HelenGym's blog

The new "philanthropy": Private money shaping public policy in Philadelphia's education reform

Jeremy Nowak is out as president of the William Penn Foundation. In light of his abrupt departure, deeper questions emerge about the role the foundation played under his tenure.

For months, Parents United for Public Education has raised questions about the Foundation’s role in funding and directing the work of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Two weeks ago we sent a letter to the William Penn Foundation and Boston Consulting Group asking them to respond to a legal analysis we commissioned from our lawyers at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which argued that the Foundation’s unusual arrangement with the Boston Consulting Group may constitute lobbying.

In February the Boston Consulting Group, a multinational corporation with an educational strategies division, arrived with the stated purpose of creating a District blueprint and a five year financial plan. Instead they parachuted into Philadelphia with a polarizing agenda that called for mass charter expansion, closing dozens of schools, and forcing schools into education management networks.

While many know the plan was paid for by the William Penn Foundation, most people may not realize the significance of WPF contracting directly with BCG without the District being a party to the contract. 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 structure 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, among the donors are a prominent real estate developer and individuals and groups with direct interests and ties to religious and charter organizations. The Foundation funded a separate communications strategy for the District without the public ever knowing what public communications came from William Penn and what came from the District.

Perhaps most significantly, BCG’s contracts with WPF 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 their contract about influencing the SRC before an important May vote. Not surprisingly, the report BCG delivered to the School District was nearly identical to the contract agreement BCG had with the Foundation and, by extension, the donors who funded the work.

As a third party entity, BCG had unprecedented access to District data and financial information all made unavailable to the public. They had unprecedented access to high-level decisionmakers and private forums to push their plans. While the rest of the public had to settle for limited information and public processes, BCG circumvented a public process with its unique status as a philanthropic consultant.

From our viewpoint as parents, this is not education expertise at play. After all, BCG avoided almost any public contact or dialogue. It was not acting as a philanthropic entity – not when private dollars and private interests promoted a singular and narrow agenda and enabled BCG to forego public processes in favor of private audience.

It was for this reason that Parents United for Public Education requested a legal opinion from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia about whether the Foundation was engaged in lobbying and had violated city lobbying laws by failing to register as lobbyists and disclose its donors and activities. PILCOP concluded that the third party contracting and the clear intent to impact policy and high level decisionmakers all constituted lobbying. Our letter to the Foundation two weeks ago detailed these concerns, included PILCOP’s legal analysis and requested a response in two weeks time.

On a national level, a number of public 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.

We have no idea whether our complaint about lobbying had any influence on Mr. Nowak’s departure. Whether or not it did, foundations and “reformers” everywhere need to sit up and look critically at practices that risk substituting private agendas for true public purpose.

Mayor Nutter forgot the meaning of "public" in public ed

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear a Pennsylvania politician questioning the very definition and premise of public education. It may surprise you that Philadelphia’s leading Democrat is on record saying public vs. private ought to be meaningless when it comes to education.

At a press conference Thursday, Mayor Nutter said parents deserve school choice and that public, private, religious designations don’t matter. In his talk, the Mayor went on to say:

"I’m not getting caught up in all this. At my level, these are esoteric debates that ultimately don't mean anything to these young people sitting here in this room.”

Children care about their teachers, recess, lunch and whether they’re in a safe learning environment.

“That’s what this is all about,” he cried out.

While the mayor certainly hasn’t been hanging around the high schoolers I know, he may be right that my nine-year-old isn’t really paying attention to such discussions.

Does that mean we shouldn’t either?

Ask a parent who can’t dream of paying a $26,100 tuition bill from Penn Charter whether a quality free public elementary school in their neighborhood is a matter of meaningless “esoteric debate.”

Philadelphia public schools are 85% students of color and 80% economically disadvantaged. We have 20,000 children classified as special need and almost 12,000 English language learners. Is it “meaningless” that private and religious institutions hold the right to discriminate against and exclude those whom they choose not to serve? There’s no mandate for private schools to provide language services for new immigrants, serve special needs students, or take recently adjudicated youth. They have the right to promote religious scripture and denounce same sex orientation. They have the right to deny collective bargaining and employ non-certified teachers.

Would the Mayor consider it a matter of meaningless “esoteric debate” to take some lessons from Philadelphia’s failed history with privateeers like Edison Schools Inc. which exploited public funds for private gain with miserable results? Is it meaningless to take a look at our neighbors in Chester City and consider the fractured relationship they have with a charter school run by a for-profit company and a bankrupt school district?

I’m sure our governor would love for us to call concerns about transparency with voucher programs like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) “meaningless” and “esoteric.” A recent New York Times investigation found that EITC programs nationwide permit forfeited tax dollars to go toward private and religious institutions that might otherwise be blocked from receiving public monies.

No matter to Pennsylvania. Since 2001, PA has diverted close to $400 million to organizations that give out the scholarships. The state's program was cited extensively in the Times investigation for questionable practices. And Harrisburg just approved a new $50 million per year tax credit targeted toward students who live in areas with low-performing schools.

