In mid-May, Jeremy Nowak joined School Reform Commission chairman Pedro Ramos and pro-charter-school activists at a long meeting to discuss a big problem: They were losing the media war to opponents of the plan, released three weeks earlier, to dismantle the Philadelphia School District and potentially put public schools under private management. Nowak, who took over as chief executive of the William Penn Foundation in June 2011, was very much invested in the plan’s success. The foundation had given $1.45 million directly — and helped obtain at least $1.2 million more — to pay the Boston Consulting Group to develop a so-called “Blueprint” for restructuring the troubled district.
But while the SRC, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and Boston Consulting were all targets of protesters’ ire, Nowak’s role was discussed by just a few. And then only in whispers.
“I think he’s taking an activist approach to being president of the foundation, and he has an agenda,” says one observer of city schools who, like many interviewed for this story, spoke only on condition of anonymity. “It is a shadow school district that’s being bankrolled by people who don’t even live in the city.”
Conversations with sources, along with documents obtained by City Paper, portray an expanding network of pro-charter-school organizations close to, and in many cases funded by, William Penn, coordinating with the state-controlled School District to map out the future of Philly public education. It is now clear that Nowak, a major charter-school supporter and longtime force in Philadelphia, had taken the city’s most powerful foundation in an aggressively political direction.
Nowak didn’t stop at shepherding funds toward the creation of the Blueprint. He also became a staunch supporter of it — making it, if nothing else, perhaps the best-funded public-relations disaster in Philly history.
The May working-group meeting indicates the scope of his involvement, according to one account: Nowak was frustrated that charter-school parents weren’t speaking out in favor, while Ramos complained of a guerrilla dissident movement inside School District headquarters. By this time, William Penn had turned to Sage Communications to prepare a public-relations campaign. Sage’s Sharon Gallagher worked with the pro-charter Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) on the media training of Ramos, PSD chief recovery officer Thomas Knudsen and SRC member Feather Houstoun (who, as it happens, is Nowak’s more mild-mannered predecessor at William Penn). For this meeting, Nowak also called in Tierney Communications chief executive Mary Stengel Austen, a “crisis specialist,” according to her website.
The group that gathered in May identified two key opponents: Labor unions and the black middle class, the latter led by the Rev. Alyn E. Waller of Germantown’s Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. The unionized teachers were a particularly formidable — and expected — source of opposition. Ramos planned to reopen the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) contract after the July 1 budget deadline, and the group discussed a multifaceted plan to defeat them. While Ramos had asked the Chamber of Commerce to bankroll a lobbying campaign, Nowak felt the chamber was not pulling its weight and wanted it to pay for public relations. But the lobbying, whoever ultimately paid for it, fell apart once infuriated Philadelphia Democrats discovered that Ramos had bypassed them and directly appealed to Republicans for new union-busting powers.
The public-relations objectives outlined at the May meeting were not all achieved — yet the Blueprint proposal lives on. Critically, perhaps the most important player didn’t come from within the district administration, city government or the state. Rather, Nowak — from his 11th-floor office in Logan Square, at the helm of a $1.9 billion foundation increasingly shaped in his image — has been in many ways charting the course.
Behind the scenes, he has had a hand in not only the Blueprint, but the recent superintendent search, dealings with unions and the advancement of a pro-charter, even pro-voucher, agenda. And that’s just the schools. Long before Nowak’s arrival, William Penn had funded urban planning, news media and environmental and community-organizing groups in the city. Now, via the checks he writes — and the apparent political calculus behind them — Nowak has become one of the most influential Philadelphians most Philadelphians don’t know.
Jeremy Nowak is a big guy with a bulldog’s bearing. Profoundly unruffled, he tilts his smooth, shiny head back as he ponders his vast new realm. It stretches from William Penn’s Center City office out through the Delaware and Susquehanna watersheds.
“Those two watersheds together,” he explains, “feed water for 20 to 25 million people.”
Watersheds, along with education and culture, are William Penn’s three new grant-making areas. Concerns range from the renewal of the federal Clean Water Act to natural-gas drilling. Closer to home, the foundation has funded the creation of an expanding regional trail system along the Schuylkill, Delaware and Cooper rivers and Pennypack and Wissahickon creeks.
For these investments, Nowak is demanding results that match William Penn’s growing stature in the universe of Philly philanthropy. Communications mogul Gerry Lenfest (whose foundation gave $250,000 for the Boston contract) is spending down his enormous wealth, and the Pew and Annenberg foundations have moved their attention and even their offices out of town.
