Sat, Jun

Breaking Public Schools and the Case of Maria Brenes


GUEST COMMENTARY - As right-wing candidates around the country mold themselves after Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Taylor Greene, we have a new template for Los Angeles politicians who proclaim their love for children while undermining public schools. 

The latest to audition for this role is Maria Brenes, head of a nonprofit based in Boyle Heights, who has long supported outsourcing of schools to private operators. She is running for L.A. School Board to fill the open seat of her good friend Monica Garcia, who is finally forced to step away from the board after 16 years due to term limits. Brenes doesn’t call herself a charter supporter, but as she kicks off her campaign for school board this weekend, no one should be fooled. 

On the seven-member LAUSD board, García anchors a four-person majority engaged in a tug-of-war to pull resources away from public schools with strict standards of nondiscrimination and accountability and put them into the hands of private operators. 

In December 2018, García sought to steer $250,000 from the district to the new building that Brenes was struggling to get money to open for her nonprofit, Inner City Struggle. The L.A. Times reported on the maneuver. This attempted transfer of funds shed light on the cozy relationship that has grown up between García’s office and promoters of charter schools since she succeeded her mentor, former Councilmember José Huizar, on the board in 2006. 

In 2019, Brenes and her nonprofit received a grant of nearly $70,000 from the Eli Broad Foundation. Broad, who passed away in 2021, was a major promoter of charter schools in L.A. The foundation through which Broad gave to Brenes’ nonprofit was the very same entity that, in 2015, was unmasked by the L.A. Times as promoting a $490 million scheme to move half the students attending LAUSD schools to charter schools over an eight-year time frame. The revelation ignited protests accusing Broad, a major art collector who opened that year his signature museum in Downtown L.A., of hypocrisy for promoting charter schools that siphon away resources needed by public schools for art classes. 

Brenes did succeed in securing enough money to open the new building. Present at the ribbon-cutting were both Garcia and Huizar, whose home had been raided by the FBI six months earlier, in November 2018. Retrieved in the raid was more than $130,000 in cash amid a corruption probe that culminated in his indictment for running a racketeering operation out of his Council office. Huizar faces trial in October. Brenes’ nonprofit thanks Huizar’s Council Office among “supporters” of the building’s opening. 

Now in 2022, Brenes is seeking to succeed García. She dodges questions about charter schools and her allegiance to promoting them. But nearly 15 years of advocacy for school privatization is hard to outrun. 

In 2009, Brenes backed a plan by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to transfer public-school resources to private operators. In 2014, Brenes praised former LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, who left the school district under a cloud of scandal over private contracts for student computers and a fiasco over class scheduling. Still, Brenes praised him for “expanding educational opportunities for students of color in LAUSD.” 

Taking taxpayer money away from public schools and giving it to private operators who can discriminate in whom they enroll and whom they don’t is not progressive. It also conflicts with the values and platform of the Democratic Party, which prizes equity in access of all students to educational opportunities, transparency of school administration and governance, and accountability for resources. 

But, as her quote above indicates, Brenes has learned that the fundamentally pro-corporate, illiberal project of school privatization can be disguised and even made attractive to Democrats if you dress it up in rhetoric of reform and equal rights. 

Teachers and other professionals in public education are among the most heavily unionized sectors of the American workforce. Promoters of charter schools often downplay their anti-union objective, but it is a driver and major source of corporate and conservative dollars for their industry. Those who profess to be Democrats and support privatization are also complicit in attacking a backbone of the Democratic coalition: working people and organized labor. 

Playing the role of the pro-charter Democrat takes careful scripting. But no one who truly supports public education and working people should be fooled. Any elected official, especially one in charge of public money, who supports charter schools or endorses candidates who promote them, is NOT progressive and is breaking the hearts, backs, and trust of Democrats. 












(Héctor Huezo is a union organizer and advocate for clean energy and good jobs in transportation. A longtime Eastsider and former elected delegate in the Democratic Party, he lives in Compton.) Top Photo:  Maria Brenes opens new building for her Boyle Heights nonprofit in May 2019.