When Foundations Go Bad

Money talks. And sometimes money buys contracts with companies that have an agenda to privatize our public schools. That appears to be the case with Philadelphia’s prominent William Penn Foundation: last week parents in that city accused the venerable foundation of contracting with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to develop a plan to close dozens of public schools while opening many more charter schools. They charge the foundation and consulting company with essentially acting as lobbyists to influence policy decisions in the School District of Philadelphia. Here’s why we should care in the rest of Pennsylvania when good foundations go bad.

Parents United for Public Education – a fantastic group of Philadelphia public education advocates that organized back in 2006 (Yinzercation’s big sister) – filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board requesting a formal investigation of BCG’s behavior. Joining Parents United in the complaint was the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. The groups had requested a legal analysis by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia before making their decision to file the charges, saying, “Just a week before the District is expected to announce dozens of school closings which will throw our city into turmoil, we believe the public deserves to know the full influence of private money and access on decisions that impact us all.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

It turns out that the William Penn Foundation signed a contract with BCG explicitly stating that the group would recommend expanding charter schools, target 60 public schools for closure, and influence labor negotiations. [The Notebook, 7-9-12] Philadelphia has a state-imposed “School Reform Commission” (SRC) and could be the poster-child for what a state-privatization plan does to a city. [For details, see “This is What Privatization Looks Like.”] Parents United discovered that the Boston Consulting Group’s contract actually specified that it would influence the SRC before an important vote it made back in May. That’s when the commission decided that, despite the District’s severe financial crisis, it would approve adding 5,416 new seats in charter schools across the city (expanding charters from 25% to 40% of the entire District) at an eye-popping cost of $139 million over the next five years. [The Notebook, 7-19-12]

The William Penn Foundation clearly got what it paid for with the Boston Consulting Group. With unprecedented access to key decision-makers as well as data from the District, the BCG has been acting as a lobbyist on behalf of the privatization agenda, able to push their plans behind closed doors. As Parents United points out, “No such access has ever been afforded to parents and community members who had to settle for limited information and public meetings.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

And it gets worse. The foundation solicited private donors to help fund the BCG contract and then kept their identities a secret by funneling the dollars through a separate agency. Those donors include individuals and groups affiliated with charter organizations. [The Notebook, 6-6-12] As Parents United explains, this lack of transparency 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….” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

What’s more, this kind of thing is going on all over the country, with big-money foundations investing their philanthropic resources in corporate-style education reform. These include the Broad Foundation (which has trained a large number of urban school superintendents, including Pittsburgh’s own current and immediate past leader, in corporate-style management practices) as well as the Gates Foundation (which has given Pittsburgh Public Schools $40 million for teacher evaluation efforts). I agree with Parents United that, “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.” [Parents United, 12-6-12]

If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Philadelphia grassroots movement for public education is making a real difference. Just one week after Parents United sent its letter of intent to file an ethics complaint, the William Penn Foundation board met; one week later, the foundation’s president, Jeremy Nowak, publicly announced his resignation. Nowak had been widely regarded as the guiding force behind the foundation’s turn towards school privatization. Parents United co-founder Helen Gym, noted that, “William Penn, under [Nowak’s] stewardship, went from being this beloved Philadelphia foundation to being a controversial and very conservative promoter of a very special kind of reform agenda.” [Philadelphia Inquirer, 11-30-12]

The lessons for us here on the other side of the state? We must pay attention to the role of large foundations, which are increasingly entering the “education reform” business with little more than an ill-formed notion that school privatization will cure what ails us. Southwest Pennsylvania is also home to many venerable foundations with a proud history of supporting children, families, and education. It’s time for these foundations to partner with our community – in full transparency and with parent participation – to tackle the serious equity, policy, and resource issues confronting our schools. Foundations can absolutely be a force for public education and for the public good. How about it Pittsburgh Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Grable and others – are you ready to be vocal advocates for our public schools?

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6 thoughts on “When Foundations Go Bad

  1. Fangirl swoon! We love love Yinzercation in Philly and can’t thank you enough for posting so eloquently about this issue to get the word out. Looking forward to opportunities to work together on the state mess! ~ Helen Gym

    • This is happening in LAUSD as well. There are a number of school districts using the same strategy. However we the Title I Parents decided to take a class action law suit against the district and have been in the Federal and State Court fighting for access, violations to our civil rights and transparency and accountability on Title I dollars. Check out our non profit California Title I Parent Union http://www.ct1pu.org

  2. Pingback: When Foundations Go Bad | progressivenetwork

  3. Jeremy Nowak was the head of the Mastery Foundation (Mastery Charter Schools/ High tech High) before he went to run the William Penn Foundation.

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