Politics Threaten Successful Charter Chain in Oakland

According to Victor Skinner of EAGNews.org, Ben Chavis is known by a lot of names among members of education establishment — and few of them are flattering. Skinner lists “egomaniac” and “money-grubbing monster” among the more fragrant of epithets. However, being liked is not Chavis’ job. Being an educator is. And at that, he is undeniably successful. Not that it matters to those in charge.

According to Skinner, charter schools founded and run by Chavis are performing impressively especially among the demographic most likely to be failed by traditional public schools: low-income students. Yet, now a number of those charters face closure and no one can quite explain why.

Chavis, a Lumbee Indian and former school superintendent, took over Oakland Unified School District’s chronically failing American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) in 2000, and quickly transformed the institution into one of the premier schools in the nation. He also helped established two other schools that joined AIPCS in forming the American Indian Model Schools charter network.

But he became a target for criticism by public school proponents who believe the union model is the only model for education. AIPCS, like most charter schools, employs a non-union teaching staff.

Oakland district officials decided to pull the network’s charter after an investigation into Chavis uncovered that he had improperly benefited from the network to the tune of about $4 million. It isn’t clear why the findings warrant the closure of the three schools rather than the removal of, and possibly a criminal investigation directly into, Chavis.

According to Chavis, the issue isn’t money – at least not the money he has made. Instead, district officials are looking to claw back the funding they annually lose to the American Indian schools.

In an interview with EAGNews, Chavis blamed politics for the predicament the network and its students find themselves in.

It appears that in the attempt to punish Chavis, the district is being extremely unfair to AIPCS students. After all, their list of accomplishments is impressive.

Nearly every AIMS student comes from a low-income family, yet by 2007 AIPCS became the first school in Oakland ever honored with the prestigious National Blue Ribbon Award for academic excellence.

Chavis helped to establish American Indian Public High School the same year, and in 2009 the first class of students graduated. One-hundred percent of graduates went on to four-year colleges, some attending prestigious schools like Cornell, UC Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The fact that all this came a mere ten years after the first school in the network was nearly closed because of chronic under-achievement makes the eventual success of the three schools even more astounding.

However, when it comes to clash between a maverick and Oakland’s education establishment, American Indian students appear to be the ones losing out.