THIS month's $24 million question: When should you reject a gift?

Answer: When that "gift" is a poison pill.

When the state picked Randolph Ward, from the pro-charter school Broad Foundation, to take over Oakland schools in 2003, some smelled a corporate coup.

If the onslaught of school closings and charter openings under Ward has left any doubt, he's finally made his goal clear: to privatize Oakland schools.

In a nakedly aggressive public gesture, representatives of some of the world's richest men and corporations — including Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Clorox, Kaiser, Dell and Dreyer's/Nestle — joined Ward on Nov. 14 to unveil their "investment" in district "redesign."

Executives congratulated themselves for throwing crumbs to a project allegedly for education. But, as the Tribune reported, the $24 million "will not bring in any new pencils, books, teachers or school buses."

Instead, it buys technology and training solely to transform the district into a private business network. The investors say the district's new central office will become a "business service," and new small schools will "act as customers" who "invest in services."

Donors revealed that corporate executives will now call the shots in the district. The head of the East Bay Community Foundation said his private organization will disburse funds and "communicate the bottom line" to educators.

The CEO of Dreyer's celebrated the "great opportunity" provided by the district's bankruptcy and state takeover, because "we needed someone ... with Randy's authority and Randy's power. ... Now we have true ownership, and we're expecting success, Randy."

Such rhetoric shouldn't be confused with newfound "corporate responsibility." Rather, it typifies the "new philanthropy" reported by Frederick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"Hands-on corporate leaders from the new economy, like Bill Gates ... and Eli Broad," Hess says, "have exhibited little patience for educational bureaucracies or traditional giving ... while importing along with their funds a private-sector mindset regarding results, accountability, and rapid execution."

The Oakland Education Association proposes a different educational vision: 15 students per class; the best facilities, materials and technology for teaching and learning; enough support staff for students' academic and extracurricular needs; and much more.

OEA's vision focuses on what students need each day and is based on extensive research, experience and commitment.

The district's corporate investors disregard this vision, because authentic reform costs many times more than what they currently pay in taxes or token "gifts."

Each year Clorox gives its CEO 32 times more than what it will give to 41,000 students. Kaiser called its million-dollar donation "a big deal," but its 18 to 24 percent planned rate increase over two years will cost the district several times that amount.

OEA has demanded that Kaiser and Health Net freeze rates to the district as a first step to support fiscal recovery. But Ward would rather pass increases on to workers who have already taken a pay cut.

It's time to say no to phony reform, no to handing our children over to big business; but yes to real change and excellent schools for all.

A movement of educators, students and parents can achieve this goal by demanding that Oakland's major corporations: (1) pay off the district's debt to restore democratic control to Oakland citizens and (2) commit to substantial, mandatory and ongoing contributions for genuine reforms that will dramatically improve learning conditions for all students.

Craig Gordon has taught in Oakland public schools for 15 years. He is taking a leave this year to write about educational issues.