This week’s City Paper cover story, Money Talks by Daniel Denvir, has gathered a lot of attention. The article explores the financial reach of the William Penn Foundation in the current reform plans being discussed for the school district. While a lot of the facts in the article were nothing new to me, a few things really troubled me. I have always been leery of private foundations dipping their hands into education reform. It’s one thing to support schools, it’s another thing when large, private foundations begin to fund larger scale school reform. What is truly unnerving about the current plan being proposed by the Boston Consulting Group, whose work here in Philly has been partially funded by the William Penn Foundation) is that, according to Denvir’s article, they are calling it the “Blueprint.” I just recently started reading Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System and the first part reads like a history of the Philadelphia school district over the last 10 years. When I joined the District in 2003, I was trained in Balanced Literacy and Everyday Math, which were both part of the “Blueprint” implemented in San Diego by Alan Bersin and Anthony Alvarado from 1998-2003. This Blueprint was, as the current BCG’s plan is, poorly received by many parents, teachers and the San Diego teachers’ union due to it’s top-down, take no prisoners approach. Interestingly enough, according to Ravitch’s book, the Broad Foundation supported a campaign to defeat an anti-Blueprint school board nominee. William Hite, the Philadelphia School District’s newly selected superintendent, is a graduate of the Broad Foundation’s Superintendent’s Academy.
The other disconcerting part of the article is an infographic showing the reach that the William Penn Foundation has here in Philadelphia. Along with helping fund the BCG’s Blueprint, they also provide financial backing for the political watch dog group the Committee of Seventy, which recently called for more transparency in the new superintendent’s contract, as well as the non-profit newspaper The Public School Notebook, which has closely followed and reported on everything from Arlene Ackerman’s exit to the controversy over Hope Moffet’s reassignment to ‘teacher jail.’ Something has to give when one entity has influence in so many different arenas. While Denvir’s article hints that the Foundation may be ending its funding of some of the more politically active, anti-privatization groups, this is even more worrisome.
All said, I certainly hope that these partnerships between the Philadelphia School District and private foundations like the William Penn Foundation and The Gates Foundation turns out better than the San Diego Blueprint fiasco and that any plans to move forward with the BCG plan involve community, parent and teacher voice and input. It sounds like Hite is willing to listen and continue the work that has been started, but he is only one piece in the puzzle.