Notably, the Times cited the architects of the program who crowed about the intricate and ingenious ways they were able to evade scrutiny. Perhaps if fewer people treated this as an “esoteric” subject, maybe there would be more public accountability.

We have more than a decade of money and broken promises poured into the idea that there’s some magic solution to neglected public schools. Philadelphia has been ground zero for every manner of experimentation from reformers touting the miracles of the private sector. When the Mayor calls the “public” in public education a mere label, he dumbs down important conversations about what lessons we’ve gained from using public funds for too many failed private enterprises.

He plays into widespread disinvestment in public education and the resulting gross inequities. He gives cover to a Governor whose billion dollar slashing of public education funding and promotion of private and charter enterprises has resulted in school districts across the state starved to the point of dysfunction.

Thanks to such efforts a Philadelphia public school classroom is $78,000 poorer than a classroom in a surrounding suburb. Three-quarters of our elementary schools lack a certified librarian. We’ve got one nurse for every 1500 students and a mindset that only guarantees nursing care for the “medically fragile.” Is it any surprise that the choice debate is here and not in Lower Merion which generously funds its schools?

The Mayor’s right that we don’t need meaningless esoteric debates. What parents want is a free, safe, well resourced neighborhood public school for our kids and we want to know why politicians can move heaven and hell to make everything BUT that a priority.

We want a smart conversation about the things our public schools SHOULD provide to every child and what resources it will take to make that happen. We want our political leaders to know that a public school is a communal responsibility – not a matter of individual whims.

Most of all we need our Mayor to understand that - at his level - underfunded public schools serving high poverty, high needs children versus a failed history of exploitation and privatization is never a meaningless esoteric debate.

A face of Philly ed reform likes the womenfolk silent and tending to the children

If there's any question about the intent behind the people driving Philadelphia's current wave of education reform, look no further than this galling op-ed by Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia Schools Partnership which has an explicit mandate to support religious schools and is pushing for expanding school choice at any cost:

I was struck that morning by one mother in particular. She had three girls in tow, two of them elementary-school-age and one too young for school. The two older girls wore blue shirts and khaki pants, and they carried backpacks and lunches that their mother had probably made early that morning.

I wanted to ask the mother about the specifics of her choice for her children. I wanted to ask what she thought about the SRC’s plan to transform the School District and expand the number of great public-school options in Philadelphia. But she was too busy making sure the girls could find seats on the train, tying the littlest one’s shoes, and reminding them about this and that. She was too busy taking advantage of her educational options.

It reminded me that public opinion can’t be judged solely by the loudest voices in a protest or public meeting. . .

But let’s remember the mother I saw on the train, and the other students on that train and many others. They deserve more great schools closer to home. If we could ask them if it’s important to expand the number of great schools available to them — if it’s worth it to give more kids the same opportunities they’re seizing — I’m sure they would say it is.

It takes some kinda something to:

  1. Reference Richard Nixon on anything in the hopes of gaining credibility.
  2. Equate a woman tying her children's shoes and finding seats for them on a train with "exercising your educational options" and THEN tie that to your own organization's promotion of a school district plan that seeks to dismantle public education in favor of a free-enterprise market.
  3. Project your ideas on women and children (is that one category or two?) with whom you don't bother to speak in order to speak for them.

Mr. Gleason, a New Jerseyan with a keen interest in "other people's children" (as Lisa Delpit has coined) bemoans the fact that a "handful of activists" have created a "myth" that SOME people out there actually support public education. He conveniently dismisses the thousands of parents who have been speaking out clearly and cogently against the Distict's plan for the past six weeks. He won't hear the thousands of grandmothers, aunts, mothers and sisters in the street yesterday speaking up for public education and a sustainable system of choice. He ignores the dozens of nurses who've marched every Wednesday since December against cuts that have the District saying it can assure nursing care only to the "most medically fragile."

He'll dismiss "activists with an agenda" yet hide behind Nixon's silent majority in order to promote PSP's own very explicit activist agenda. Consider Gleason's statements while he served as a New Jersey school board member:

"My problem is with the opposition mounted by the superintendent, board and community on the grounds that a charter school would take public funds away from public schools. The catchphrase of their argument is that Hua Mei would benefit a few at the expense of the many. In fact, that is what public education in America has done for many decades. All taxpayers contribute to cover the educational costs of those taxpayers who choose to have children and then choose to send them to public schools."

Damn it's hard living in a democracy.

What Philadelphians were promised by the District was a short-term financial plan designed to help stabilize the District. What Gleason confirms is that we got an ideological agenda driven by those who benefit the most through silencing the public.

In the playbook of ed reform, clear spoken women? Activists with an agenda. Silent women simply tending to the kids? Ah, yes. Just the way it should be.

