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

By Dale Mezzacappa on Jun 18, 2010 12:01 AM

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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Comments (22)

Submitted by Frank Murphy on June 18, 2010 1:01 pm

 Who can argue with the idea of increasing opportunities for a quality educational experience for our kids.  This is my goal as a public school educator.  However I am deeply concerned with the less than democratic fashion that important decisions are being made in our city and state concerning how our public schools are managed.


 Currently an appointed board of commissioners governs the Philadelphia Public School system.  The governor of our state and the mayor of our city appoint the members of this board.  The electorate of the city is not directly involved in deciding who runs our school system.


The election campaign funds of key elected local and state officials, such as State Senator Anthony Williams benefit from hefty contributions from wealthy individuals who have been keenly interested in reshaping the direction of schooling in our city, state, and nation.  The future of our public schools is a matter of importance to every citizen in our society.  Ordinary people such as myself should have as equal a voice in determining educational policy as the wealthy people who have made themselves important players in the educational arena by virtue of their fortunes.


Yes all children should have an opportunity to a quality educational experience whether it is in a traditional public school, a charter school, a catholic school or any other type of private school.  But this objective should not usurp how we will govern our nation.  We are a society of the people for the people.  Every citizen is important in our nation regardless of his or her race, gender, or socio-economic status.


Educational policy decisions in our nation are increasingly being determined by the wealthy.  Schools have become their new playground. As a result, ordinary citizens are finding that they have little if any voice in the governance of their own local schools.  


There is something of greater value to consider when we are being allured by the philanthropy of a wealthy few.  The ideals and values of our democratic society is where the real wealth of society springs.  We need to be mindful that we risk surrendering our right to advocate for and to protect the public trust when we allow a privileged few to decide what is best for the rest of us.








Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 19, 2010 7:27 pm

I guess your central thesis is that the decisions to reshape public education are being somewhat being shaped by successful private sector individuals, and that is wrong. I am saying this because of your last paragraph; initially you argue something else about the structure of Pennsylvania's school governance. And this is a guess-- correct me if I am wrong, because yet again this is pretty much the most incoherent thing I have read in awhile.

You write things like, "Ordinary people such as myself should have as equal a voice in determining educational policy as the wealthy people who have made themselves important players in the educational arena by virtue of their fortunes," attempting to create this dichotomous cast: the ordinary, hard-working folks versus the evil philanthropists who have made a lot of money and give a lot of it away. This is a false dichotomy-- drop the "me against the rich folks" thing.

You espouse this magically idealistic viewpoint of a perfectly democratic structure where all decisions are made by everyone. Is every decision at the school you govern made with 100% input from every staff member? I am willing to wager that no, they aren't, and that some decisions are executive decisions, perhaps most likely in the issue of finance. If they aren't, why don't you just tell us what school you are the principal of, and then we can invite some of the teachers on here to discuss the decision-making process to disprove this.

And then you write with shock at the concept of campaign contributions. Where have you been? Even corporations can contribute to campaigns-- this is nothing new. No one should be surprised by this.

Lastly, you write perhaps the most contradictory paragraph in your second to last: so every child DOES NOT deserve an equal education so that ordinary, folksy, hard-working adults can have their say? And then you write that "every citizen is important in our nation regardless of his or her race, gender, or socio-economic status"-- so every citizen is important, but they do not deserve equal educations if their education is directed by a small group? Oh, so you would like a mass of uneducated citizens who have a say in everything? Because that sounds like it will work.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 21, 2010 1:52 pm

On the topic of your wealthy versus "Ordinary people such as [your]self" argument, if you were a beginning principal at a small elementary school in the district, you are making at least $138,000 (look at the budgets of schools on the district site). Now, you say you have over 30 years in the district, and we also do not know what grade your school is at, so we cannot determine how much MORE you are making.

According to the last census, the median household income in Philadelphia was $37,090 ( So you are making, in theory, at least $100,000 more by yourself than the median household in the county. Now I am not going to assume anything about your number of dependents or financial status, but at least on pure salary, you are statistically much wealthier than the average Philadelphian, thus undermining your dichotomous "I don't make money and am just an ordinary guy/woman" vs. "those folks with money" argument.

