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

by on May 24 2012

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.