Photograph of Arthur Rock by Singhaniket255, distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 license via Wikimedia Commons.

The 95-year-old billionaire Arthur Rock is the single biggest individual donor to the San Francisco School Board recall; he has given more than $500,000 to the effort.

But it is hardly the first school board election into which Rock has poured some of his fortune. Over the last decade, Rock’s money has gone into elections at more than 30 school boards across the country.

Many were focused in California. He has donated to races in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, Redlands, Santa Clara and several other cities. But his money and influence have also found their way to races in New York, New Jersey, Nevada, Minnesota, Virginia, Georgia, Maryland, Washington, New Mexico, Louisiana, Washington, D.C. and Colorado. 

In searching for his donations, it’s not unusual to run across headlines in places like Albuquerque, New Mexico, Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, all asking: Who is Arthur Rock, and where is this money coming from?

Rock, a venture capitalist, was a major and early investor in tech companies, including Apple and Intel. He went on to co-found the venture capital outfit Davis & Rock. His net worth is an estimated $1.1 billion

According to news accounts, he was a good friend of the late Warren Hellman, a San Francisco investor and philanthropist known widely for starting and funding the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. The two funded the Hall of Infamy, a 2009 online gallery of white-collar criminals that no longer appears operational.

According to public records, Rock primarily donated to Republicans in the 1980s and 1990s, but has mainly given to Democrats over the last couple of decades. Outside of educational contributions he is a major donor to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and ActBlue.

His money has been especially significant in San Francisco’s recall election of three school board members: Board President Gabriela López and Commissioners Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga. As of this week, he has given $399,500 directly to the two main recall committees, and a further $100,000 to the recall-aligned PAC Campaign For Better San Francisco Public Schools. He also gave $50,000 to Neighbors For a Better San Francisco, another PAC in favor of the recall. 

Tallying Rock’s payments to these committees and PACs, his total contribution stands at more than $500,000. For context, the second-highest contributor to the race is David Sacks, who has given $74,500 directly to the recall.

For Rock, what started as a trickle of donations to education-related California elections and ballot measures in the early 2000s, such as donating to a school voucher proposition in 2000 and another in favor of after-school program funding in 2002, turned into a flood about 10 years ago.

On top of Rock’s contributions to school board elections across the country, we found over $12 million given to pro-charter school organizations such as the California Charter Schools Association and StudentsFirst during electoral races.

Scroll through the timeline below to see Rock’s political contributions to education-focused causes over the past couple of decades. We reached out to Rock for comment via email, but did not receive a response.

Scroll through two decades (and $15 million) of political donations

The data in this timeline was sourced from local and state public filings, FollowTheMoney, and Ante. It may not be exhaustive and only captures political donations related to education, not donations to private organizations outside of ballot measures or elections. Click here for full-screen.

Charter schools and Teach for America

As well as these political donations, Rock has made large private donations to actual charter schools. These are harder to track, but we can see some figures from school impact reports.

The 2021 impact report of the Northern Californian branch of KIPP, the largest charter school network in the United States, credits Rock and his wife, Toni Rembe Rock, with donating more than $20 million. Rocketship Education, a network with several charter schools in San Jose, lists the pair as having donated more than $1 million in 2018. Later reports are less specific about dollar amounts.

Another interesting thread in Rock’s donation history is his support for Teach for America, a nonprofit that sends students from top universities to teach in low-income communities. After two years in schools the teachers, known as “corp members,” get help with their future careers, often outside of teaching.

Most of the candidates Rock has supported over the years are corp alumni, and he has donated millions to Leadership For Educational Equity and the Leaders in Education Fund, two groups that help alumni move into civic leadership roles. Rock is also an ex-officio board member of Teach for America in the Bay Area.

At first, Rock’s support for the teacher corp seems unrelated to his support for charter schools, but they may be two sides of the same coin.

In 2019, an investigation by ProPublica found that Teach for America has increasingly sent its teachers into charter schools, in part because billionaire supporters (like the Walton Family) gave the organization more money for placing them there. By 2018, 40 percent of the corps’s teachers were being sent to charter schools, even though only 7 percent of students attended them, according to the ProPublica piece.


So, Rock has been donating to charter schools and charter school-adjacent entities for a long time. But what has that got to do with the Feb. 15 San Francisco recall?

“There are charter schools all over California,” said Alison Collins, the embattled former vice president of the school board. “Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles. San Francisco is a holdout.”

While she acknowledges that here are charter schools in San Francisco, she notes that this city’s Board of Education has been more anti-charter than those in other locales.

“We have managed to stave off charter schools in our district, but we would be a trophy for the charter management community.”

According to Collins, charter schools in San Francisco could displace traditional public schools and reduce school accountability. She believes that removing herself, López, and Moliga could lead to pro-charter school members being appointed to replace them by Mayor London Breed.

