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How universal enrollment highlights expanded role for PSP

By Helen Gym on Oct 31, 2013 02:24 PM

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:

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.


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Comments (27)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 31, 2013 4:05 pm
Helen Gym is a fanatic, but this is just a ridiculous example of people destroying a broken educational system. This is disgusting.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 1, 2013 7:08 am
Helen Gym is a highly respected advocate for propriety in what is happening in the school district. In my eyes, she has the highest level of credibility in this debate. She, and the advocates who comment below and many others, who selflessly stand up for public education and the legally required transparency and ethical conduct, are the True Heroes in all of this. It is time for everyone -- to be honest. What we are watching is an Orwellian drama. It is not about the best interests of children and their communities. It is only about the corporate raid on public education and a self interest group surreptitiously seizing more power, and more control of what are supposed to be public processes. Any enrollment plan for public school students needs to be publicly created and publicly run by the School District of Philadelphia. It needs to be open, honest, transparent, credible, and above all -- ultimately ethical.
Submitted by Go-Eagles (not verified) on November 1, 2013 4:34 pm
Rich - You may or may not have known, but here are several hyperlinks to information about GSC provided by PSP, particularly on UE. Overview ......... Meeting Notes ...... I know that there are signed confidentiality agreements, but there appears to be plenty of information on UE. IMHO, on the surface, it appears to be transparent.
Submitted by Helen Gym on November 1, 2013 5:02 pm

Meeting notes are heavily edited. For example, their meeting notes from September makes zero mention of the Council briefing that occurred that day. They are usually published months after the fact, and just because there are a few edited notes on the website is not the definition of transparent. No public meetings and unrestricted/unlimited access to private conversations with District officials, SRC and Lori Shorr. That's what we mean by lack of transparency.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 1, 2013 5:36 pm
Yes. Thank you. I appreciate your information. I also appreciate your input. That is not what I call "open and transparent." From reading those sites, it is obvious that those running the Compact Committee believe that they are a type of governance body for the district. That is scary. I have a problem from the get go with the compact itself. You see we have a Constitution, and we have an SRC, and we have a Sunshine Act which embodies the principles of "participatory due process" in governmental decision-making required by the Due Process Clause. What that committee is doing is circumventing those mandatory public processes. PSP's role is suspect as they have an Agenda to privatize public schools. Even if it had public meetings, which they do not, they have no standing to represent the public in anything. What they put out is basically Newspeak.
Submitted by Go-Eagles (not verified) on November 3, 2013 6:31 pm
Ok. I'm not a lawyer, but I did go and review the PA Sunshine Act. I'm game here and will take a bite of the apple and play devils advocate. Section 708 Executive Session (4) To consult with its attorney or other professional advisor regarding information or strategy in connection with litigation or with issues on which identifiable complaints are expected to be filed. Did any individual file a complaint about admissions within the district? Let me be clear, I'm not a lawyer and not an expert on the Sunshine laws, but I would say that gives them carte blanche to do anything. Administrators and school boards have closed door meetings all the time with "professional advisors", which to me, is code for consultants. The definition of a consultant is first they "con" you and then they "insult" you. I don't see anything different than what I've seen from my local school board. They all have hidden agendas.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 3, 2013 9:12 pm
Yes there are always hidden agendas. But section (c) under the executive sessions says: 65 Pa.C.S.A. § 708. Executive sessions: c) Limitation. � Official action on discussions held pursuant to subsection (a) shall be taken at an open meeting. Nothing in this section or section 707 (relating to exceptions to open meetings) shall be construed to require that any meeting be closed to the public, nor shall any executive session be used as a subterfuge to defeat the purposes of section 704 (relating to open meetings). They can discuss employee matters and litigation in executive session, but all action must be taken at an open meeting pursuant to a resolution. The purpose of the Sunshine Act is transparency in public processes and to give the public an opportunity to comment and participate in public governance. It is called "the democratic process."
Submitted by Helen Gym on November 15, 2013 11:31 am

Yes, you are not a lawyer. 1) Unless you live in Philadelphia, your local school board is elected. 2) Executive Session does not apply because the Compact is not a governmental entity. They are a quasi/public-private hybrid in which city officials and SRC commissioners meet privately with operators on issues those operators stand to benefit from. 

