Told that Martin Luther King High's multimillion-dollar charter school deal ran aground on a reef of Philadelphia politics, Jeffrey Henig could only joke: "I'm shocked! Shocked!"
Henig, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, specializes in urban education reform. He won't say that cronyism and corruption are inevitable where charters and other "turnaround" models are concerned. But the risk is always there, he said, and the antidote is transparent, accountable governance.
"I always say, you need good government in order to have good privatization," said Henig.
"It's inevitable that there's some kind of tradeoff between a highly structured centralized system, versus a decentralized system that taps into enthusiasm and new ideas. If you decentralize, and you've got more omelets in the making, it's almost inevitable that some are going to be bad eggs."
There is no more obvious bad egg among Philadelphia's school turnaround projects than King. Most of Philadelphia's charter school conversions have been completed without major controversy. And while many suspect that local politics heavily influenced turnaround decisions at some schools, such as West Philadelphia and Audenried High, only at King have so many details of backroom politicking broken out into the open.
The result has been a slowly unfolding controversy that left King itself scrambling to recover and helped undermine public confidence in the leadership of the School District.
But King's story also reveals one of the benefits of an open, public process. Had parents and community members not been so closely involved in choosing a new provider, Philadelphians might never have learned about the behind-the-scenes battle for the school's valuable contract.
"Even if you've got a well-functioning and capable bureaucracy with integrity," said Henig, "it helps to have more eyes on the ground."
King's charter was no small prize: a five-year deal worth an estimated $12 million a year that could have extended indefinitely. The 1,000-student school in East Germantown was designated for charter conversion last year as part of now-departed superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Renaissance turnaround process. If all had gone according to plan, King would be a charter today.
Instead it remains in District hands, undergoing changes as a Promise Academy. What started as an orderly public process designed to involve the community broke down completely after a powerful local politician stepped in at the last minute to try to steer King's contract to a favored provider.
That kind of thing should surprise no one, said Kent McGuire, former head of the College of Education at Temple University.
"Why would we think that we wouldn't have the same problems with charters as with any other set of large-scale contracting procedures?" asked McGuire, now head of the Southern Education Foundation.
"That's why transparency is so important. That's why we want processes conducted in the sunlight."
But shedding that light is not always easy. It's been six months since news first broke of State Rep. Dwight Evans' backroom attempts to ensure that King's charter would go to his longtime associates at Foundations, Inc. The story is still unfolding today.
"Right now, we're at a point of frustration because there's so many pieces to this puzzle that still don't make sense," said Conchevia Washington, parent of a King student.
"We just want to know what happened and why. How did we get to that point where politicians felt the need to stop a process that had followed all the rules? And that left us with this unclear future?"
Washington, chair of King's volunteer School Advisory Council (SAC), was a key player in the public process. She was stunned to find herself part of a tensely political backroom drama.
As of last March, all she and other King parents knew was that the provider they endorsed, Mosaica Education of Atlanta, decided overnight, and virtually without explanation, to drop the King contract. It was a huge disappointment to Washington. The SAC had endorsed Mosaica over Foundations – which had been working at King for years – by an 8-1 vote after a long, public, District-supervised selection process. The School Reform Commission (SRC) had formally approved the deal.
But the day after winning the contract, Mosaica withdrew, saying only that it wanted to focus on other opportunities.
In the weeks that followed, despite almost total silence from District officials, it slowly emerged that Mosaica's withdrawal was no accident. Major political forces had been at work behind closed doors.
First, Evans himself, a force in local and state politics, acknowledged that he'd talked Mosaica into leaving so that Foundations could have the job. Almost a month later, a Notebook/WHYY-NewsWorks investigation confirmed that then-SRC Chairman Robert Archie had helped Evans. It then emerged that the District's second-in-command, Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery (who is now the acting superintendent), was also present at a pivotal meeting called by Archie.
Amidst the subsequent public outcry ("a steaming cow flop of epic proportions," wrote one columnist), Foundations withdrew, the charter plan collapsed, and Mayor Michael Nutter announced an internal investigation.
By late spring, King slipped under the radar as a disastrous District budget situation took center stage; a gap of well over a half-billion dollars helped end Ackerman's tenure.
But even then, the King story kept unfolding: once gone, Ackerman told Education Week that her unwillingness to back Foundations was the beginning of her end. Her most recent claim is that during the height of the controversy, "someone" told her that embarrassing financial information about her would be leaked if she didn't get her "mind right" and support Foundations – just days before Fox29 News reported that Ackerman owed $20,000 in back taxes.
Ackerman said the mayor's investigator – Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman – has the whole story, including the name of the person she says threatened her, and she has called on Nutter to release his full report. But for months, the response of Nutter's staff to any questions about his King probe has been, "Nothing yet."
"It's very disheartening," said Washington of the delay. "We really were hoping to gain closure before we opened the doors [in September]. I don't know what could possibly be taking the mayor so long."
Thus the months of turmoil that sprang from Evans' attempt to influence the King charter decision not only left the school itself struggling to reorganize and recover, but raised questions about the integrity of virtually every level of the District's leadership. Archie stepped down as SRC chair on September 19 without any comment on the situation at King.
"The concern needs to be addressed," said Zack Stalberg, head of the Committee of Seventy, an ethics watchdog group.
"People have a right to know whether we can trust the SRC and the SRC chairman. This set of commissioners doesn't act like it has an obligation to the public to explain what it's thinking and what it's doing. And that's wrong."
Erika Almirón of the community organizing group JUNTOS says it's critical that citizens be able to trust the District's turnaround plans.
"Transforming our schools is vitally important," she said.
"What happened at King was unfortunate – and I think it would be useful to the community to build trust, to hear what happened. If the SRC's completely silent, there's probably a lot going on behind the silence."
Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said that the mayor's credibility is threatened by his long silence over King.
"When the mayor doesn't address this forcefully, it appears that he is hoping that the normal amnesia of Philadelphia electors takes place," said Churchill.
"It certainly isn't good for the School District that political cronyism will be allowed to rear its head."
But if one lesson of King is that backroom politicking can undermine the public's confidence in leadership, another lesson is that citizen participation in a public process really can make a difference.
Washington and other community members involved in choosing a charter provider for King were quick to sound the alarm after Mosaica suddenly dropped the King contract. They voiced concerns when not one school official – neither Ackerman, nor Archie, nor any SRC members – would comment. They brought to light several instances of backroom pressure.
Ackerman herself, who created the public selection process and the SACs, credits the King community with stopping Evans from undermining the process.
"That committee spent over 90 hours researching the data, looking at the proposals, going to visit schools," she said.
"Once they'd invested that kind of time, I don't think they were going to accept anything besides what they wanted."
Washington agrees. "Because we had parents and a community that was engaged, we felt as though it was our right to know what had happened, and why."
Henig and McGuire say both these lessons are important because given the political and policy trends nationwide, the school privatization model – with all its contracts and deals – is only going to expand.
"There's no question that the general approach is going to spread," said Henig.
"And there are a lot of risks that haven't been acknowledged. I'm not an opponent of this model, but I am an opponent to the notion that this is an alternative to having good government and good politics."