You're not speaking to me, Mr. Knudsen

It's election day. Vote! But let's remember we vote for the key issues we care about. Top of the list is the bomb out of 440 that the District faces a billion dollar cumulative deficit by 2017, will close 40 schools next year and another 24 by 2017, and put 40% of students in charters by 2017. Doing so would result in an 85% academic success rate, the District predicts. Tom Knudsen is the gas industry exec now heading up Philly schools as a short-term "Chief Recovery Officer." Recently the District contracted with Boston Consulting Group for $1.4M to develop a turnaround plan for schools. Knudsen announced the plan yesterday and made it public today.

Dear Mr. Knudsen:

I am a mother of three children in District and charter schools in this city. I have been actively involved in stopping good schools from decline and helping low-performing violent schools turnaround. I believe in the essentialness of a quality public school system and have fought for its vision. My 7th grade son will soon outlast four superintendents including yours. And I’m here to tell you that you’re not speaking to me.

You’re not speaking to me with this brand of disaster capitalism that tries to shock a besieged public with unproven, untested and drastic action couched as “solutions.” You’re not speaking to me when you invoke language like “achievement networks,” “portfolio management,” and right-sizing our schools – and say not a word about lower class sizes or increasing the presence of loving support personnel or enriching our curriculum.

You’re not speaking to me when you plan to close 25% of our schools before my son graduates high school. You’re not speaking to me when you equate closing down 64 schools – many of them community anchors – as “streamlining operations” yet you’ll expand charter populations willy-nilly despite a national study showing two thirds of Philly charters are no better or worse than District managed schools.

You’re not talking to me when your promises of autonomy come minus any resources, and when the best you have to offer parents is “seat expansion” – which just means larger class sizes without extra funds. You’re not talking to me when you say all schools are public schools. They are not.

You’re not talking to me when you’ll go out of your way to spend more than a $1 million for six week consultants with whom you’ll boast of an “intimate, hands in glove” relationship yet exclude community and public voices till you’re ready to drop the bomb. You’re not speaking to me when you’ll go to any extreme to radically transform “education delivery” yet the most basic things parents and staff and students have called for – more teachers in our schools, bilingual counselors, nurses in every school, librarians, fresh food in the cafeteria, new buildings and playgrounds – are completely and utterly absent from your “plan.”

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been around the block a few times.

Buzz Bissinger spouts off on race and Jeremy Lin - and we all cringe

I get it. There are plenty of people who don’t like the Knicks, are sick of two weeks of Linsanity and consider the Jeremy Lin hype to be premature and therefore overrated.

And then there’s Buzz Bissinger:

You know it’s quite the man who thinks there are worse things you can call Jeremy Lin – AND THEN PROCEEDS TO NAME THEM. All the while, reminding Asians of our place on the racial slur ladder, touting that racial slurs haven't hindered Lin's success (at least in the last 17 days), and making sure he cites other black athletes to legitimize this type of thinking.

Here are more Buzz-kills:

  • ”But I don’t think fans are going wild over him now because of his breaking the Asian-American pro-basketball barrier. They like him because he is talented and exciting, at least so far. They also like him because he is light-complected and, in his Christian beliefs and prayer penchant, echoes much of white America.” (Jeremy Lin: Reality checking the hype, Daily Beast)
  • WARNING ALERT: THE FOLLOWING MAY BE CONSIDERED POLITICALLY INCORRECT AND INAPPROPRIATE ON SEVERAL LEVELS. REPEAT THIS IS A WARNING ALERT. IF YOU ARE OFFENDED, SKIP OVER, OR LIGHTEN UP AND GET A LIFE.YOU CAN HANDLE THIS: He has not solved Michael Vick’s dog-killing problem that continues to make him the most hated athlete in America, although he could by opening a Vietnamese-style restaurant with him and carefully planning the menu together. (OK, OK So Jeremy Lin is on fire, Daily Beast)

So, yeah, let’s start with a few things.

I don’t know what racial universe Bissinger lives in, but one in which he calls Asians “light complected” and dismisses anti-Asian racial stereotypes as not rising to a level of real concerns is pretty much beyond comprehension. It’s a bizarre black-white racial paradigm in which Asians have made an unwelcome entry and must therefore be equated with white privilege and whose singular breakout success must be posited in direct opposition to the success of black athletes.

That narrative devalues the unique experience and history of Asians in America and the reality of anti-Asian racism and violence. It also misses the much broader showing of multiracial solidarity and consciousness raising which has grown as a result of Lin's presence on the national stage.

The hypocrisy of Stu Bykofsky


As folks know, many of us here at YPP have taken on Stu Bykofsky’s gag-inducing need to publish his fascination with sex tourism in Thailand. Dan, Brendan, Jennifer, myself and others have posted on it below. Today Bykofsky re-appears in his latest Daily News column to declare his arbitrary outrage against human trafficking. The prodding came via the offices of State Sen. Daylin Leach, a genuine champion around human rights and trafficking issues who hosted a film screening and discussion on human trafficking this past weekend.