As an anonymous blogger "from the inside," you have enormous power to write insightful pieces, but you continually write these muddled pieces that have no power whatsoever. It seems you have been given a pass by many here; because you are risking something, we must take your word and believe it all instead of thinking critically about it.

Submitted by Trodo (not verified) on June 22, 2010 9:49 am

I wanted to chime in and say how much I agree with the arguments of this post.

Firstly, it DOES seem rather disingenuous to posit yourself as "one of the ordinary folks" with what is by and large a most likely substantial salary. I mean, at 130k+, you're pulling down what my wife and I make together--more even. I'm sure it's well-deserved--and I'm not knocking you for what you make, but I'm wondering if your "ordinary people" comment is really meant to just imply/embody non-private sector people, or, as befitting this website, educators.

Secondly, I've been reading f's blog entries, and there's a slant to them regarding accountability and transparency amongst schools (which I agree with) that I find ironic from someone who chooses to post rather sharp critiques under an anonymous pen-name. I worry that as an extended series of blog posts, this issue will continue to rise and undermine some of the observations that we're getting. I mean at some point one has to wonder what f's own professional environment and facade is like when/if you continue to parse the operations of others in education.

Sadly, I feel like the tone of these posts have been reflective of the overall tone of The Notebook in general as of late, which has skewed heavily towards anti-charterisms (perhaps most evident in the comments sections) which has stifled the ability to have a discussion about what's going on in the city--it's largely been reduced to a constant volley of attacks.

Rather tiresome.

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 20, 2010 6:53 pm

The education sector in this day and age is full of greedy people who don't give a rats ass about our children. When have any of these real estate magnates or investors stepped up to do anything that hasn't benefited them economically? When do we listen to people from the Bush administration wax poetic about how much they want to help poor black kids? Anyone remember Hurricane Katrina? And all of the do-gooder liberals eat it up and believe it? The idea of making the education of poor children into a complicated science that can only be understood and implemented by technocrats with business backing is a load of crap. Back in the day Native American children were forced into schools that were designed to "re-educate" them as a form of social control. The people involved in projects like this think nothing of our culture and have no respect for poor people. If anything, they believe that we need to be fixed, and they're trying to figure out if they can make a buck doing it. The reason these hedge fund managers are big into this is that the education sector promises a guaranteed return on investment unlike so many other risky ventures. Our schools have still never been guaranteed the same baseline. No one will actually take responsibility for ensuring equity in the schools, getting our schools the best leadership possible, and creating environments that actually work for our children. Guess what - that takes a lot of resources, and people with a high degree of integrity to manage and allocate them. Politics already consumes every aspect of public education, and this project guarantees that will only continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. No one ever bothers to ask why none of this ridiculousness is taking place in the suburbs.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 21, 2010 2:48 am

Kids should all get music and art not just certain ones that score high on test. If you don't do well on test you don't deserve art, drama, dance and maybe that is why kids in schools that have the arts have done well . How many schools that are empowerment don't have art, music and challenging curriculum. It has been cut, cut cut, the curriculum is watered down, and scripted. They have taken and taken and taken from kids in the inner city over and over again. Schools like Frederick Douglass that have taken students to college settlement, whether they have the money or not, kids that otherwise wouldn't have a chance to leave North Philly.

Submitted by keith Newman (not verified) on June 22, 2010 10:27 pm

We're told teaching is the most noble profession. But evidently this round table was one for the Kings, not the nobles who really know what is happening in our schools.
I believe Mastery has a role in the Renaissance program. It will be interesting to see how they deal with children whom they can no longer ship off, or parents they can't get involved.
I for one actually expect them to succeed. I believe you can work with parents successfully when you engage at the neighborhood school level. That is what is missing in Philadelphia, and perhaps why Parent University only enrolled 300 instead of its goal of 10,000 by spring 2010.
Teachers, say good-bye to your school district, or, do something about it.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 27, 2010 1:39 pm

You are the same individual who had arrogant and pompous statements regarding my wife saying the letter she received from her principal and Dr. Ackerman on her excellence as a teacher was bogus. I hate to break the news to you but that little letter speaks volumes, so when you go up against her for a position under Site Selection, she will take the job from you because that letter will be viewed by the Principal and Site Selection Committe as something very positive which will in turn, work to her favor and advantage.

