Increasingly policy relating to public education is being made in secret with involvement from private donors or organizations pushing their own agendas. In
Philadelphia, where parents have been fighting for years to make public information about how decisions toward the privatization of public education are being made. A version of this appeared on the website of Parents United for Public Education, a group of Philadelphia parents that focuses on budgeting and accountability to ensure resources get to the classroom level.
Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP have filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board requesting an investigation into whether the Boston Consulting Group, private donors, and the William Penn Foundation acted as lobbyists and principals to influence policy in the School District of Philadelphia.
We did not make this decision easily or hastily. The William Penn Foundation has long been a positive force for philanthropy in the city. Before taking action, we requested a thorough legal analysis from the venerable Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. We arrived at our decision after months of observation and study around the murky activities of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the wealthy donors who funded them.
The complaint was filed just a week before the District’s announcement that dozens of school are to be closed, a move that will has already thrown the city into turmoil. We believe the public deserves to know the full influence of private money and access on decisions that impact us all. The questions about who had influence over the list of schools named as well as the overall purpose of these mass school closings with a concurrent mass charter expansion effort directly relate to the complaint filed with the Ethics Board.
As detailed in our complaint, the BCG -William Penn Foundation contract explicitly stipulated that BCG’s work would promote charter expansion, management networks, identify 60 top candidates for school closure and impact labor negotiations. Specific mention was made in the contracts about influencing the SRC before an important May vote. While it’s true that the District initially hired BCG, it did so only for about five weeks between February and March. BCG’s District contract expired March 29. From then on, BCG’s contract was only with the William Penn Foundation.
As a third party entity, BCG had unprecedented access to District data, financial information, high-level decision makers, and private forums to push their plans. No such access has ever been afforded to parents and community members who had to settle for limited information and public meetings.
BCG’s influence was made apparent in the massive charter expansions which happened this past spring. BCG’s contract with the William Penn Foundation stated as a “deliverable” that BCG would “work closely with the school district’s senior leadership, School Reform Commission members, and the Office of Charter Schools to design a charter school expansion strategy” and “design and execute a charter school renewal and modification process.”
Against a backdrop of dramatic fiscal crisis – Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen even threatened that schools may not open in September – the School Reform Commission inexplicably approved 5,416 new seats across 14 charters at a projected cost of $139 million over five years. Some of the charters like KIPP Philadelphia had a School Performance Index which ranked them among the District’s lowest performers.
It’s critical for the public to understand the role of private, monied interests seeking to influence such decisions. The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia found that the William Penn Foundation solicited donors specifically for the BCG contract and then oversaw a fund at a separate agency that disbursed donations exclusively to BCG. This set-up allowed the identities of many of those who paid for BCG’s work to remain secret, along with any economic interests they may have had in the policies and decisions being advanced. For example, it was later reported by the Public School Notebook that the donors included a prominent real estate developer and individuals and groups with interests and ties to religious and charter organizations.
Transparency matters in the case of charter expansions, or when BCG states as a deliverable that it will “identify 60 top candidates for [school] closure.” It matters because under this shrouded arrangement, the public can’t know whether the work BCG did was for the District’s benefit or for the benefit of its donors.
From our viewpoint as parents, this is not philanthropy. It’s something dramatically different that needs the review of an independent agency. That’s why we joined with the Philadelphia Home & School Council and the Philadelphia NAACP to file a complaint with the City Ethics Board and bring what we believe to be the first test of the City’s new Lobbying Ordinance since it went into effect last January.
As Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire said: “We need to assure the public that monied interests are not using the turmoil in the District for their own interest.”
This issue isn’t just a local one. On a national level, a number of education observers and public interest advocates have raised serious concerns about the role of “philanthropic” investments into education reform. From the Broad Foundation to the Waltons and Gates Foundations – what we’re seeing across the country is an unprecedented level of private money shaping public policy under the guise of philanthropy. Too often that agenda has centered around a radical dismantling of public education, increased privatization, and disruptive reform that has sent many districts spiraling into chaos and sustained turmoil.
It’s important to note that the complaint we filed addresses regulatory compliance. We are not suing the foundation or BCG and we are not charging them with illegal activity. Lobbying is legal. But there is a fundamental difference between claiming that BCG’s work was based on a full needs assessment of the school district with the District’s best interests at its center, and recognizing that they could also be a hired gun executing on a pre-determined contract with private interests hoping to influence decision makers rather than endure a public and democratic process of governance.
The public needs to know what’s happening here either way. We are not going to shrug our shoulders with a “business as usual” resignation. The lines separating public good from private interests have been blurred if not crossed on issues of dramatic importance to parents, students and community members. The School Reform Commission meanwhile has not assured us they understand the importance of boundaries and maintaining them judiciously.
Transparency and public process matter. It’s unfortunate it takes a formal complaint to reinforce that message for our schools.