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.

Excellent points, Helen. I

Excellent points, Helen. I must admit I was happy to read that Mr. Nowak would be parting ways with the William Penn Foundation.

It was a dramatic surprise

It was a dramatic surprise that's for sure. Would love to share our legal analysis with you Matt and have your opinion. I know the foundation was also critiqued for its narrowly defined role around environment and arts and culture, but I'm not sure whether the agenda there quite matched the aggressive approach taken toward re-making public ed.

Good to see you back blogging at YPP, Helen

with your usual deep insight and activist reporting. Your focus on attempts to privatize the District through the "kindly" face of Philadelphia's premier foundation is especially welcome. Some day we'll have a full power structure analysis of who runs Philadelphia, and I'm sure we'll find interconnections in all kinds of unexpected places.

Thanks Stan!

Thanks Stan! And you are so right.

There are no new comments from anyone this year and I can't post

I hope that stan Sharpio is not sick or something

The ouster of Nowak is good

The ouster of Nowak is good news for supporters of public education. Thanks for the role you and Parents United for Public Education (in all probability) played in this.

There’s an interesting article about Diane Ravitch in Nov. 19 New Yorker and her change of heart on charter schools:

She has barnstormed across the country giving speeches berating the reform movement, which, in addition to test-based “accountability,” also supports school choice and charter schools … which she calls a “privatization” movement...

Ravitch argues that the reform movement is driven by an exaggerated negative critique of the schools, and that it is mistakenly imposing a free-market ethos of competition on an institution that, if it is to function well, requires coö peration, sharing, and mentoring. Before she opposed the reform movement, Ravitch advocated for it: for years, she supported many reform goals, but now that the ideas she championed have taken effect she is dismayed by the results and has disavowed her previous positions. Her disillusionment has been slow and painful and has ended some old friendships. Today, Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, describes Ravitch as “the intellectual leader—and the intellectual soul—of the resistance to reform.”

Ravitch nails it

It's nice to see a longer piece about Diane where it more fully expresses her evolution and reasoning and by extension a more thoughtful analysis around the education reform struggle than simply labeling "resisters" as defenders of the status quo.

There are no new comments from anyone this year and I can't post

I hope Stan Sharpo is not sick or something

I'm not the webmaster and I'm fine

Thanks for your concern about my health, Richard, but if you can't post, it's not because of my health. I'm fine. But, in addition, I'm not the webmaster; that's Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg. Hopefully he's reading this and can take care of the problem. I will also email him after I do a test later today.

Unable to post


I was unable to post today at Young Philly Politics. I hope that everything is OK.

Chris Lilienthal
PA Budget and Policy Center

See above

I hope Dan can take care of this.

Interactive Video and Gun Violence

I was unable to post a blog on Interactive Video and Gun Violence, for the killers of Norway youth camp, a French Orthodox school and the almost anorexic kid in Connecticut with no time to eat between being glued to CALL OF DUTY, This violent video became their entire lives.

I noticed no new posts on Young Philly Politics I hope this isn't a retired blog.



When I try to post a new blog entry then I get an error message jus under View Edit

A red line with the following message:
The directory files / images is not writable

I believe this is a retired blog

From what I understand this blog is, in fact, being retired. We should hear about it officially soon.

Understandable, But A Shame

The arrival of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have been tough competition for blogs and blog hosts such as this everywhere. There is a limit to how much time people have for social media, and the professional social media have all sorts of features that Young Philly Politics and others on similar platforms cannot match.

But Young Philly Politics is both internet searchable and has space for extended discussions, features that Facebook (little Internet searchability of content) Twitter (limited space for discussion) and so forth lack. Quantcast estimated at one point (I think it was December, 2008) that Young Philly Politics had about 10,000 readers and was the leading site of its kind in Philadelphia. Shortly afterwards, around, June, 2009, the site that Young Philly Politics had eclipsed, Phillyblog, closed down.

Further, as time went on, the young people who established this became more engaged in their careers, and many of the obvious targets of discontent left office. Michael Nutter as Mayor, Seth Williams as District Attorney and Barack Obama as President provide hope that their predecessors did not. Tom Corbett's policies are the main target for discontent nowadays: hopefully he will be leaving office soon.

Dan Urevick-Acklesberg and Ray Murphy deserve a lot of credit for establishing Young Philly Politics in 2005 or so. Philadelphia is a better place because of their efforts. Their efforts are an important model for anyone who would consider emulating them. Young Philly Politics brought some people together, and sometimes good things happened as a result. The successful legal suit to stop the closing of Free Library Branches, led by Irv Acklesberg and assisted by Sherrie Cohen, is a prime example of what collaboration can produce: the Library branches are still open 5 years later. Beyond the law suit, Young Philly Politics contributors gave extensive coverage to the political battles over the libraries, and helped build the consensus that has maintained the libraries.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Syndicate content