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Commentary: Put the Boston Consulting Group where it belongs - before the public

By Helen Gym on May 24, 2012 05:31 PM

Helen GymIt’s hard to imagine a worse debut in Philadelphia for the Boston Consulting Group.

The Massachusetts-based multinational firm scored $1.4 million for a five-week gig that produced the publicly and academically scorned “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools.” The hardline rhetoric in the plan around school closings, charter expansion, and so-called “achievement networks” has drawn out thousands of upset parents and community members to gatherings around the city. 

And yet, as Dale Mezzacappa reported this week, BCG is continuing its role in Philadelphia for $1.2 million more, money raised specifically from private donors and funneled through the United Way outside public scrutiny.

Boston Consulting Group's contract should have been put before the School Reform Commission as a public resolution. But because it’s being funded through an outside entity, there’s no public review of a firm with an unprecedented role in shaping the SRC’s reform plans.

Even if you are for this plan, you cannot be for this process.

Had BCG gone through public channels, the SRC would be required to make BCG’s contract public. BCG’s specific findings and recommendations, which have never been released, would have been subject to public review. Questions could have been asked about the bidding process, criteria, and scope of work. Questions could have been asked about BCG’s past work in cities like Memphis and Cleveland, whose plans aren’t terribly dissimilar from ours.

Questions could have been asked about why BCG’s plan contrasted so sharply with Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon’s plan for school autonomy, which was based on many weeks of work with District staff, principals, and other stakeholders.

Maybe we would have learned that the rollout for the BCG plan came with its own communications team – also paid for by outside foundation support. Instead, there’s no attempt to distinguish between the District’s communications team and the PR done by a firm whose client no one really knows – BCG? William Penn Foundation? Individual donors? The United Way?

We could have asked important questions about the role of single donors funding BCG's $1.2 million – philanthropists like H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest and newer organizations like the Philadelphia School Partnership, which promotes religious schools and charters. Lenfest is a wonderful philanthropist and PSP has the right to promote whatever ideology it chooses, but when private money funds a public process – especially one as divisive as this one – we can’t evade questions and transparency in the name of philanthropy. Surely the fiasco around the mayor seeking private donations for Arlene Ackerman’s golden parachute can’t be that far from the public memory?

Finally, if BCG came before the SRC as a resolution, each member would vote and the public would know where the SRC stood on the direction of the district before outside entities crafted those plans, not after. When commissioners have major decisions made for them without a vote, they risk losing the public trust.

The Boston Consulting Group reminds me of the 2001 fiasco with Edison Schools. A little more than a decade ago, Edison Schools was paid $2.7 million to “study” the Philadelphia public schools and provide a report – a report Edison wrote that resulted in a plan to turn over the entire management of the District to, you guessed it, Edison Schools.

Today, BCG - funded by private interests - is engineering its own long-term role behind closed doors to remake the District into an image that has polarized important public dialogue on our schools.

The SRC needs to put the Boston Consulting Group where it belongs: before the public eye.

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Comments (22)

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on May 24, 2012 7:16 pm

Helen is 100% correct in her criticism of the privatization of the school transformation plan. Like the recent facilities plan to close schools, the process needs for transforming the District needs to be PUBLIC! These are publicly-funded schools, for the most part. An organization with the best interest of the children and families which the District serves in mind would OPEN the plan up for public comment. Why? Because public comment and the involvement of parents, students, and school personnel who know the issues at each school will allow for the fine-tuning and improvement of the plan.

The William Penn Foundation has an obligation to the public to make the process more transparent because transparency promotes the common good for everyone involved with the District. In addition, transparency creates more "buy-in" from families and employees in the District because they feel that they have a voice. Creating the new transformation in private makes people feel disempowered and, as a result, will be more resistant and hostile to the new plan. We are supposed to live in a DEMOCRACY! One purpose of public schools is to model the democratic process for our youngest citizens. This newest transformation plan is fundamentally undemocratic because people with power and money determine the process instead of members of the public. This kind of process has no place in our public schools, especially for a transformation plan with so many implications for so many people.

Submitted by Howard T. (not verified) on May 24, 2012 8:05 pm

Absolute power corrupts absolutely and what's happening here is exhibit A of that premise.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on May 26, 2012 9:48 am

That is precisely why it is "imperative" that we lead and govern our schools on the principles of democracy. It is the "only way" to ensure that our schools are governend for the best interests of our students and their communities.

Education Grad Student: I am amazed at how well you have articulated what is essentially a core concept of the "imperative of democracy" for our schools.

I appreciate your zeal and your understanding of the issues before us and enjoy reading your comments. It is wonderful to see leaders like you and others emerge in our community.

Democracy is the "sine qua non" for Greatness in our public schools.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 26, 2012 12:28 pm

You're preaching to the choir, Rich. Essentially, the slithering types like Nutter and his bandy bag of friends like Gamble and Williams are playing the race to card to convince the folks that they have their back. Truth is, money is green and that's ALL they care about. Nutter is planning for his future by playing all sides against the middle. He may be the worst of all of them because he "looks" honest.

Submitted by A Touch of Sense (not verified) on May 25, 2012 9:41 am

Thank you!!!! You warm my heart with your well stated points.

Kouzes and Posner studied 10,000 of the world's most effective CEO's in both the private sector and the public sector. They wrote the books, The Leadership Challenge, Credibility, and Encouraging the Heart, along with a great article entitled, "Leadership in the Eye of the Followers."

They concluded, "The foundation of leadership is credibility."

I borrowed their idea when I once wrote about and addressed the SRC with the proposition that, "Credibility is also the foundation of effective school governance."

The "Imperative of Democracy" is so eloquently stated by you!!! And of course, Helen!