Here’s Bykofsky's takeaway from that discussion:

I received a semi-personal invitation from the senator's office to attend, and I did, primarily because I support human rights, partly to ask, personally, why I was invited.

A Leach staffer told me it was because of my semi-infamous recent column about Thailand, the last third of which explained - neither defending nor attacking - the slice of the sex trade in bars and clubs. The truth is that although prostitution and trafficking can be related, they are not synonymous. I found no evidence of force, fraud or coercion among the women I wrote about.

Some people, including a few shrill hysterics, wrongly took my column to be an endorsement of pedophilia.

Here's how I feel about child molesters: If one touched my daughter, I would shoot him in both kneecaps and then castrate him. I'd do the same if he touched anyone's daughter.

So if I may paraphrase: Bykofsky’s new logic is now that as long as he asserts his abhorrence for pedophilia and didn’t actually witness force, fraud, or coercion, it’s not trafficking. Bykofsky conveniently ignores the work of far more knowledgeable groups than himself – say, the U.S. Dept. of Justice and human rights organizations around the world – which have ascertained that in Thailand prostitution and trafficking are frequently related; often involve force, fraud and coercion; and that a sizeable portion of trafficking victims are underage children.

It's hard to understand why Bykofsky - who is so unforgiving on a host of issues particularly around immigration - continues to defend his column and assert his self-righteousness now more than ever - he's a human rights supporter don't forget!

Meanwhile, you have to wonder about his ability to recognize his own hypocrisy when so many of his other postings state otherwise. After all this is someone who spent quite a bit of time to boast to his readers exactly where, how much, and how eagerly his “touts” (short I assume for prostitutes) offered their services.

And to this end, if a picture is worth a thousand words, Bykofsky's fully public Facebook mobile upload page (sent to me by an astute observer) makes it pretty clear where his sense of moral outrage was on his overseas trip. A note: I wasn't happy to post these photos but in the end, it was too difficult to talk about just how creepy and leering and hypocritical Bykofsky's whole Thailand thing is without showing it from his own viewpoint.

“In Thailand. It is now Saturday night and time to hit the fabled, naughty Walking Street.”

“a little simulated action outside a club”

“female touts try to attract business”
Part 1

”more touts on Walking Street”

”and more touts”

“On Walking Street a bartender in a beer bar. Girl? Boy? Are you sure? Do you care?”

Yeah, Stu, we do care. And maybe if you had spent half as much time reading about human trafficking in Thailand as you did luridly snapping photos and posting them for the public to view on your Facebook page, maybe we wouldn't have to revisit this again.

I'll let Bykofsky's own words appropriately encapsulate the limits of his moral outrage on human trafficking:

”An endless supply of girls with no marketable skills, but rentable bodies, heads for cities to work in the sex trade. Although prostitution is officially "illegal," it flourishes and Thais tolerate it.

Just about everyone in a bar or club - from dancers to hostesses to servers - is available to go, after you pay a "bar fine" to compensate the bar for reducing its work-force. That happens after you agree with the woman on a price, what she will and won't do, for how long and where.

Bar fines are $10-$20, girls in bars charge $50-$100. Streetwalkers along Beach Road and the infamous Walking Street charge a fraction of that. Few are drug addicts. There are no pimps, and each woman is an independent contractor who also shares in the bar fine and any drinks bought for her. She can earn in one night what a clerk makes in one week.

But when I see a young woman walking with a farang (foreigner) who looks like a Pop-Pop leading his granddaughter by the hand to a Toys "R" Us, I feel bad. They are not headed to the toy store. They are headed to his bedroom.

He's rich, by her standards. She's poor, selling her youth and beauty to support herself or her family. Nothing is forcing her, except maybe circumstance.

That makes me feel bad, but every journey is external and internal. It's true for me, DeCeglie, and the Thai bar girl.”

Bykofsky was right to decry trafficking. He was wrong in not taking the time to apologize for his previous column and rethink "personal journeys" that derive their entertainment from the exploitation and misery of others.

School District can't afford to leave democracy behind

(This post has been updated to remain consistent with my posting at the Notebook.)

Yesterday’s move by the School Reform Commission to hire a Chief Recovery Officer who will be advised by an "outside team of experts" signals a potentially troubling path around both mission and process for the School District as it struggles to keep afloat amid fiscal chaos.

Local 1201 union president George Richezza, whose 2700 members have all received layoff notices, said what’s on many people’s minds: “What I see here is a dismantling of the public school system."

To be sure, no one can deny the District’s devastating financial situation. A $715 million deficit. $61 million to close by June. A projected $300+ million deficit to close in FY2013.

On top of all that was yesterday’s very important story that the city and school district had lost a state court appeal around property taxes that could result in $45 million less in tax revenue for the schools.

The current leadership of the SRC needs to take swift fiscal action. No one denies that. The fact that schools, school personnel, and classrooms have made and will need to continue to make compromises is also a given.

