Ethics & lobbying / Latest campaign / School closings

Why we filed with the Ethics Board: The public deserves to know what’s happening here

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PILCOP attorney Michael Churchill (far left), PHSC representative Rose Lentz (middle, blue shirt) and Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire join Parents United’s June Waters-Bey, Gerald Wright, Sabra Townsend, Rebecca Poyourow, and Helen Gym in a press conference outside the City’s Ethics Board offices. (Photo: Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia)

Yesterday, Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Home and School Council and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP filed a complaint with the City Ethics Board requesting an investigation into whether the Boston Consulting Group, private donors, and the William Penn Foundation acted as lobbyists and principals to influence policy in the School District of Philadelphia.

We did not make this decision easily or hastily. The William Penn Foundation has long been a positive force for philanthropy in the city. Before taking action, we requested a thorough legal analysis from the venerable Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. We arrived at our decision after months of observation and study around the murky activities of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and the wealthy donors who funded them. Just a week before the District is expected to announce dozens of school closings which will throw our city into turmoil, we believe the public deserves to know the full influence of private money and access on decisions that impact us all.

As detailed in our complaint, the BCG -William Penn Foundation contract explicitly stipulated that BCG’s work would promote charter expansion, management networks, identify 60 top candidates for school closure and impact labor negotiations. Specific mention was made in the contracts about influencing the SRC before an important May vote. While it’s true that the District initially hired BCG, it did so only for about five weeks between February and March. BCG’s District contract expired March 29. From then on, BCG’s contract was only with the William Penn Foundation.

As a third party entity, BCG had unprecedented access to District data, financial information, high-level decisionmakers, and private forums to push their plans. No such access has ever been afforded to parents and community members who had to settle for limited information and public meetings.

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Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire answers questions. (Photo: Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia)

BCG’s influence was made apparent in the massive charter expansions which happened this past spring. BCG’s contract with the William Penn Foundation stated as a “deliverable” that BCG would “work closely with the school district’s senior leadership, School Reform Commission members, and the Office of Charter Schools to design a charter school expansion strategy” and “design and execute a charter school renewal and modification process.”

They delivered.

Against a backdrop of dramatic fiscal crisis – Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen even threatened that schools may not open in September – the School Reform Commission inexplicably approved 5,416 new seats across 14 charters at a projected cost of $139 million over five years. Some of the charters like KIPP Philadelphia had a School Performance Index which ranked them among the District’s lowest performers.

It’s critical for the public to understand the role of private, monied interests seeking to influence such decisions. PILCOP found that the William Penn Foundation solicited donors specifically for the BCG contract and then oversaw a fund at a separate agency that disbursed donations exclusively to BCG. This set-up allowed the identities of many of those who paid for BCG’s work to remain secret, along with any economic interests they may have had in the policies and decisions being advanced. For example, it was later reported by the Public School Notebook that the donors included a prominent real estate developer and individuals and groups with interests and ties to religious and charter organizations.

Transparency matters in the case of charter expansions, or when BCG states as a deliverable that it will “identify 60 top candidates for [school] closure.” It matters because under this shrouded arrangement, the public can’t know whether the work BCG did was for the District’s benefit or for the benefit of its donors.

Press conference

Parents June Waters-Bey, Sabra Townsend and Gerald Wright listen to a representative from the Board of Ethics explain the complaint process. (Photo: Parents United for Public Education)

From our viewpoint as parents, this is not philanthropy. It’s something dramatically different that needs the review of an independent agency. That’s why we joined with the Philadelphia Home & School Council and the Philadelphia NAACP to file a complaint with the City Ethics Board and bring what we believe to be the first test of the City’s new Lobbying Ordinance since it went into effect last January.

As Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire explains: “We need to assure the public that monied interests are not using the turmoil in the District for their own interest.”

This issue isn’t just a local one. On a national level, a number of education observers and public interest advocates have raised serious concerns about the role of “philanthropic” investments into education reform. From the Broad Foundation to the Waltons and Gates Foundations – what we’re seeing across the country is an unprecedented level of private money shaping public policy under the guise of philanthropy. Too often that agenda has centered around a radical dismantling of public education, increased privatization, and disruptive reform that has sent many districts spiraling into chaos and sustained turmoil.

It’s important to note the complaint we filed addresses regulatory compliance. We are not suing the Foundation or BCG and we are not charging them with illegal activity. Lobbying is legal. But there is a fundamental difference between claiming that BCG’s work was based on a full needs assessment of the school district with the District’s best interests at its center, and recognizing that they could also be a hired gun executing on a pre-determined contract with private interests hoping to influence decisionmakers rather than endure a public and democratic process of governance.

The public needs to know what’s happening here either way. We are not going to shrug our shoulders with a “business as usual” resignation. The lines separating public good from private interests have been blurred if not crossed on issues of dramatic importance to parents, students and community members. The School Reform Commission meanwhile has not assured us they understand the importance of boundaries and maintaining them judiciously.

Transparency and public process matter. It’s unfortunate it takes a formal complaint to reinforce that message for our schools.