Charter school advocates certainly have no reason to love the San Francisco school board or its current members. Before Collins was on the board, she helped establish a Charter Oversight Committee. In 2018, the board voted against opening the new KIPP school Malcolm X Academy (although its decision was overruled by the California state board). And, in June, 2020, the San Francisco Board of Education rejected a consultant on reopening schools on the grounds that the person had previously done work for a charter school.

And, it is true that school boards do sometimes have the power to hinder charter school expansion. For instance, in 2018, the California State Board of Education and two local school boards blocked a Rocketship school from opening in San Pablo.

However, Todd David, head of one of the recall committees, is unconvinced that charter schools are a major factor in the recall one way or another. He said that Mayor Breed was unlikely to appoint anyone with a drastically different view on charter schools to the current school board.

“Charter schools are incredibly politically unpopular in San Francisco,” said David. “Regardless of the outcome of this election, I doubt that will change.”

With the election only a week away, it may not be long until we find out.

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Clarification: An earlier version of this story used language from Alison Collins that could be misread to state there are no charter schools in San Francisco. That was not Collins’ intent nor is it the truth: San Francisco has plenty of charter schools, as Mission Local has reported in the past. The intent of Collins’ statement was to note that this city’s Board of Education has been more adversarial with charter schools than school boards elsewhere. We have altered the text for clarity.

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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22 Comments

  1. It’s clear from all these editorials posing as news articles what Mission Local’s position is on the school board recall. All this focus on funding and no examination of the issues that led parents to organize the recall, it’s the Fox News of progressives. The primary people against the recall seem to be people with no children in the SF public school system.

    1. Sir or madam — 

      You are literally having an argument with data.

      Your evoking of Fox News is cheap, reductive and stupid.

      Best,

      JE

    2. The primary opponents of this recall are parents, teachers and wider community members who favor public education as opposed to vouchers and private charters. I myself have two kids in SF public schools and one who just graduated and my wife teaches in the District. We understand the reasons that people were upset with the school board and may even share some of them, but refuse to believe this is a legitimate reason for a recall election. We believe in democracy not a short-circuited process which throws $2 million of private money into a low turnout farce.

    3. Things are rarely black and white. School board members can be incompetent and people with money can be taken advantage of it for their own political purposes.
      Fox is more likely to not tell the truth. The truth is not political. Politics often denies the truth, especially right now on the right.

  2. I so appreciate Will Jarret’s profoundly researched articles and dazzling graphic visualizations. With Will’s and other ML reporters, we’re finally treated to deep investigation and analysis of local issues, including at the BOE recall movement. Call me “reductive”, but what is clear to me is that a movement that might have begun as parent frustration over school lockdowns has become a battle between partisans of private vs. public education. Almost 2 million dollars vs. less than 100k. And thanks to Mission Local, we know who has the money, which helps us evaluate their intentions.

  3. Thank you Arthur Rock for funding a recall on incompetents. I am a frustrated taxpayer who believes in public education.

  4. A History Teacher Who Can’t Recall
    As a classroom social studies teacher who taught high school in SFUSD for 30 years, and sent two boys through SFUSD schools, I have never been a big fan of School Boards. In my estimation the current School Board has made some poor decisions, nevertheless, I am a strong opponent of the recall for a number of reasons.
    First, two techies launched the recall with little SF experience having moved here only in December 2020; hardly people who know much about SFUSD.
    Second, this is a great example of money corroding politics. As Will Jarrett shows, over $575,000 joined their cause from just two hedge-fund billionaires, both who are Trump supporters, to unseat 3 School Board members, all people of color, who earn $500/month in their positions. Recall supporters have amassed $2 million in a special election costing the San Franciscans over $3 million.
    This leads me to my final reason. The recall election is February 15, despite their terms ending this November. If the recalls succeed, we lose our ability to vote for their replacements giving our power to Mayor Breed. The result: 4 of the 7 School Board members selected by one mayor instead of being elected by all San Franciscans.
    Vote No on the recalls, then use YOUR vote to pick the next School Board.

    1. @rick- thank you! you’ve just convinced me to reject the recalls. up until now i’ve been undecided. i appreciate your comment and for helping me make this decision.

      1. As a parent of kids at SFUSD, the large donation from Arthur Rock is very unfortunate because it is overshadowing the reasons that all the SFUSD parents I know are supporting the recall. Can you imagine the offense parents that work so hard to fundraise for their kids’ school take when a school board member sues the district? when the other members don’t even seek legal costs from said school board member when the suit is of course dismissed as frivolous? when the school board votes to waste more money on a legal suit with the absolutely losing argument that CEQA doesn’t apply to the alterations of historic murals in a historic building? This is about competence. Personally, I want a progressive school board but one that is competent and that doesn’t make a parody of our values.