But here’s where the SRC leadership needs to act with caution.

Best and Worst Education Moments of 2011

NOVA-Arlene Ackerman

Last year I named Arlene Ackerman – and her penchant for making any and all news all about her – as my number one choice for the Top 10 education story of the year. Indeed, Dr. Ackerman did not fail to hit a homer in that category. 2011 was a year that made education watchers and opinion-makers of us all. Here’s my pitch for the best and worst moments on the (mostly) Philadelphia school scene.

Grinch of the Year: Arlene Ackerman
Her three year tenure was marked by a combination of ruthlessness (firing whistleblowers for example), profligacy ($40 million summer school anyone?) and neglect (ignoring cheating and violence in schools) – all while claiming sole rights to the voices of “the children.” She brought the District from its greatest wealth to the brink of financial collapse; drew national attention with a million dollar public buyout and filing for unemployment benefits; hired controversial underlings in P.R. and human resources who allegedly abused the powers of their office; and spearheaded a prejudiced response to racial violence at a local high school that earned the District a racial discrimination lawsuit from the U.S. Dept. of Justice. Within a week of her departure, she was urging parents to “vote with their feet” and flee the public schools she had helmed just a few days earlier. She relentlessly played race, gender and class politics to pit and divide communities and fomented a base of support known for hyperbolic, no-holds-barred rhetoric. Her Promise Academy effort may have been initially been well-intentioned but like most things under her watch, the execution was flawed, budget needs were not considered, and in the end hanging onto the effort became more about the Superintendent’s ego than sustainability of the program. She left as she came – with her reputation for bitter and reactionary politics solidly, and sadly, intact.
Runner-up: Gov. Tom Corbett for being the first governor in two decades to cut education spending in the Commonwealth – a billion dollars worth – at the same time he gunned for a costly voucher program, shielded the natural gas industry from taxation, and sat on a state surplus.

Worst Abdication of Responsibility: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on Chester-Upland School District
One of the state’s poorest districts, Chester-Upland became the experimental playground for an ideologically-driven state takeover in 2000 that forced EMOs and charters upon an already vulnerable community. Student walkouts and organized parent protests eventually drove out EMO operator Edison Schools and resulted in a state takeover of the original state takeover board. (Philadelphia activists studied Chester-Upland’s experience closely, and as a result succeeded in limiting and diversifying Philly’s EMO effort.) When the state ended its takeover, Chester-Upland’s resources and internal capacity had been effectively decimated. Last month, Chester-Upland begged for a state advance to keep itself running, a plea that the state rejected leaving the future of thousands of schoolchildren up in the air. Today teachers in Chester-Upland got their last payday and yet voted to continue working without a salary. Notably AWOL: the ideological politicos and educational operators who plundered the district in the name of reform.

Best Quote from an Unexpected Person: Newly installed SRC Commissioner Lorene Cary
SRC Commissioners appeared on WHYY’s Radio Times and in a discussion about vouchers, a commissioner remarked that the “devil is in the details and there are a lot of details.” To which Cary quipped, “There are a lot of devils."

Worst Charitable Effort: SRC Chair Robert “I’m just a volunteer” Archie.
When you’re out to lunch while a district goes bankrupt, engage in backroom wheeling and dealing that earn you an ethics slap on the wrist, and approve an atrocious contract extension that contributes to the million dollar buyout of your superintendent, playing that charitable line falls just a little flat.

SRC Chair Cuts Off Fox 29 Reporter: MyFoxPHILLY.com

Best Innovative Effort in Education: The “open campus” plan by Penn Manor, Hempfield, and Manheim Township High Schools.
The most promising rethinking of education came from, gasp, three “traditional” school districts in the Lancaster area which recently announced an effort to pool resources and create an “open campus” where high school students could take classes online and have flexible scheduling. The plan was designed to save jobs and was driven by the belief that “district teachers can deliver a better education program than anything offered by a cybercharter school.” Philadelphia’s education delegation should be heading to Lancaster, not Denver, for real ideas on how to expand a vision of educational delivery.

Worst Use of Poetry: Ackerman invoking “oil wells” and Maya Angelou
Former Supt. Arlene Ackerman drained the poignancy and inspiration out of Maya Angelou’s beloved poem “Still I Rise” and recited it as a bitter kiss-off to the public and her bosses.

Best Use of Poetry: The Daily News’Arlene Ackerman Haiku-Fest
Hey if you’re not crying, you might as well laugh with Haiku-Fest gems like this:
Let’s all Imagine
2014. We’ll still be
paying Ackerman.

Join Helen Gym and Education Nation on teaching sustainability

Update: You can pick up the panel at the 21:00 mark where we tackle merit pay, TFA, and how to build sustainable teaching careers.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

This afternoon at 4 p.m., I'll be on a panel for Education Nation reviewing a new documentary "American Teacher" and discussing sustainability in the teaching profession. The documentary focuses on the struggles of four teachers across the country to remain in a profession which loses almost half its teachers within five years. Locally the numbers for Philadelphia are even more serious, where the PFT says that more than 50% leave by their fifth year.