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Read our previous post: The new “philanthropy”: Private agendas vs. public interest

Read media coverage on this issue:

National

Washington Post, The Answer Sheet: “Probe sought into private influence on public education policy

Chronicle of Philanthropy: “Philadelphia schools activists challenge Penn Foundation spending” http://philanthropy.com/blogs/philanthropytoday/philadelphia-schools-activists-challenge-penn-foundation-spending/58997

State

Associated Press: “Parents: Consultant was lobbying schools” http://www.therepublic.com/view/story/6203db22c9184bd78899cd0d1b615d33/PA–Philadelphia-Schools-Lobbying

Local

12/7/2012

Philadelphia Tribune: School study closure draws lawsuit

12/6/2012

Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “Ethics complaint questions legitimacy of BCG reform plan, school closures” http://thenotebook.org/blog/125411/closures-loom-ethics-complaint-filed

Philadelphia Daily News: “District adds voice to lobby law dispute” http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20121206_District_adds_voice_to_lobby-law_dispute.html

KYW1060: “City Ethics board to review lobbying complaints against William Penn Foundation” http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2012/12/06/city-ethics-board-to-review-lobbying-complaints-against-william-penn-foundation/

12/5/2012

Newsworks: “Ethics complaint filed on Philly school district deal” http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/off-mic/item/47958

Philadelphia Inquirer: “Parent groups, NAACP to file ethics complaint over school district consultant” http://www.philly.com/philly/education/20121205_Parents_groups__NAACP_to_file_ethics_complaint_over_school_district_consultant.html

Daily News: “Schools’ future tied up with city lobbying rules” http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/city/20121205_Schools__future_tied_up_with_city_lobbying_rules.html

Blogs

12/7/2012

Diane Ravitch: “Philadelphia parents file ethics complaint against powerful foundation

12/5/2012

City Paper Naked City: “Ethics complaint accuses Boston Consulting Group, William Penn Foundation of violating lobbying code” http://www.citypaper.net/blogs/nakedcity/Ethics-complaint-filed-against-BCG-William-Penn.html

Philebrity: “NAACP, PUPE, and PHSC are filing an ethics complaint around the School District’s restructuring plan” http://www.philebrity.com/2012/12/05/also-in-schools-the-naacp-pupe-and-phsc-are-filing-an-ethics-complaint-around-the-school-districts-restructuring-plan/

Diane Ravitch: “Philadelphia school parents take a stand for public control of public education” http://dianeravitch.net/2012/12/04/philadelphia-parents-take-a-stand-for-public-control-of-public-education/

Philadelphia Inquirer School Files: “Ethics complaint looms for William Penn, BCG” http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/school_files/Ethics-complaint-looms-for-William-Penn-BCG.html

11 thoughts on “Why we filed with the Ethics Board: The public deserves to know what’s happening here

  1. Very glad you are raising these issues. I tried to comment on Dave Davies’ story on this at Newsworks.org (which did not mention the “secret donors” aspect of funneling money through WPF) but the commenting widget at the site was broken and I could not post. I hope that PUPE, the Notebook, and the mainstream media continue to uncover and document this complicated and important story.

  2. The one word that came to my mind about all of this is transparency. That is key and is mentioned at the end of the article. The parents need to be informed and to know what REALLY is happening with our education system and be included in these future talks/meetings/decision making.

  3. Now the communities, parents, neighbors, and citizens without access, are having to “fight” the people with access (money). Why not let communities run the schools. What about abolishing the attendance boundaries? What about the members of the faculty and staff be part of the community too? Charter schools are not philanthropy. They are for profit. Aren’t they?

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  8. From Seattle (moved here from Philly). I couldn’t be more thrilled that you have done this and brought the private philanthropy influence on policy into the public consciousness. I hope this is the beginning of a serious national discussion about this profoundly undemocratic development in our democratic nation.

    As a public school parent, it’s been excruciating to be subject to the whims and mandates of unelected billionaires. In Washington this year Gates, Paul Allen, the Bezos’s (mom and dad), Walmart heiress Alice Walton (who lives in Texas), the Mcaw’s (cell phones – he collects vintage aircraft), Reed Hastings of Netflix (who lives in CA), and a very, very tiny handful of here and there donors purchased a charter school law. They first gave $2.1 million to a CA company to bring in paid signature gatherers to get their charter school initiative on the ballot (charters were not allowed here until this Nov. 6). They managed to get over 250,000 signatures in about three weeks, coming out at $6 per signature. Then they donated about $10,000,000 to their campaign. They outspent the “No” folks 11:1 and still the initiative only squeaked by. We had no advertising. They blanketed the airwaves and televisions. This was the most blatantly bought major public policy I have ever witnessed.

    They play with us in other ways, too, funding “grassroots” organizations (in some cases started by themselves) to advocate for their positions (testing, tech, VAM teacher evaluations…). If the organizations don’t deliver, they lose their funding, right?

    It’s chilling.

    Keep up the pressure. I hope other districts and states will begin to follow your lead in ratting this stuff out. Best of luck to you!

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