The point we are trying to make is that the Compact is not a governmental entity. There are rules to provide a certain amount of public access to public entities. There are none that apply to private ones like the Compact. That's the difference.

Submitted by Dave M (not verified) on November 1, 2013 11:31 am
I'd like to see you do the research and engage in the activism that she does. Put your money where your mouth is!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 31, 2013 4:08 pm
I will run the program and i promise to only hire only my friends and skim whatever I can off the top.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 31, 2013 4:50 pm
I am now going to stop trying to be a better teacher. What is the point?
Submitted by tom-104 on October 31, 2013 4:30 pm
Thank you Helen Gym! You are filling in for a missing in action mainstream media which is supposed to inform the public about our community. The schools are public institutions which are for the good of the community, not private profit. How can PSP's actions be reconciled with this article of the Pennsylvania Constitution?: Article III, Section 15 "No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school."
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on October 31, 2013 5:08 pm
It is shameful how many "public servants" are watching this and in the interests of "fair reporting" are quietly letting this disaster unfold. This is extremely painful to watch.
Submitted by Lisa Haver (not verified) on October 31, 2013 5:40 pm
Helen's articles should be taken by all those who believe in a public school system which is truly public as a call to action. The SRC has already voted to approve several PSP initiatives, including recruitment of senior staff and principal training, not to mention the far-reaching funding decisions made over the past two years. There is no discussion or information given by the SRC to the public before the votes are taken. A private lobbying group with its own political agenda--which has nothing to do with the wishes of parents, students, teachers or community members--should have nothing to say about the policies or practices of a public school system.
Submitted by Maureen Fratantoni (not verified) on October 31, 2013 5:55 pm
Agreed, Lisa!!!
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on October 31, 2013 6:04 pm
Should, would, could, may, might, maybe. STOP already !!!! We get it. NOW WHAT do we do to combat it ?? I say get real aggressive and challenge ACT 46 in the streets by any means necessary to bring outside exposure and daylight to all of it. Of course, most of the pols are laying even lower than usual, under the radar because they'll be rewarded down the road a piece. What else is new?? I think we all should wear red shirts tomorrow, that'll learn em real good. Better yet, let's all pray for a miracle and write back and forth sharing stories of abuse while playing either the victim or the bystander. A different God, a different mountaintop.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on October 31, 2013 7:55 pm
The mighty hands of the Phila. School Dictatorship include determining which schools will open (e.g. Workshop), expand (e.g. Hill Freeman and SLA), and close (e.g. Gleason "shut them down" last winter). This is a very dangerous organization which has overtly sided with charters and vouchers. They can not be trusted to run a for profit company to determine school registration / assignment. They can't get vouchers passed through the PA legislature - instead we have vouchers "lite." Thank you, Ms. Gym, for writing the article.
Submitted by Gtown_teach (not verified) on October 31, 2013 10:15 pm
Can we bring some sort of legal challenge to the actions of the PSP? What they do is similar to a hostile takeover. Being sneaky in buying political stock with it's back door meetings, and lobbying. It's very clear that the PSP is out for the money (hence their board members) at the children's expense. I hope that Schwartz or whatever dem gets elected to the gov position can turn the attorney general's microscope on them. Possibly bring them up on corruption charges. They need to go.
Submitted by tom-104 on October 31, 2013 10:15 pm
It's not "similar" to a hostile takeover, it IS a hostile takeover.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 1, 2013 3:43 am
Quote of the day, "They aren't advocates. They are just trying to grab their piece of the taxpayer pie" I can just see a fat public school advocate (maybe protesting with a pig snout) covered in pie saying this, vomiting, and then ordering a taxpayer to make more pie.
Submitted by Lawrence A. Feinberg (not verified) on November 1, 2013 10:33 am
Vouchers? We don’t need no stinking vouchers…... These are the same folks who pushed for vouchers in PA. There are easier ways to take the “public” out of public schools; to use tax dollars for private and religious schools; to remove the “impediment” of democratic governance from what should be a public good; to take transparency and accountability away from taxpayers/voters. Its not just a parent’s choice – those “backpacks of money that follow the child” are full of taxpayer’s money. Should a gang of rich folks with agendas get to decide where the money goes? Members of PSP’s board are neither elected nor appointed. Keep in mind that Pennsylvania’s “successful EITC program” permits scholarship organizations to keep 20% of the funds for administration; similar programs in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia cap administrative costs at 3 percent to 10 percent. EITC recipients are not subject to any academic performance or fiscal accountability reporting requirements under the EITC/OSTC laws.
Submitted by Helen Gym-class Heroes (not verified) on November 1, 2013 10:48 am
While I really appreciate the work the Notebook does for Philly education, this website is starting to feel more like www.helengym' vs I've been reading for years. To be clear, I'm not begrudging her having a voice--she's incredibly smart and engaged and I marvel at the abundance of time and resources she must have to constantly work on this stuff--but it'd be great for the notebook to round out the stable of writer's voices here. Every PSP-related rebuttal can't keep coming from HG. Can we just get another person on here too? That's all I'm asking.
Submitted by please (not verified) on November 1, 2013 11:41 am
Let's review. We knew that Helen's piece was going to be a two-parter. We didn't know that both PSP and ELC would write rebuttals. Only some kind of myopia would prevent someone from seeing all f the other articles written by Notebook staff and many other writers of guest commentaries. Or maybe some people didn't expect that Helen can easily refute any pseudo-fact written by--well, it's pretty obvious who is writing them.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 1, 2013 11:38 am
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 1, 2013 11:46 am
That's your comment to this story? Says it all.
Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on November 2, 2013 1:19 am

