This week, wealthy donors interested in the future of public education gathered at the Union League for a conference entitled “All of the Above: How Donors Can Expand a City’s Great Schools.” The event, organized by the conservative Philanthropy Roundtable, was closed to the press and public, and restricted to those who make $50,000 in charitable donations per year. And despite what the name might suggest, attendees were not in Philly to counter state budget cuts or to cut checks to rehire laid-off school counselors. Instead, they were here to meet with activists who want to move yet more students into privately managed charter schools, and even private schools. (The broke Philly School District (PSD) estimates each student who attends a charter costs the PSD an extra $7,000.)
To school reformers, Philadelphia represents not a cautionary tale, but a road map for the privatization of public education. Standing amid the ruins of city public schools, they like what they see: an opportunity to remake public education according to their own design. This is a city that shows what can happen when dollars and decision-making move into private hands — and behind closed doors.
In early 2012, one of the movement’s key funders, the William Penn Foundation, spent and funneled millions of dollars to bankroll the Boston Consulting Group’s “Blueprint” to “transform” the PSD. The plan called for gutting the District’s central office and breaking up schools into “achievement networks” that could be operated by private managers.
William Penn also spent $15 million on the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), which has become the most powerful school-reform group in town. In some cases, PSP has taken on the direct governance of city schools, running a public-private entity called the Great Schools Compact. It’s unclear what else PSP and the Compact have been doing: their internal operations aren’t public. What is clear is that a number of conservative and corporate power brokers sit on PSP’s board. The PSP-allied organization PennCan, a conference presenter, recently advised Gov. Corbett to exploit the Philly schools crisis to mount an attack on the teachers’ union and thereby boost his sagging re-election chances.
All this may be happening behind the scenes, but a recent article in the Roundtable’s magazine spelled out the mission with refreshing clarity: “The conventional mass school district” ought to “be replaced by a new ‘system of schools,’ governed by the revolutionary practices of chartering.”
Only public opposition can put a stop to this private revolution.
Read the full story on the Naked City blog.
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