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Philadelphia School Partnership pushes for private management of student placement

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For months, the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) has been working to put in place a new citywide process for placing students in schools. Most troubling is that PSP wants this process to be run by an outside, private entity that is created by PSP and could eventually charge a per-pupil fee from participating systems.

“Universal enrollment,” as it is called, would match students to either a District, charter, or parochial school whenever they decide to transfer, move, or transition to another school level.

The PSP proposal would not only take the current student-placement program out of the District’s hands -- unprecedented in any other city -- it would also include parochial schools and coordinate the selection process with the availability of scholarships, which are now often provided through two controversial, voucher-like business tax subsidy programs in Pennsylvania.

PSP’s audacious plans were unveiled at a briefing before City Council last month. I spoke with several attendees at the briefing, including a member of Parents United for Public Education, and received a copy of PSP's PowerPoint presentation.

PSP, which describes itself as a philanthropic organization interested in the movement of students into "high performing" seats, had aimed to launch a pilot universal enrollment effort this year with parochial schools and some charters. Since the briefing, PSP has now decided to delay the program until next year, when it proposes to assume enrollment responsibilities for all District schools, including special admission schools as well as charter and parochial schools. 

The program raises serious questions about students' privacy rights, church-and-state separation, and public disclosure issues. It also potentially weakens the guarantee of a neighborhood school option and removes from District control a central mission and function – all without any meaningful public disclosure, discussion, or oversight. 

District officials are distancing themselves from PSP’s independent effort. Spokesperson Fernando Gallard told me the District is using its own enrollment process this year.

“There has been no decision made regarding the high school selection process for future years,” Gallard wrote in an email. “The use of a third party and the per pupil fee is a question that should be answered by PSP since we are not part of that effort.”

Lobbying council on universal enrollment

PSP introduced its independent universal enrollment program in a briefing before City Council on Sept. 18. According to attendees, the presentation sparked controversy, leading to a pointed back-and-forth between a number of Council staff and PSP leadership.

The briefing was led by PSP’s executive director Mark Gleason, a one-time publishing entrepreneur and former South Orange-Maplewood, N.J., school board member. Gleason identified PSP’s chief consultant in the project as Ramsey Green, a real estate investor and consultant from New Orleans, where a similar program has been criticized by a number of public education advocates.

Sources told me that Gleason promoted the new process as a way to “outsource the enrollment and placement” of all students in the city’s District, charter, and, in a surprising twist, Catholic schools. In most cities with a universal enrollment plan, the effort has focused on the public sector, presumably to avoid First Amendment conflicts.

At the Council briefing, Gleason announced that the District in August had pulled out of the universal enrollment process for this year, saying officials have "a lot on their plate right now.” As a result, he said, PSP would take on the effort unilaterally by setting up a separate nonprofit called PhillySchoolApp.

PhillySchoolApp will be overseen by a private entity, the Compact Working Group, whose members represent the Great Schools Compact, a body that includes District and charter school leaders, and which PSP also staffs. Gleason said PSP was already interviewing applicants for the executive director position of PhillySchoolApp.

Private philanthropy would cover the effort for the first three years, after which PhillySchoolApp would charge a per-pupil fee for participating schools. When asked about the potential cost by a Council aide, Gleason said it could be in the range of $10 per student, according to several people who were at the briefing.

According to the PowerPoint presentation made at the briefing, PhillySchoolApp would run a “centralized lottery and school matching service” that would assign each student only one option for a school.

Under the current system, students at the high school level are assured a neighborhood school option, can be admitted to as many as five District schools, and can apply to as many charter and private schools as they want. Under PSP’s proposed system, students would be matched to a single school. Students would have a right to refuse that school, but would lose their opportunity in the selective first round, then bump down to a second- and third-match round, where fewer schools are offered.

The PowerPoint said PSP had intended to secure the participation of “50-plus charter and Catholic schools” this year. Students assigned to Catholic schools would be matched "only if it was determined that scholarship assistance would be available." The tax-credit programs, Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) -- often deemed similar to vouchers -- are increasingly the most common means of scholarship assistance.

Attendees at the briefing said at least one staff aide asked a question about potential church-and-state conflicts.

“The question was asked, but it felt like it wasn’t taken seriously,” said one attendee. “They [PSP] just shrugged it off. They said there was no real conflict and started talking about the nature of the process, and how involved they were, and so on.”

Kristen Forbriger, communications manager for PSP, told me last week that, although the effort has been delayed till next year, the Compact Committee has “developed a common application,” which has been made available to District, charter, and Catholic schools. District officials said they are using their own application that is completely separate from an application through the Compact.