Also, the teachers are NOT losing their jobs. READ the contract before uttering comments about what is happening here or there. It specifically states that NO teacher will lose employment due to the Renaissance Schools initiative. Relax, take a deep breath, you will have a job to go to. Ackerman is creating the mess and it will get cleaned up eventually. I do know that Jerry Jordan did not expect 14 schools to become Renaissance Charter Schools. He only expected 5. I have a feeling you will see all teachers band together and take on the district. Look at the positive spin that just happened in Chicago -----CORE (Union) took over and they got their School District back. I still believe all 10,000 teachers protest for a couple of days and show where the majority lies. I know you can't srike but protesting a couple of days will not cause all 10,000 teachers to lose their jobs or certifications---Give me a break---teachers still have the edge---Now use that edge!!!!

Submitted by Keith Newman (not verified) on June 27, 2010 8:40 pm

I agree with one thing you said, Teachers need to come together and do some protesting. We teachers also need to educate the middle class as to what is happening in education and why it is not good for children or our country.
We have allowed the right to paint this picture as breaking up unions is good for America, that union teachers are the problems with education.

As for you personally, I am glad you are so supportive of your wife. I'm sure she worked hard and deserved the letter. However, if the terms of the contract were being honored, we wouldn't have this hiring mess we have. The PFT has correctly stepped to protect their jobs. But if you don't see that Dr. Ackerman is doing everything she can to eliminate union jobs, weaken the union's bargaining position and ultimately eliminate the union, then my friend, your more than just a little naive.

Submitted by Keith Newman (not verified) on June 27, 2010 8:56 pm

I agree with one thing you said, Teachers need to come together and do some protesting. We teachers also need to educate the middle class as to what is happening in education and why it is not good for children or our country.
We have allowed the right to paint this picture as breaking up unions is good for America, that union teachers are the problems with education.

As for you personally, I am glad you are so supportive of your wife. I'm sure she worked hard and deserved the letter from Dr. Ackerman. However, if the terms of the contract were being honored, we wouldn't have this hiring mess we have. The PFT has correctly stepped in to protect their jobs. But if you don't see that Dr. Ackerman is doing everything she can to eliminate union jobs, weaken the union's bargaining position and ultimately eliminate the union, then my friend, my comment as to you being naive, sticks.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 27, 2010 10:49 pm

It's time for a march on 440 and SRC buffoons. Teachers need to speak out and stop the stereotyping by the politicians and the corporate sponsors. How Ed Rendell and his flunkie political buddies can lie like they did in the Inquirer op-ed piece is unthinkable at this time. How much does Ackerman have to do before these clowns own up to their mistakes?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 30, 2010 2:18 pm

I said it a million times-------The PFT, Jerry Jordan, and all need to show solidarity in a huge way when the next contract expires. All 10,000 teachers need to have a rally in front of 440 and show some guts. Stand up for your jobs and your rights as a teacher in this District. Show them that you guys are still in charge!!! Let Ackerman know that you all mean business. Run her out of this city. Get involved and start newspaper editorials-opinion page every week in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer. Get up and fight for what you believe in. Send mass letters to Senators and Congressman in our State. Get together and come up with ways to sue and get rid of ACT 46.

Jerry Jordan????? Where are you???? Get out from under the covers and see the worst contract that you pushed through---Are you happy???? All PFT members should send mass letters to Jerry Jordan letting him know how he screwed teachers over and let him know he will be voted out due to his ignorance. It's been 6 months and still no contract on the PFT website-----What is up with that???

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