PSP’s board of directors, representing a who’s who of local nonprofit and corporate elites, is a potent force. It’s also a source of vast funds to be channeled toward education policy. For example, one board member is communications executive Chris Bravacos, who leads the pro-voucher REACH Alliance and Bravo Foundation. The latter is a conduit for corporate donations to EITC; a recent New York Times investigation found evidence that middlemen like Bravo coordinate private-school donations with politicians whom they also lobby.
As William Penn funds an emerging corporate education-reform network, it may soon cut funding to activist organizations critical of privatization. Philadelphia Student Union, Youth United for Change and the Education Law Center’s Cross City Campaign “were told that the type of work we have funded them to do in the past was not likely to be a focus under our new strategic plan,” William Penn spokesman Brent Thompson confirms.
Action United has already been told that it will likely not have funding renewed for its parent-organizing work in Philadelphia and schools-focused organizing in Chester.
Activists grew more alarmed in March, when Candace Bell, William Penn’s education program officer and a major player in building Philly’s community-education-organizing network, departed. “When you take the amount of money that William Penn was investing in parent and student organizing, and you take that out of the equation at a time when there is huge upheaval and change being proposed for the public schools — that is really scary,” says Action United executive director Craig Robbins. “What [Nowak’s] done is said, ‘We’re just not going to fund community organizing; we’re going to fund a consulting group.’ That’s a huge change in how you’re going to prioritize where your money goes.” Activists still hope to meet the foundation’s strategic plan’s emphasis on “closing the achievement gap for low-income children in Philadelphia.”
But “closing the achievement gap” is a nebulous term that, in corporate education-reform circles, often serves as a euphemism for expanding private management and boosting high-stakes testing. William Penn’s previous “Children, Youth and Families” grant-making area included supporting “more effective and equitable education policies.” That funding area has apparently been cut.
At a 2008 conference at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, where Nowak chairs the board, he complained that “conventional philanthropy has been slow to respond” by getting involved in overhauling school management. That will likely not be the case at William Penn. Nowak hired Boston Consultant Group from the corporate world, instead of education researchers, because he believes that education, more than anything, needs a management fix. “It is an operations problem,” he tells CP, “more than an education problem from some perspective.”
Nowak has long had this perspective. The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), the community investment giant that Nowak co-founded in 1985, has made more than $235 million in loans to charters. Nowak served as the first board chairman at Mastery Charter Schools, whichwas involved in the Blueprint’s rollout and is poised to expand its influence over Philly schools.
The model that Nowak pioneered at TRF is now, at William Penn, set to use old money to fund a new philanthropy: a combination of the liberal foundation era’s insistence on appealing to non-ideological pragmatism to shape government policy and the conservative foundations’ skepticism of (though not outright hostility to) government in favor of the free market.
Venture capitalism has now spawned venture philanthropy — and so accountability, according to Nowak, is about measuring how grantees provide returns on the foundation’s goals instead of how they meet their own. In Philly education, that new philanthropy now has two central components: the William Penn-funded Blueprint and the Great Schools Compact, a Gates-funded program to “expand the availability and types of high-quality options and to dramatically reduce the number of chronically underperforming schools.”
An application authored by PSP, dated May 1, requested $7 million from Gates to fund the Compact and lauded William Penn’s support for what it called a “dramatic bid to increase the number of high-performing schools in the city.” Gates has so far provided $100,000 to the Compact. The initially innocuous program has since become a lightning rod for criticism. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan calls the Compact’s “good seats” versus “bad seats” rhetoric mere subterfuge to expand the number of charters and close district schools.
Indeed, PSP’s grant application expresses a desire to give charter advocates direct control over School District operations, requesting $800,000 to fund a more charter-friendly District Charter Office. The grant says nothing about holding city charters, many of which have been under investigation for corruption and fiscal malfeasance, accountable. Notably, the grant says the Blueprint “calls for,” and not just projects, “increasing charters’ share of public-school enrollment to 40 percent by 2017.”
