended learning,” eliminating teachers by circulating students in and out of computer labs.

Control of the Santa Clara County Board of Education has been a key goal of these “reformers.” The PACs spent over $250,000 to try to knock out Santa Clara County Board of Education member Anna Song, who survived nonetheless. “Had donors given money directly to support high-performing schools, they would have had a more beneficial impact,” Song told the San Jose Mercury News.

—By David Bacon, CFT Reporter