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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.