The once-avowedly liberal and soft-spoken William Penn Foundation, long in the shadows of Pew and Annenberg, is now Philadelphia’s largest locally focused foundation. “Annenberg moved to the other coast,” says Nowak. “Pew … they’re much more national, and even global. And so it’s really great for us to stay here, as local. I’m a Philly guy. So I’m really happy about that.”
Founded in 1945 as the Phoebe Waterman Foundation, William Penn was, like other major 20th-century foundations, made by industrial wealth. Otto and Phoebe Haas made a fortune from Rohm & Haas Company, the Philadelphia chemical giant that in 2009 merged with Dow.
Nowak, who indeed pronounces “woodershed” like a true Philadelphian, says that he will soon launch a program to encourage a new generation of Philadelphia wealth — accrued in financial services, real estate and technology — to start spending that money here.
“There’s family money out there,” he says, and “it’s new money.”
William Penn “may have been fourth or fifth on the list 10 or 12 years ago. We’re now first on the list. We don’t want to be first on the list. We want five other guys our size.”
That new money, generated in the service economy from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, has already funded a sea change in national philanthropy. And three major new-money foundations — Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad and the Walton Family foundations — have, like Nowak, focused their largesse on remaking American public education. Over the past decade, the big three have established themselves as the nation’s most important education funders, and they’ve become among its most powerful policy makers, too. They set an agenda: in support of charter schools and high-stakes standardized tests.
“They are imposing all of these steps to supposedly hold teachers accountable, but in the meantime the people who are coming up with the metrics and the management techniques have no public accountability whatsoever,” says Alice O’Connor, a professor at University of California Santa Barbara who studies philanthropy and public education. “And that’s really, really scary.”
So how deep does the influence of these foundations run in our public education systems? It’s almost too far to plumb. Considered alongside the network of well-funded conservative organizations that openly seek to privatize public-education, it could be overwhelming.
Locally, the Nowak- and Ramos-led working group discussed the two final superintendent candidates — weeks before they were announced to the public. Both would have seemed to be politically suitable, being graduates of the Broad Foundation’s pro-corporate-reform Superintendents Academy. Ramos assured Nowak that a promising black candidate was a finalist. That candidate might have been William R. Hite Jr., whose hiring was announced last Friday.
At the heart of all this is a seemingly well-intentioned but secretively coordinated call for “quality education” — a phrase that seems, increasingly, to be code for corporate school reform. “Those stuck in the charter v.-district debate,” says Nowak, “are stuck in a past that simply doesn’t meet our students’ needs.”
One group that may benefit from this evolution: The Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), a two-year-old pro-charter organization that is expected to receive a $15 million William Penn grant. PSP has become a chief William Penn lieutenant in a pro-school-privatization network that reaches across, and channels money through, the city, state and nation.
PSP also has a number of wealthy board members with pro-voucher leanings who contributed to the Boston contract. To that end, real estate developer Michael O’Neill contributed $100,000, according to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. And an undisclosed amount was donated by Janine Yass, wife of conservative Bala Cynwyd hedge-fund manager Jeffrey Yass, among the state’s most high-profile voucher supporters. That money and more was funneled through the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which has been a major recipient of William Penn largesse and had the ideal apolitical reputation to serve as a conduit.
Yet despite millions of dollars in funding and United Way cover, the working group felt under siege. Ramos, participants in the May meeting lamented, was the SRC’s lone effective messenger; Wendell Pritchett was disengaged, while Lorene Carey appeared hesitant. Joseph Dworetzky, who had voted against a slew of charter renewals at the previous week’s SRC meeting (and continues to do so), was of particular concern. The District’s executive staff were doing a bad job convincing the public: Knudsen failed when it came to public relations.
So while Ramos lobbied Republican legislators for new union-busting powers, the PSP was talking to Craig Wallace, state director of Students First, a national “school choice” organization. Taking the lead in William Penn’s campaign to promote “school choice” in Philadelphia, PSP was also working to expand a formidable statewide network. On May 7, it assisted in the launch of PennCAN, the state affiliate of the national reform group 50CAN. PennCAN embraces privatization more explicitly than PSP does, supporting an expansion of the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), a voucher-like program that pays corporations back via tax credits for private-school-tuition donations. But the organizations work hand-in-glove: PennCAN executive director Jonathan Cetel works out of PSP’s Philadelphia office. And that office is a hive of pro-charter activity, where PSP worked with the KIPP charter-school network to mobilize charter parents to support Mayor Michael Nutter’s ultimately failed effort to secure $94 million in additional school funding. PSP also contracted Bellevue Communications to place an Inquirer op-ed for executive director Mark Gleason. The op-ed, “A Silent Majority for Philadelphia School Choice,” controversially imagined what one mother he observed on the subway, presumably low income and black, might be thinking about school choice.