Expect a strong discussion with folks like Newsweek pundit Jonathan Alter, the teachers featured in the documentary and myself.

The event streams live online at www.educationnation.com. Hope you'll join the conversation!

The tone deafness at City Hall

Yeah, so the Mayor was on TV last night showing off a side I’ve never understood, liked, or can even remotely fathom. You know that side. That’s the side that emerges when a complete cluster$%*! has occurred on his watch, and the response is “get over it.”

Mayor Nutter says it’s time to look ahead, now that the Arlene Ackerman buyout drama is over.

Committee of 70 CEO Zack Stalberg suggested if contributors to Arlene Ackerman’s buyout were solicited publicly instead of secretly, maybe the donors wouldn’t have withdrawn and some of the $900,000 in public money could have been saved.

Mayor Nutter, who admitted to calling donors, wouldn’t go there.

“Hindsight is always 20/20 vision. It’s a whole lot of woulda, shoulda, coulda.”

So a “whole lot of woulda, shoulda, coulda” is not what I would describe the complete and utter colossal disaster that made headlines around the state and nation because of a million dollar public buyout of a controversial superintendent. It’s not what I would describe a mindset that could approve solicitations of private anonymous donors as a “favor” to the public. It’s not a phrase I would say when 3000+ people lost their jobs at the school district, including 27 assistant principals who lost their jobs that day because people in charge didn’t do theirs. It’s not a phrase I would use when the issues at stake are basic governance, fiscal responsibility, ethics, and a sense of decency when a city’s been through the ringer on polarizing rhetoric and bitterness on all ends.

A “whole lot of woulda, shoulda, coulda” is not what I would say when the Mayor’s picks to the SRC have been terrible examples of bungling ineptitude, potential ethical compromise, and public disservice. Or when his office has been sitting for five months on an ethics investigation into potential SRC interference in a $60 million contract for Martin Luther King High School.

And it’s not a phrase I would use when the public put up $53M in higher property taxes for our schools, despite a butchered tax system that’s among the worst in the nation from uncollected taxes to uncertified assessors to erratic assessments across the city.

I think we should move on from Arlene Ackerman as well. There’s a whole lot the Mayor could have said to do that. Like laying out a vision for schools, like promising renewed engagement, like acknowledging the failures and weaknesses of the system, like talking about new leadership for the SRC and laying out a plan for new leadership at the district, like expressing some level of humility or reaching out and bringing people together, like being a champion for public ed and governance when so many people are feeling disgust about it.

Fortunately for him, his mayoral opponent is someone who makes “hindsight is always 20/20” sound like an Oxford thesis.

Arlene Ackerman's last days

The final act of Arlene Ackerman’s tenure should come with little surprise but plenty of outrage at the local and state powers who have let it drag out in such bitter, toxic fashion.

The last two School Reform Commission meetings and the media attention around them have been, frankly, a citywide embarrassment and alarming to parents, school staff and community organizations working frantically to get ready for the start of school. We’ve got more than a thousand vacancies districtwide – a terrifying number considering that it’s less than three weeks before teachers report for their first day.

Yet paralysis has gripped the District with the political silence around Ackerman’s tenure.

Few doubt that there’s backroom negotiation to push her out while her lawyers try to finagle a reputed $1.5 million buyout. But in public, the SRC mouths its feeble support, the mayor has publicly declined comment, and the governor remains AWOL.

Meanwhile, Ackerman is playing her own games, meeting with supporters, calling into radio stations, and feeding into the rallies organized on her behalf to leverage her own negotiating power. The energy she puts into these efforts makes one wonder if she basks in this kind of controversy and divisiveness - after all, it deflects attention from her actual practice. For those familiar with Ackerman’s tenure in San Francisco, a bitter and ugly fight to the finish is part and parcel of this superintendent’s history.

The SRC dug themselves into this mess when they perfunctorily extended Ackerman’s contract in March. At the time, they had plenty to go on for termination of her contract for cause – from financial mismanagement to civil rights abuses. Instead, they chose to look the other way on multiple egregious offenses. Now they’re stuck with the impossible choice of paying a million-plus dollar buyout in the midst of a financial crisis or figuring out some way to force out someone who has no qualms in making sure her exit is as polarizing, ugly, and contaminating as possible.

It didn’t happen this way in 2006 with former Superintendent Paul Vallas, who faced public excoriation from everyone from City Council to the state legislature once a $73 million deficit was announced. The public acknowledgement that Vallas had failed in his mission as a financial manager and lost faith with city and state leaders left no question that we needed new leadership. He exited the city quickly, and we moved on.

We can’t move forward right now.