The role of the PSP needs to be a focus in the both the upcoming state and, the year following, the city elections.   It is a threat to democratic governance of our schools and a force for privatization and austerity.   Besides this current issue that Helen has ably explored in this and the previous piece, there is the PSP's enthusiastic embrace of the recommendations of the Boston Consulting Group last year, their support for mass school closings, their opposition to use and occupancy tax reform and their concerted  attacks on teachers and their union.  

The Great Schools Compact and the PSP have assumed so much power in some large part because of our peculiar form of school governance.   The SRC, unelected, unaccountable, and the instrument of a Governor and a Mayor who have substantial unity with PSP's agenda, can't be counted on to rein in these people.   We need to make return of our schools to local, democratic control a central issue.  

The current crop of candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary as well as candidates for house and Senate seats need to address the issue of the emerging power of monied interests in making school policy as well as the question of ending the SRC regime.   We also need to monitor where their campaign contributions come from.


Submitted by Vivian Rodriguez (not verified) on May 22, 2014 8:25 pm
Thank you Helen for exposing PSP! I just meet you via tweeter mainly because our connection between Steel and Munoz-Marin. But I admire your dedication and tenacity. I am a retired spec. ed. teacher that instinctively became an advocate because I witnessed wrongdoing by the Renaissance Charter School Initiative. As you may already know, their connection with PSP is suspiciously tight. Aspira, the charter operator that wants our school really bad, have been showered by millions of dollars. Mr. Calderon is expecting a grant from them as soon as Dr. Hite and the SRC close the " done deal". By the way, PSP just gave $88,000 incubation grant on March 2014, to Aspira, Congreso, Nueva Esperanza, Maria Quinones-Sanchez & the SDP. I guess nobody cares about Aspira's financial improprieties. It is UGLY!

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