A few months ago, I made the decision to sign on to a complaint filed with the Philadelphia Board of Ethics. The complaint, signed by members of Parents United for Public Education, the NAACP, and the Philadelphia Home and School Council, was concerned with the William Penn Foundation’s financing of a private consulting group in order to drive the direction of our city’s public education policy. Signing was a tough personal decision, and I weighed it for a long time before committing. William Penn has funded and continues to fund many laudable institutions and initiatives in our city, which I and other Philadelphians use and appreciate. Yet no institution, however worthy or powerful, should be above criticism. And no individual should be excluded or intimidated from participating in a public process of shaping education policy—or denied the right to scrutinize the ethical or legal nature of actions taken in order to influence that process.
I and my co-signers believe that the William Penn Foundation moved into the arena of lobbying when it contracted directly with the Boston Consulting Group to create and promote a plan to privatize school district management, expand the charter school sector, and target a huge number of Philadelphia’s public schools for closure. The essence of our complaint to the Philadelphia Board of Ethics is not that William Penn and the Boston Consulting Group had no right to promote their agenda (much as we disagree with it), but that they neglected to register as principal and lobbyist as required by the city’s ethics regulations.
While this may seem a semantic concern, it is not. Our complaint goes to the heart of an important issue for all of us, not just in Philadelphia but around the country. In the era of Citizens United, when political speech funded by wealthy anonymous donors has become harder to identify precisely as it has become more powerful in driving elections and national policy, it is crucial to clarify the roles individuals and organizations play in shaping public policy. Philadelphians should be very concerned if billionaire hedge-fund managers, real estate developers, and other anonymous donors can funnel money through a foundation to lobby for their preferred education policy positions (indeed, positions potentially tied to their private economic interests)—and not even be identified as lobbyists.
Publicly criticizing an important foundation can be frightening. Many of us are part of organizations or institutions which receive support from the William Penn Foundation. However, the importance of integrity in our public process trumped those concerns when we decided to sign the complaint several months ago.
When I heard that the foundation has decided to suspend funding for all new grants with city or city-related agencies, I was appalled. This move is totally unwarranted, and it hurts many worthy organizations and projects. It is especially unreasonable since grants through which William Penn directly funds city agencies have no relevance to the ethics complaint, which is concerned with an instance in which William Penn contracted with a private third-party lobbying entity. Freezing city funds unnecessarily is an especially punitive move on the part of William Penn—one unworthy of a foundation that claims its mission is that of a steward of funds that belong to the community at large.
As a public-school parent and Philadelphia citizen, I believe deeply that our schools need a transparent and democratic process of governance. It is naïve to think that the billions in private money funding many public education “reform” experiments today are given solely out of good will, with no strings attached. I would hope that our complaint before the ethics board will receive the fairest hearing possible. We need to know what and who is driving public education in our city. It’s not an issue solely about schools. It’s an issue for every Philadelphian.