With their silence, the powers who govern and maintain responsibility for the District have rendered themselves impotent, morally and politically absent and have left the city in a place of racial and class hostility and division. There’s a lack of trust and a loss of priorities, communities and schools are manipulated and pitted against one another, and there’s increasing disgust on all fronts.

It seems baffling why the SRC, mayor and governor aren’t highlighting the current bungling of the superintendent. From organizational chaos to financial mismanagement, the grounds that justify termination for cause seem to grow.

Among her most recent egregious actions:

  • A budget year fail: In the midst of the worst financial crisis in the history of the District, Ackerman clung to questionable pet projects – like Saturday school at Promise Academies and enrichment programs for summer school – then played a losing game of chicken with the state legislature around the school budget. When their state budget projections fell apart, it became eminently clear the District had few plans to handle the dramatic budget reductions. Everything from layoffs and programs being shuttered was handled poorly and hastily. Oh yeah, and she sabotaged relationships from City Hall to Harrisburg at the same time, too.
  • Delaying teacher assignments: By my calculations, only 15 percent of schools are fully staffed for September. Over 200 schools districtwide have vacancies. Carnell Elementary and Overbrook High School have 20 or more vacancies apiece as of this writing. It’s not clear why the District allowed a grievance over Promise Academy layoffs to hold up the whole process. Now our schools are going to have a mad scramble to fill their vacancies with qualified teachers.
  • No management structure: We are six weeks into the fiscal year and there’s still no organizational chart for the schools. It’s not just about what’s on paper either. I hear numerous complaints that staff don’t know who’s in charge of what anymore.
  • A bungled summer program: Ackerman insisted on her $18 million, 18-day summer school. When the media publicized poor attendance, the District moved to cut sites and teachers resulting in a chaotic shuffle.
  • A rogue superintendency?: On Friday afternoon, Ackerman reportedly called into 900/WURD and said that “they” wanted her out but that she would “[fight] like hell” for “the children.” The night before this week’s fiery SRC meeting where supporters called the SRC liars and threatened to “call out the troops,” Ackerman held a meeting with supporters saying she was being targeted. Going to war with your bosses is always foolhardy and should come with repercussions.

One last point: If there’s one lesson we should remember about education reform, it’s that it relies less on numbers, data and yes even money, than it does on the delicate fabric of community and social trust. These relationships determine the sustainability and engagement of a whole society’s efforts to educate our children. The political silence has allowed hyperbolic rhetoric to step in and threaten that already fragile social compact. A voice of moral leadership at a time when our public schools are facing their most dramatic financial and leadership crisis in a decade is the most important thing the SRC, our mayor and governor can do.

To the commissioners, our mayor and governor: Your silence is not that kind of leadership. It’s time for swift action. End the circus around Arlene Ackerman, and let’s move on.

An $8 million District slush fund is why we need more than political theater

Ackerman Remarks About 'Job For Life': MyFoxPHILLY.com

It’s business as usual at the School Reform Commission. $629 million budget deficit? Pshaw. Public officials demanding oversight? Meh.

All you have to do is look at the resolutions on the docket for Monday’s vote. Let’s start with SRC-16, a resolution that sets aside a whopping $8 million for what the administration calls “limited contracting authority” (LCA). District officials defined it as contracts under $15,000 that would not require SRC review. The reasoning presented was that the SRC had so many resolutions to look at already, it shouldn’t be bothered with contracts of such a low amount.

Hold on a second right there.

It’s pretty stunning to me that the District continues unchallenged with this type of behavior and rhetoric. No one wants to micromanage, but $8 million is an amount equal to the base salaries of more than 100 teachers. In a week where thousands of District employees lost their jobs, it's hard to imagine the District would have the decency to ask for an unscrutinized $8 million set aside at this time.

One would think that the crippling deficit, a federal IRS investigation and outcries from city and state officials about the District’s poor financial management would put a stop to such shenanigans. But apparently not.

Which brings me to my next point: What exactly is the purpose of the political theater surrounding a memorandum of understanding if stuff like this continues to happen at the District? Elected officials are fond of trotting out words like accountability and oversight, especially in the midst of the national spotlight and around budget season. What they forget is that these words require work and the practice of saying NO.

Posting the District's budget contracts

Weeks ago, Parents United made a FOIA request for the District's contracts, after waiting weeks for the District to report on them publicly. We got them, and so I’ve decided to put them up here.

Since the District budget hearings started, parents and the public have requested information on the hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts. We’ve done so because if we’re advocating for increased school funding and if the SRC/District is going to put on the chopping block essential priorities like full-day kindergarten, free transportation for students and local schools’ discretionary funds, then we need to make sure we’re holding the District accountable for its own spending practices and priorities.

In my last post or two, I’ve gone over some of the problematic expenses the District and School Reform Commission have approved in the midst of the worst financial crisis in school history. Usually, the only information that’s made available to the public is through the SRC resolutions posted every month.

