The Philadelphia School Partnership’s role in a controversial Council briefing on universal enrollment last month highlights the organization’s role in lobbying for controversial education policies and initiatives – even as it promotes itself as a philanthropy.
Last week, I wrote about PSP’s plan to create a private entity that would “outsource the enrollment and placement” of students into District, charter, and parochial schools. “PhillySchoolApp,” as the entity is being dubbed, would take the concept of “common enrollment” beyond what any other city has done. First, it would include parochial schools and coordinate the availability of tax-subsidized scholarships in the matching process. And second, it would take the crucial function of student placement out of the hands of the School District.
I have reservations about universal enrollment programs, especially with regard to who has the upper hand around issues of choice. At the same time, I do believe we should address inequities in the current student-placement system by streamlining complicated application processes and reducing barriers to entry to many charter schools. But PSP is exploiting the need to improve a flawed process by turning it into a vehicle for privatizing a key District responsibility and integrating into it a scholarship program that some regard as “backdoor vouchers.”
The week before PSP briefed Council on its far-reaching plan, its executive director, Mark Gleason, formally registered the Philadelphia School Partnership as a “principal” under the City lobbying laws. A “principal” is an agent that may hire lobbyists or lobby on its own behalf. In a Sept. 12 filing, Gleason stated that PSP began its city-based lobbying as of Aug. 1 of this year.
A month earlier, in July 2013, PSP admitted to hiring a powerful Harrisburg lobbying firm to push its case for major labor concessions as a precondition for releasing a $45 million state appropriation for the District. The PSP-funded lobbying group PennCAN paid for a secret poll encouraging Gov. Corbett to bolster his faltering re-election chances by attacking the Philadelphia teachers' union. PSP also paid for robocalls in the final days of the budget cycle urging Philadelphia residents to support the governor’s response to the District’s request for more funding, which included very little new state money.
As the school year opened, PSP continued to press its case for the state to withhold funds to the District even as hundreds of complaints filed by parents, students and school staff detailed the destructive consequences of inadequate resources.
While PSP’s political lobbying has only recently been formally acknowledged, public scrutiny should turn toward its unprecedented access to SRC members, District officials, and the city's Chief Education Officer Lori Shorr through the Gates-funded Great Schools Compact. The Great Schools Compact brings together the School Reform Commission, the mayor’s office, two charter school coalitions, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, and the Philadelphia Archdiocese. PSP is the only paid staff of the Compact and it is the fiscal agent for the Gates Foundation grant.
Compact meetings are not announced in advance and not open to the public. Partial, edited notes of the meetings are published often months after the meetings occur. There are no parent, student, or teacher representatives on the Compact.
PSP's communications manager, Kristen Forbriger, in a defense posted last week, stated that PSP has formed an advisory committee consisting of school operators, District representatives, and education nonprofits. What she failed to mention is that the members of the working group, as a condition of joining, signed confidentiality agreements.
For more than a year, PSP has been using the Compact vehicle to question whether universal enrollment should remain a core District function and to strengthen its own role. In the September 2012 edited meeting notes, PSP’s Mark Gleason raised questions about “where, in which organization, the common enrollment system management would be housed.” There was a decision to contract with the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, which would design a school match algorithm, and PSP offered to fundraise for those costs and “other consultants as needed.”
PhillySchoolApp won’t be cheap. According to PSP’s PowerPoint presentation, PhillySchoolApp will have a $1.5 million budget and operate a central office and four satellite offices to “provide customer service to schools and families.” Private philanthropy will 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.
PSP’s switch from an advisory role on universal enrollment to actually controlling and managing the program was the subject of more than a few questions at the Council briefing, according to attendees who were present.
“[One staff person] was making it very clear that what they were doing is lobbying for the creation of a procurement opportunity that they themselves would fulfill,” ” said one attendee.
“They were interrogated at length on that. They aren't advocates. They are just trying to grab their piece of the taxpayer pie.”
Benefiting from vouchers
PSP’s involvement also raises concerns about the motives behind the troubling expansion of the universal enrollment process to non-public religious institutions. Under the proposed PSP plan, students would be matched to just one school among those they put on their list, either District, charter, or Catholic. Students would be matched to a Catholic school if scholarship assistance were made available.
Whether that is a promise or threat depends largely on your position on school vouchers. The archdiocese -- a member of the Great Schools Compact -- has been relentless in saying that vouchers are crucial to the financial stability of the city’s Catholic schools. Last year, the archdiocese hosted “Voucher Sundays” in parishes across the city, and Archbishop Charles Chaput posted this bluntly titled op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer in June 2012 in the days leading up to the signing of the budget bill: “Pass voucher bill now – or else.”
Instead of a direct voucher program, Pennsylvania has two taxpayer-subsidized tuition tax credit programs -- the Educational Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) -- that are increasingly the most common source of scholarship assistance for students attending non-public schools in Philadelphia. PSP’s board includes prominent voucher and non-public school advocates, such as Janine Yass, who also sits on the board of the pro-voucher group Center for Education Reform. Of greater note, PSP board members also represent scholarship organizations that are the direct recipients of EITC and OSTC funds.
According to state guidelines, scholarship organizations are required to distribute only 80 percent of their scholarship funds to students and can keep up to 20 percent for their own administrative fees. In that regard, it is the most generous such program in the country.
PSP board members include:
- Chris Bravacos, a prominent Republican lobbyist and president of REACH Alliance, which describes itself as “Pennsylvania’s grassroots coalition for school choice.” Bravacos is on the board of the Bravo Foundation, an EITC scholarship organization that was specifically flagged in this New York Times article highly critical of the Pennsylvania program.
- Evelyn McNiff, president of the Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, which is the state’s largest recipient of OSTC funds and is also a designated EITC scholarship organization.
- PSP board chair Michael O’Neill, a businessman and member of a prominent real estate development family who is on the board of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), an organization providing EITC and OSTC scholarships for Catholic school students in the Philadelphia area.
A District in need of boundaries
So far, District officials have distanced themselves from PSP's universal enrollment plans. Nevertheless, the pressure around privatizing the school enrollment function raises fundamental concerns about a school district’s mission. School enrollment is a core, essential, public function of a district. Decisions about whether to create a universal enrollment system, what it should look like, what failures and lessons can be learned from other cities, and who it actually serves are all issues that should be led by the School District in deep consultation and review with parents and stakeholders as well as the broader public.
It remains deeply troubling that conversations like these are driven by an organization that has registered as a lobbyist and is pushing the agenda of its donors.
The unprecedented inclusion of private, religious schools in the matching process is also alarming, especially because many members of PSP’s board are affiliated with these schools and with foundations that stand to benefit.
Although there are potential advantages and drawbacks to a universal enrollment system, these crucial decisions are being made because a private organization wants them, not after a thorough and public airing of the alternatives in which Philadelphians determine they are a proven reform.
PSP has unprecedented access to high-level decision makers to make their case repeatedly and consistently.
For parents, the risks are high and the stakes are enormous.
Helen Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education and a Notebook blogger.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.