“The goal is to introduce the full system [“PhillySchoolApp”] in the future, hopefully by next year,” Forbriger wrote in an email.

One attendee at the briefing said Gleason asked Council members and staff to support the effort by putting their name behind neighborhood meetings to promote PhillySchoolApp. Forbriger explained over email that the purpose of the Council briefing was to “ensure Council members and staff were fully briefed on the program should it have rolled out this year, so they could share information with families.”

Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA, said her organization had supported a common enrollment process, which could deal with inequities. For example, some charters have been flagged for complicated application processes that create "barriers to entry" for some students.

But Gobreski expressed surprise at PSP’s newly forged, independent role.

“While we support the implementation of some form of common enrollment for high school students with an eye on equity, I am very concerned about it being run by a private entity,” Gobreski said. “School placement for public education must be the function of a public entity and changes to our current process need to be thoroughly examined in a public manner with an opportunity to raise questions.”

An untested experiment in school choice

Universal enrollment is another untested reform initiative coming from the Gates Foundation, which has a history of funding experimental, and often controversial, ideas in K-12 education (requiring student test scores as a major part of teacher evaluations, for example) and higher education. The most established universal enrollment programs are in New Orleans and Denver. Newark and Washington, D.C., recently announced they intend to introduce universal enrollment in 2014-2015.

Karran Harper Royal, a New Orleans parent advocate, shared her concerns with me this week about how the universal enrollment program has rolled out in her hometown. Harper Royal said that, in New Orleans, parents are handed a long list of school names with letter grades, which give little information about the quality of school services. Parents have raised concerns that universal enrollment actually limits choice options by directing families into a single computer-generated selection. Parents no longer have the guaranteed option of their nearby neighborhood school, even if it is a few blocks away and desired.

One mother, who lived on the West Bank of New Orleans, only listed schools on the West Bank, which were all full “according to the computer,” Harper Royal said. That parent was assigned to an “F”-rated school on the far east side of New Orleans slated for closure the following year.

“I’d be concerned that this is just another tool to segregate schools and steer some families to some schools and other families to other schools,” Harper Royal said. “This isn’t an informed choice that families are making.”

In New Orleans, where more than 70 percent of students are in charters, the “OneApp” (as it is dubbed) is a daunting 20-page package requiring two to four written pages per child. Notably, PSP’s PowerPoint presentation before City Council included a sample application form from the New Orleans OneApp. One report said that more than one in five families simply don’t participate in the process.

Tomika Anglin, a leadership member of Parents United for Public Education who attended the City Council briefing, said she was concerned that universal enrollment would “further starve already emaciated neighborhood schools.” 

“This is another way of telling people to get out of the public schools, and then blaming people if they don’t,” she said.

Anglin said she was most alarmed at the role of a private entity formed by PSP controlling the enrollment process. 

“How can parents be assured that this is about my child and not the agenda of PSP?” Anglin asked. “They are creating a process that, once implemented, will render the District and participating schools dependent – and then the bill will come. They have created their own source of profit, and the city’s schoolchildren will be held hostage.”

PhillySchoolApp will have unrestricted access to private student data in order to mine student information to facilitate their placement. A “central database can integrate with every school’s student data system,” one slide of the PSP PowerPoint shows.

Student data systems contain highly sensitive information, including names, addresses, Social Security numbers, grades, test scores, race,  students' economic status, special-education status, disciplinary status, and much more. They can also contain information that is appropriate for a school but may not be appropriate for third-party vendors, such as reasons for leaving a school or parental status (custody rights, foster care, etc.). Granting access to such information to a third party outside the School District could violate the confidentiality of such information.

New York City parents, for example, have launched a major battle around privacy rights against a private contractor, which collects student data and has the right to sell that information, recently highlighted in a New York Times article.

Privacy and First Amendment concerns aside, providing meaningful choices to Philadelphia’s families will take more than a clever computer algorithm. Choice advocates make a mistake in presuming that parents have real options when there is a dysfunctional school system that reformers largely refuse to improve.

Harper Royal, in New Orleans, said: “They’re not talking about leveling the playing field. They’re not talking about providing transportation, or dealing with school fees, or addressing quality of services, especially for students with special needs."

“They have hijacked the word choice. This is not choice. It’s the illusion of choice.”

Part 2 coming soon: “Public money, private gain: Philadelphia School Partnership's expanding role in political lobbying”

Helen Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education and a Notebook blogger.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author

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