But in fact, the resolutions don’t even begin to cover the number of contracts approved by the District. For example, I couldn’t even find the resolution for the $240,000 spent on Alta Communications, a politically connected marketing and public relations firm. It’s just one of the $986,000 spent on PR, governmental and marketing contracts, this despite the District’s having a $2.86 million, 20-person communications office that’s five times larger than the Mayor’s.

There are other questionable expenditures here too:

  • As the Notebook reports, the District’s new $27 million price tag for its Promise Academies works out to an exorbitant $3,600/student paid mostly in extended hours for teachers at those schools.
  • This year, the District is spending $8.3 million on the testing subsidiary of CTB McGraw Hill, an increase of 66% from the previous year’s $5 million, and more than three times the amount spent in 2009 ($2.6 million). CFO Mike Masch has said the District will cut about $1.5 million from testing contracts, but that hardly makes a dent – and that’s just for one company.
  • We may have 3,800 less teachers next year but Teach For America’s contract has more than doubled since 2009, from $301,000 to $668,000 so far in 2011.
  • What exactly did $244,000 buy from Public Financial Management, the organization brought in during the 2007 fiscal crisis to institute budgetary controls and ensure that a similar crisis wouldn’t happen. Last year we paid over $500,000 to PFM. Can we please have this money back?
  • $66,686: The fee for the Council of Great City Schools, which recently named Arlene Ackerman the best urban superintendent in America. This amount is a third larger than the $48,000 paid to CGCS in 2009.
  • Sterlen Barr, aka No Puff Daddy, gained a $234,000 contract for presentations on health and nutrition. Just to put this in context, in FY2011 Xerox had a $299,000 contract District-wide.

There are other things like the $2.2 million spent on Achieve 3000, a school computer program, that didn’t exist in 2009, to $443,000 spent on the International Center for Leadership in Education to the infamous million dollar turnstiles at District headquarters.

As the District looks to pass a budget today that fails to uphold things we know work in education, you have to wonder who’s checking on the contracts that don't seem to make it to public light often enough.

Is the District padding its books on Central Office Administration?

As I was slogging through the District’s 400-plus page budget book, I was struck by the significant increases and expansions within various central office administration budgets. (All references are to the District's FY2011-12 Consolidated Budget).

Consider: The Associate Superintendent for Academic Support (p. 306)

  • In FY10 there were 50 filled positions
  • In FY11 there were 90 estimated positions (but no indication they were filled)
  • In FY12 the request is back down to 49.5 positions.

Included in FY11 was the proposal to start up two entirely new offices, one for student discipline, hearings and expulsions, and another for non-instructional school support. In. the. middle. of. a. budget.crisis.

The result is a “45% savings” in that office of $3.68 million dollars from FY11 but an increase of $309,357 from FY10.

Questions City Council should ask the School District

In my spare time, I'm lucky to work with an amazing group of parents citywide who've formed and re-ignited Parents United for Public Education, an all-volunteer, independent collective of parents who believe in quality schools and responsible funding.

As we've watched this budget battle unfold - and we've seen tactics like this unveiled in previous years with this administration - I'm feeling more and more that the District has unfairly put up essential services to schools in order to avoid what ought to be pointed questions about their priorities, spending practices and managerial and financial oversight.

Parents United distributed a memo to City Council members today to encourage a forum for these questions, one of the few places where District officials may actually have to answer questions rather than sit stonily or obfuscate. Well, maybe they'll do that too today - we''ll have to see. In either case, in the interest of openness, I printed Parents United's memo to Council below.

DATE: May 24, 2011
TO: Members of City Council
FROM: Helen Gym, on behalf of Parents United for Public Education
RE: City Council hearings on School District budget

Thank you very much for the opportunity to share Parents United’s analysis of the District budget situation. Parents United for Public Education is an all volunteer, independent collective of parents which believes in quality schools and responsible funding. Our priorities in this budget:

  1. Ensure full-day kindergarten.
  2. Restore free transportation for all school-age students. (Sign our petition!)
  3. Restore the 29% cut in each school’s discretionary funds.
  4. Impose a moratorium on all non-essential contracts, hiring of personnel, and start-up/expansion of new programs and initiatives.
  5. Restore the District's share of property tax revenue from 55% to 60% through a millage shift and assume the $4 million BRT expense and the City Controller’s office salaries.

We believe that the District has unfairly put up essential services rather than set priorities, change their spending practices, and jettison non-essential expenses. We are advocating that Council give more money for targeted allocations, BUT we also ask Council to demand changes in the District’s proposed budget.

District budget concerns

Summer school
The District plans to spend $23 million on an 18-day summer school program, nearly the same amount it would cost to cover full-day kindergarten. (See footnote below)

  • Last week, the SRC passed a resolution approving $4.7 million for textbooks for the 18-day program.[1] How is this a strategic use of money?
  • The SRC also approved more than $1 million for enrichment activities like a sports and art camp. While we do not deny the importance of enrichment, again, is this a priority area for such a brief time period?
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