Philadelphia, by many accounts, desperately needs a shake-up — and some say Nowak is the one to do it. “He’s a huge personality,” says one knowledgeable source. “It’s nice, in a way, because Philadelphia lacks those people who are willing to have a fight.” Nowak is consistently described as “brilliant” and “data-driven” by Philadelphians working in journalism, government and nonprofits. He is also described as opinionated and blunt. “A straight talker,” says Congreso de Latinos Unidos chief executive Cynthia Figueroa, who spoke favorably of Nowak. “No nonsense.”
And if one measure of a man’s power is the number of people who are afraid to speak about him on the record, Nowak, in this reporter’s experience, is one of this city’s most powerful individuals.
Yet Nowak’s role could become more visible. “I think Jeremy really wants to reshape the role and the image of the organization,” says one observer. “It’s going to be a more aggressive and activist organization.” The Haas family, this observer says, is on board. “The real test over the long term is whether they’ll stay on board with what will essentially be a more in-your-face set of activities. … Up until now, the family has been viewed as being on the careful side.”
Nowak, according to sources, has a deep skepticism of government — somewhat understandable in a city and state whose lawmakers are regularly sent off to prison for corruption and where citizens suffer daily abuses of a groaning and increasingly defunded bureaucracy. And as government spending dwindles, foundations like William Penn are asked to make up the shortfall. But the dependence on foundation dollars raises difficult questions about the implications of unelected entities funding and setting priorities for core democratic institutions like education — and, crucially, for the reporters charged with holding the powerful accountable. William Penn, as most reporters but few citizens know, already funds most corners of Philly journalism.
“It’s a brave new world for journalism,” says Inquirer architecture and planning critic Inga Saffron. “It’s great that these organizations are generous, but at the same time we have to be alert to their agenda.”
David Haas, still on the William Penn board but no longer its chair, has a particular enthusiasm for journalism. Pre-Nowak, William Penn spent $2.4 million to create the Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network at Temple University, a still-in-development project that has elicited both excitement and confusion among local reporters.
Nowak, for his part, says that he puts an emphasis on game-changing investigative reporting.
Along with funding a new plan for the Delaware River waterfront, the foundation has heavily funded PlanPhilly, a journalism outfit that covered that plan, and other development and public-space issues. And it has funded — and will now defund — It’s Our Money, a joint project by WHYY and the Daily News focusing on government matters.
WHYY, which has received $1.24 million from William Penn since 2006, is an object lesson on how donors can appear to influence journalism. The Scattergood Foundation funds a beat at WHYY covering behavioral health. Three of 11 total reporters are dedicated to health and sciences, more than to state or local government; and WHYY’s Health and Science Advisory Committee includes many donors and underwriters.
Yet aside from a few shining examples — the multi-station collaboration StateImpact covering natural-gas drilling and the soon-to-be-cut It’s Our Money — WHYY does not pursue much in the way of investigative journalism. Nowak says he’s told WHYY brass that “we, meaning the foundation, like and care about deep, high-quality content.” So it’s possible that William Penn could drive WHYY to dedicate more staffers to investigative reporting.
But foundations, from William Penn in Philly to Gates on the national level, are themselves subject to little critical media coverage. A study by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, found “13 positive articles” on education-funding foundations “for every critical account.”
And Nowak’s commitment to investigative journalism has been tested when it comes to continuing support for the Notebook. At times, Nowak has criticized the paper. “I have pushed them on what I think sometimes is a lack of, you know, that they need to give multiple sides,” he says. But he insists he is not looking to shut down a critical outlet. “They’ve been something that the foundation has supported, something that the foundation is proud of. … You don’t have to agree with everything somebody does.”
Indeed, Nowak gave a long and candid interview with the education-reporting outfit the Notebook on the Boston Consulting funding and has “advocated for the Notebook with other funders,” including major national grant-makers.
The advertising revenue that was long the lifeblood of newspapers has evaporated, and government funding for core public goods like education has suffered for decades. Foundations like William Penn, to the relief of many, are stepping into this void. But Jeremy Nowak, like many Philadelphians, has an agenda — and unlike most Philadelphians, he has an enormous sum of money at his disposal with which to pursue it.
Photos by Mark Stehle