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on May 25, 2012 9:29 pm

A Touch of Sense - Thank you for complimenting my post. As to your point about credibility, credibility is the key. Right now, the SRC has very little credibility with much of the public. And some people are not speaking up because they think that they are powerless to make change. In the eyes of some of the powers that be, the feeling of powerless among the masses is a beneficial phenomenon.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on May 26, 2012 12:37 pm

Yes, and not to mention that feedback from the general public DURING the process of creating a "solution", and not AFTER, saves time and money in the long run (do it right the first time instead of redoing it several times...)

Being able to see where the $$ are being shuffled to make the District financially viable, can only lead to more potentially valuable input. Even if it involves politically sensitive cuts, it is better to see these sooner than later.

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on August 9, 2012 7:37 pm

This is exactly the kind of thing that should scare, no, petrify people. Behind closed doors, they are making decisions effecting the citizens and we have no vote nor say in any of it. And that's democracy???? I think not.

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on May 24, 2012 8:31 pm

The pusher of BCG are the William Penn Foundation. Feather Houston used to run the William Penn Foundation. Nowak, the president of the William Penn Foundation, was on the Board of Mastery Charter. Mastery Charter's Scott Gordon is a major player in the Philadelphia School Partnership. A major source of funds for Mastery is the Lenfests. Lenfest is funding the BCG for the United Way. I'm sure the plot is much thicker. It is so dense that any semblance of a transparent public process is impossible.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2012 8:09 am

Well pointed out...BOYCOTT UNITED WAY!!!!!

"And yet, as Dale Mezzacappa reported this week, BCG is continuing its role in Philadelphia for $1.2 million more, money raised specifically from private donors and funneled through the United Way outside public scrutiny."

Union Members.....BOYCOTT UNITED WAY!!!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 25, 2012 8:39 am

The connections between Mastery, William Penn, BCG and the SRC should cause everyone to worry. This is *exactly* what the public is worried about when we talk about privatization. The utter lack of transparency at best gives the appearance of impropriety and at worst is a signal that there is an agenda at work beyond the public discourse.

Submitted by A Touch of Sense (not verified) on May 25, 2012 9:23 am

Yes, that is exactly what is happening. The privatization of our schools is being rolled out to us from behind closed doors. The public meetings are only public relations ploys to make it look like they are engaging the public.

The privatization agenda has been lurking behind the scenes from the very beginning of the school year. It is really no different than the "insider trading" which is illegal in the law of publicly offered stock corporations.

It is unethical in the world of public schools. The Agenda is becoming more and more clear.

The privatizers have more money than us and they are giving it to the politicians. That Agenda is being imposed upon us whether we like it or not.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 28, 2012 9:00 pm

Pressure--up close and personal, is what is needed by us now. No more meetings, no more marching, no more occupies, no more praying or singing--------------------------------------------------------FIGHT is needed to stop it.

Submitted by Dina (not verified) on May 25, 2012 1:41 pm

Thank you Helen. This is totally on the mark about this process and the ridiculous amount of money (in the face of lay offs, cut backs, and assaults to children's education) that this group has received. If there's "no money" then how come there seems to be so much money to spend on things like this?

Submitted by cgraham (not verified) on May 26, 2012 6:29 pm

Follow the money.

Submitted by Wake Up Philly (not verified) on May 29, 2012 11:21 pm

What will become of the money that will be given to United Way from the concert that Jay Z is putting together.? Tickets are already sold out.
The "Education" Mayor is endorsing this concert. Is there a hidden agenda? Will more of the money raised be given to BCG? There are many wolves in sheep's clothing!

We need to rally everyone and keep the pressure on!

Boycott the Concert until we know exactly who the money is being given to!!!!

Submitted by TYB (not verified) on May 30, 2012 3:14 pm

If schools and all the taxpayers $$$$ is turned over to private companies the future and the cities children will be bundled as shares and will be traded and gambled on Wall St .. subject to the CEO's and their desire for bonuses based on cost cuttings on the excuse that the "shareholders" need to have a return on investment .. in the end .. only a very small handful benefit .. and it will not be the children or the taxpayers.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 30, 2012 5:47 pm

Private organizations are free to fund a study by BCG and submit it as part of the public input process. That should be about it. The input by BCG should be treated equally with the input by other private entities, including Philadelphia citizens. What does the law say about disclosure of public input?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 30, 2012 9:28 pm

Helen,

I would love to see this as a guest editorial in the Inquirer or Daily News. This issue goes to the root of all of this education "reform" evil.

Lisa Haver

Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on June 22, 2012 12:48 pm

The SDP is reimbursing Mastery at Smedly $3.7 Million for improvements to the school. Now, the school meets "quality" requirements - elevator, separate gym/cafeteria, upgraded for air conditioning/electronics, new classrooms, etc. Meanwhile, the SRC will close SDP schools because they are "not updated" or "old."

Why isn't the SRC providing funding for all SDP schools to be "updated" - including elevators, fixing roofs / boilers, air conditioning, etc.? Why is a Mastery operated school getting updates/improvements while many of us work and send our children to schools with no such "luxuries?"

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 26, 2012 12:16 pm

Helen,

Thank you for your intelligent commentaries. Working class people, particularly those working in the public sector, should heed the economic peril of privatization. Privatization puts great downward pressure on the wages and benefits of working class people while making the rich even richer. It has started with schools and prisons and will spread to other publicly provided services. For example, a private company in Stockton, California is now providing police services in that city. I can assure you that policemen working for that company are not being paid fair wages and benefits.

We need to wake up now!

Submitted by Norwood (not verified) on April 11, 2013 2:35 am

Norwood Consulting Group, based in Birmingham, MI, is a national resume writing company that provides professional resume writing, CV, cover letters & expert job search strategies.

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