Promotion for this week's "All of the Above" conference.
On Monday, wealthy donors interested in the future of public education will gather for a two-day conference at the Union League: "All of the Above: How Donors can Expand a City's Great Schools."
Attendance is restricted to those who make $50,000 in charitable donations per year. One might hope, given the apocalyptic state of Philly's resource-starved public schools, that they are here to plot a campaign to reverse deep state budget cuts — or, at the very least, to cut a check to rehire some laid-off school counselors.
Instead, they will meet with self-described school-reform activists who want to move yet more students out of the same "government schools" they have defunded and into privately-managed charters — and even straight-up private schools. The entirely broke School District of Philadelphia estimates that each student who attends a charter costs it an additional $7,000. That existential fiscal challenge posed by charter expansion will not, it seems, be on the agenda. Nothing about the sector's rampant corruption and lack of state or local oversight either.
The visitors are here to learn from Philadelphia. Not as a cautionary tale, but as a roadmap for the privatization of public education. This is a city that shows what can happen when dollars and decision-making move into private hands — and behind closed doors. Despite standing amidst the ruins of city public schools, they like what they see: an opportunity to remake public education according to their own design.
In Philadelphia, public-education advocates became acutely aware that moneyed interests had taken a controlling stake in city schools in early 2012, when the $2 billion William Penn Foundation spent and funneled millions of dollars to bankroll the Boston Consulting Group's "Blueprint" to "transform" the school district. The controversial plan called for gutting the central School District office and breaking up schools into "achievement networks" that could be operated by private managers.
Jeremy Nowak, who turned William Penn into a school-reform juggernaut during his brief tenure as president, will, according to the agenda, tell Union League attendees "how complex, lengthy reform efforts involving numerous partners and allies can endure and thrive in cities of all stripes." It did not work out so well for Nowak, who was ousted after just a little over one year at the helm. But his legacy is firmly intact: Philly's largely low-income and non-white school district has become a busy laboratory for free market experimentation over the past decade of direct state control.
The Philadelphia School Partnership, which will explain to conference-goers how to "strengthen school choice across an entire city," is amongst Nowak's most consequential organizational offspring.
Since its founding in October 2010, PSP has evolved from a small third-party advocate of the "Blueprint" to the most powerful so-called reform group in the city. Seeded by an initial $15 million William Penn grant, the group has raised millions more to advance an agenda that prioritizes expanding charter schools and attacking the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
In some cases, PSP has even taken on the direct governance of city schools with support from Mayor Michael Nutter and the state-controlled School Reform Commission, running a public-private entity called the Great Schools Compact. The Compact, funded by reform stalwarts at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (also present at the conference), describes itself as "a collective commitment to transform or replace the worst-performing schools in the city."
Recently, advocates charge that the Compact is involved in developing new "report cards" to grade city schools. At an initial community outreach meeting to discuss the cards with parents, advocates complained that the grading system will simply be the latest pretext to pronounce cash-starved public schools failures. In response, the School District cancelled future public meetings on the subject because, a spokesperson told City Paper, activists insisted on discussing "whether there should be a report card or not."
The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which is paying to develop the new report cards, is coming to the symposium, too.
It's unclear what else PSP and the Compact have been doing: their meetings and internal operations are closed to the general public. What is clear is that a number of conservative and corporate power brokers sit on PSP's board, including: Janine Yass, BCG donor and wife of Bala Cynwyd-based hedge fund manager and choice-funder Jeff Yass; investor Michael O'Neill, who paid $100,000 of the bill for BCG's analysis; and Chris Bravacos, a former state Republican Party director who now heads the pro-voucher REACH Alliance and Bravo Foundation, the latter being a middleman for the state's school-voucher-like tax credit program.
They might be at the symposium too. Same with the Walmart-fortune-funded Walton Family Foundation, which recently donated $5 million to PSP. I don't know, of course, because I'm definitely not invited.
Monday's event is also closed to the press.
"In order to maintain the donors-only environment that philanthropists come to expect from us, we need to maintain strict attendance guidelines," Philanthropy Roundtable spokesperson Anthony Pienta said in an email denying me access to the event. The Roundtable, which is co-sponsoring the event with something (Gates-funded) called the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, is close to right-wing Olin Foundation and CEO Charles Koch, and pro-voucher Amway heirs Dick and Betsy DeVos. "Thanks again for your interest," he added. "It seems like word is really getting around."
PennCAN executive director Jonathan Cetel will be present. Cetel's group recently advised Gov. Corbett (in a secret report uncovered by City Paper) to exploit the Philly schools crisis to mount an attack on the teachers union — all in an effort boost his sagging re-election bid. The group was launched out of PSP's Center City office.
Gov. Tom Corbett, Mayor Michael Nutter and reformers demand that the teachers union deliver extraordinary concessions in exchange for $45 million in federal dollars currently held hostage in Harrisburg. But it is Corbett's budget cuts that have forced city public schools to eliminate thousands of teacher, guidance counselor, nurse and other staff positions. It's a nightmarish situation that was termed by the School District as a "doomsday" scenario. Many students and teachers feel it is playing out as such.
The conference's stated intent is to "increase a city's total number of high-quality K-12 seats, regardless of the school sector(s) they fund." This is the sort of language prized by groups like PSP, who seek to replace public schools with a "portfolio" under significantly private management.
A recent article from the Roundtable's magazine spells out the mission with refreshing clarity, calling for "the conventional mass school district" to "be replaced by a new 'system of schools,' governed by the revolutionary practices of chartering."
The school reform movement is well financed, winning major foundations and corporate fortunes to its cause. But a recent poll showed that most Philadelphians blame Corbett and Nutter, and not the teachers union, for the schools crisis. Public opposition could put a stop to their private revolution.
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