      2. I really wish those who oppose the recall on the grounds that big money has funded it would consider whether they actually think those people will have ANY say in picking the replacements? If so, how? I really cannot see the through-line here. The recall initiators were fed-up local parents who first wanted to limit donations to under $100. They only opened up their donation limit after a debate because they needed paid signature gatherers, which is a very expensive venture (no one has EVER successively initiated a recall without that.) They have no statement or policy for or against charter schools and as far as I can tell this is NOT at all one of the issues motivating them. They just wanted the schools to be open and for the board to not waste time on performative actions at the expense of actually opening them. Finally, I just don’t understand how people imagine the recall funders will *actually, concretely be able to influence the mayor’s selection of future board members? Do the funders have some kind of inside line to the mayor? They haven’t donated anything to *her and so she is in no way beholden to them…. I am guessing she’ll defer to existing parent advocacy groups (such as SF Parents) to suggest picks.

        1. If the recall succeeds, Mayor Breed, and not the voters, will pick the the replacements, who will then have the advantage of incumbency in the November election.

  5. Education , Pre K to 12th grade should be free’, with high quality teaching with well organized curriculum ! Teachers must teach without political interference and must be well paid . We owe this to our great society and our children who are our future ! I applaud all those who contribute towards this goal . Cheers.

  6. A large contribution from the local real estate association was made to the recall effort. Perhaps a power play as the school board is a stepping stone to the board of supervisors, do we really need more underhanded real estate interests buying their way into SF government?

    1. Ali Collins is literally the wife of a mega-developer here in SF, and she takes a salary for her “advisory” role there.

  7. Unfortunately the statement by Allison Collins stating there are no charter schools in SF is not true:
    Search Results
    Sterne School
    Ad·3.9
    (8) · School
    San Francisco, CA
    Closed ⋅ Opens 8AM Thu · (415) 922-6081
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    Thomas Edison Charter Academy
    3.9
    (36) · Charter school
    3531 22nd St
    Open 24 hours · (415) 970-3330
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    Creative Arts Charter School
    4.4
    (8) · Charter school
    1601 Turk St
    (415) 749-3509
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy
    3.5
    (28) · Charter school
    1430 Scott St. Third Floor
    Closed ⋅ Opens 9AM Thu · (415) 440-4306

    “This school offers quality education for everyone.”
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    KIPP Bayview Academy
    3.8
    (21) · Charter school
    1060 Key Ave
    (415) 467-2522

    “I would take this over any public school in the area.”
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    KIPP San Francisco College Preparatory
    4.2
    (25) · Charter school
    1195 Hudson Ave
    (415) 643-6951

    “It had better overall results on the state test than any other …”
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    Five Keys Charter School
    5.0
    (5) · High school
    70 Oak Grove St
    (415) 734-3310

    Their website mentions charter schools
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    The Mission Preparatory School
    4.8
    (17) · Elementary school
    1050 York St
    (415) 508-9626
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    New School of San Francisco
    5.0
    (5) · Elementary school
    940 Filbert St
    (415) 401-8489

    Their website mentions charter schools
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    Gateway High School
    3.8
    (19) · High school
    1430 Scott St
    (415) 749-3600

    Their website mentions charter schools
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    Leadership High School
    3.8
    (12) · High school
    350 Seneca Ave
    Closed ⋅ Opens 9AM Thu · (415) 841-8910

    “Every scholar has their own advisor and support network within the school.”
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    Five Keys Charter School
    No reviews · Charter school
    1800 Oakdale Ave · In City College of San Francisco
    (415) 821-2400
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    Life Learning Academy Building 229
    4.1
    (7) · High school
    651 8th St
    (415) 397-8957
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    Gateway Middle School
    No reviews · Middle school
    1512 Golden Gate Ave
    (415) 922-1001

    Their website mentions charter schools
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    City Arts and Tech High School
    4.0
    (8) · High school
    325 La Grande Ave · In The Bee Farm
    Closed ⋅ Opens 8AM Thu · (415) 841-2200

    “… leave school when it’s over and not seen any trouble makers etc.”
    WEBSITE
    DIRECTIONS
    One Purpose School
    5.0
    (3) · School
    948 Hollister Ave
    (415) 657-0277
    DIRECTIONS
    There are many.

  8. Maybe the Board’s vote to spend $600k to destroy Victor Arnautoff’s mural at Washington set him off…that’s why I voted to dispose of these tools.

  9. Many of us who have children in SFUSD schools and volunteer there are in favor of recalling all three. The spent all its time during the pandemic in trying to rename schools, covering up murals, and preventing school reopenings. Hence the groundswell in favor of the recalls. This is a ground-up, not a top-down-millionaire campaign

  10. Allison Collins made a very myopic decision not to hire a reopening consultant based on a tiny part of their resume, while ALL of the SF kids were stuck at home with working parents, in a miserable situation. The reality is that the our current SFUSD board is performative at best. When needed to do something actually important like hire a vetted professional to fix things, they picked out political points that uplifted their own position. We need to send Lopez & Collins a message. Whether this donation aligns with our views or not, it’s clear to me. Out. Public educated person here with public educated child in SF.

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