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.
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.