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Effort starting to raise $100 million for public, charter, parochial schools

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A big, new player has emerged in the city's education world. It's called The Philadelphia School Project and it plans to raise $100 million in philanthropic money with the goal of supporting high-quality schools whether they be district-run, charter, or parochial.

Some wealthy people are behind it -- especially Michael O'Neill, a real estate investor and developer, and Janine Yass, whose husband Jeff was one of the venture capitalists who bankrolled the pro-school choice gubernatorial campaign of Sen. Anthony Williams. They held an informational breakfast on June 17 at the Comcast Center, where it was announced that Nicholas Torres, now the president of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, would run the effort.

The initiative is still in its formative stages, and will take the summer to figure out strategy and raise money, with an official launch scheduled for September.

"We've been talking about education, but what's been missing from the conversation was how private dollars could be part of the solution," Torres said. "This is extremely exciting."

Torres and others present at the breakfast (no press attended), which attracted a cross-section of city movers and shakers, said the emphasis was on partnership, replicating best practices across the sectors, and closing the academic achievement gap that leaves so many African American and Latino students behind. Details, however, were still sketchy.

"We didn't get into exact strategy," Torres said. "The only thing we're fighting for is increased quality of education for the kids."

The prime mover behind the initiative is O’Neill, founder of the billion-dollar-plus Preferred Real Estate Investors Group, now called Preferred Unlimited, and brother of developer Brian O’Neill. O’Neill is also chairman of BLOCS – Business Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools.

O’Neill did not return a phone call to ask about the group’s plans. But several participants said that his pitch was provocative and impressive. Among them was Helen Cunningham, executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund, a former member of the Philadelphia Board of Education, and a supporter of several charter schools, including Mastery.

“I’m not sure what it’s going to turn out to be, but what Mike O’Neill said was that the charter schools are in a silo, the Catholic schools are in a silo, the public schools are in a silo,” Cunningham recounted. “Meanwhile, some buildings are empty, others overcrowded, some programs are great, other places are wasting money on crummy programs. What if we had a system where these silos were gone and these institutions talked to each other?”

Said Cunningham, “That’s the most exciting thinking I’ve heard in a long time.”

The invitation said that the Philadelphia School Project is comprised of “business leaders, foundations, private investors, high quality education operators, and policy advocates.” It described the goal as “closing the achievement gap by joining forces to create a strong coalition to change education in our city forever.”

Among the attendees were Gerry Lenfest of the Lenfest Foundation, a key supporter of charter schools, and Kathleen DeLaski of the Walton Family Foundation, which has supported vouchers and scholarship programs while investing both in charter schools and innovative practices in public school districts including Milwaukee and Washington, D.C.

Lori Shorr, the mayor's chief education officer, was present, as was Leroy Nunery, just appointed Arlene Ackerman's deputy superintendent. A panel discussion included Benjamin Rayer, who heads the District's partnership, charter and new schools efforts, Scott Gordon of Mastery, Evie McNiff of the Children's Scholarship Fund, and Winston Churchill, an attorney and venture capitalist who has been involved with the Catholic Gesu School and Young Scholars Charter School.

Conversation centered on creating some kind of common yardstick to evaluate schools and programs and figure out what is working so they can be replicated, according to several people present.

People said "if it works, it's a good thing, whether it's in a public, charter, or parochial school," said Debra Kahn, a former member of the Board of Education, city education secretary under Mayor Street and now executive director of Delaware Valley Grantmakers.

Kahn said that one person asked the question how the group plans to use the money to stimulate or foster change, and there was "no real answer." Lenfest said that before the group could raise money, it had to have a clear strategy.

"To get business and other leaders impassioned, maybe even a little mad that students in schools in the city are not performing nearly well enough to meet the challenges we have, that can't be a bad thing," Kahn said.

She said it would be premature to jump to conclusions that the project is all about promoting vouchers for students to attend private and religious schools, a wrenching debate that consumed much of the education conversation in the 1990s when Tom Ridge was governor.

"I don't know one would have to take a position on [vouchers] in order to fulfill the mission and vision of supporting models that work regardless of the package they come in," she said. "But finding what works and identifying and understanding what makes it work is always a challenge."

Several people who were present said that when somebody brought up the issue of vouchers – one of the likely political flashpoints as the group finds its way – there was an audible murmuring in the room. “The reaction was, like, don’t bring that up,” said School Reform Commissioner Johnny Irizarry.  “I don’t believe in vouchers. There are plenty of other ways to help kids get a good education. They did talk about supporting high-quality private schools and identifying more funds for scholarships for needy kids.” 

He added that it was a "pretty diverse group" that "talked the right talk" and seemed interested in "creating one coordinated voice for education." Kahn said the group appeared "fairly agnostic about the types of schools we're talking about."

Still, there were plenty of Catholic school supporters, including O'Neill. The once-vaunted Catholic system in Philadelphia is now struggling, closing more schools every year.

Philadelphia was one of the cradles of Catholic schooling in America, and in its heyday educated tens of thousands of students – and more White students than the public schools. Cardinal Dougherty, which closed this year, at one time had an enrollment of 6,000. Blessed Sacrament in Southwest Philadelphia – also shuttered today – was in the 1950s and '60s the largest Catholic elementary school in the country with 3,000 students.

As more and more Catholics moved to the suburbs and parishes and schools closed, the remaining schools were often sought out by neighborhood residents looking for alternatives to the public system. Soon many became predominantly African American and non-Catholic. Some priests and nuns, like John McNamee at St. Malachy’s in North Philadelphia and the Jesuits of Gesu parish (which closed in 1993), raised money to keep the schools open, often without much help from the archdiocese. 

The rise of charter schools, which are free, has had a great impact on city Catholic enrollment as well as on the public system.  

Cunningham said that O'Neill outlined how the effort will make lots of people on all sides nervous -- from those who think it's a plot to get more money into a failing public system to those who think it's out to kill teachers' unions or a toehold for vouchers. "Every silo would have a reason to be afraid of it, but I thought it was such fresh thinking," Cunningham said. "Mike has been working for Catholic schools and  watching them close down and have seats empty in neighborhoods where children desperately want to be in good schools."

Kati Haycock of Education Trust, a leading advocate of improving the education of low-income children by replicating best practices, was brought in to give a presentation on the scope and ramifications of the achievement gap. She painted a  bleak picture of the state of education in Philadelphia, even compared to other major cities, and talked about how American children as a whole are falling behind.

“Looking at it from the standpoint of poor kids who have too few good options, it sounds like an interesting possibility," she said of the initiative. "Obviously, the devil is in the details." She said she couldn't think of anything similar elsewhere in the country.

Chester Finn, a former official in the U.S. Department of Education under George H.W. Bush and director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., a conservative-leaning educational think tank, emceed the breakfast and agreed the project was unique.

“It’s a path-breaking effort to go where no one has ever gone before,” he said. “Kind of Star Wars-y. It’s also full of both risks and opportunities, I’d say. There really are some opportunities to improve matters across the sectors by sharing practices, developing people, and sharing facilities and so forth. And there are obvious risks of issues that are divisive or competitive."

“Charter schools and Catholic schools are competing for the same kids. Districts and charters are competing for the same buildings. The challenge is to avoid the tensions and play up the opportunities," Finn said. "It’s ambitious, gutsy, unconventional, and probably needed."

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Dale Mezzacappa

@dalemezz
Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.