Ethics & lobbying / Latest campaign

On Public Integrity and Our Ethics Complaint

Rebecca PoyourowA 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.

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9 thoughts on “On Public Integrity and Our Ethics Complaint

  1. How sad that the William Penn Foundation has decided to suspend funding for all new grants for city or city-related agencies in Philadelphia simply because their actions have been called into question. Their decision will negatively impact many, many people who live in the Philadelphia area and who had nothing at all to do with the ethics complaint.

    I had believed that the primary goal of the William Penn Foundation was to make Philadelphia a better place for everyone who lives there. To respond this way to an ethics complaint speaks volumes about the WPF’s true motivations. I hope that people who contribute to and are involved with the William Penn Foundation will think long and hard about whether or not this is an organization they can continue to support.

  2. Rebecca, Thank you for this very thoughtful piece. You are absolutely correct that we parents and community members need to be highly concerned when a foundation starts to act as an education policy maker and conduit for the money of those with an agenda — without having to reveal those connections. I applaud the work of Parents United. We must keep the PUBLIC in public education.

  3. Rebecca, I know that it is important to create an ‘us vs them’ mentality of political campaign givers, calling out ‘billionaire hedge-fund managers, real estate developers, and other anonymous donors,’ that many of us do not associate with, but you should also acknowledge that this does not represent all the largest campaign donors to outside groups.

    Indeed, some of the top givers come from unions, with teachers unions taking some of the top spots. The National Education Association, the oldest and largest teachers union, provided $13,049,511 to outside groups during the 2012 political campaign. The American Federation of Teachers provided $5,887,558 to outside groups (Source: http://www.opensecrets.org/overview/topcontribs.php). I hope that your future posts reflect the makeup of all large campaign contributors to outside groups, not just the ones used to construct a narrative of an ‘us vs them.’

  4. I agree our schools need a transparent and democratic process of governance. Calling out the William Penn Foundation on partnering with the Boston Consulting Group sends a message that anyone with a huge check cannot buy the Phila School District even through it is in quite a transition phase.

  5. Jake, considering the fact that our post has to do with the lobbying of a School District entity and not political campaign contributions, it’s remarkable to me that you continue your relentless posting of comments (from out of state) whose sole purpose is to push your own vision irrespective of what we’re trying to say about Philadelphia. At some point, it seems that your only purpose on this blog is to entertain yourself by posting everything we don’t know and how clueless we are. It just seems . . . odd.

    • I appreciate your comments. Couple of responses. First, you post that I am an out of state contributor, based on, what I presume is my IP address. I do not want to engage in a tit-for-tat “who’s more Philadelphian” debate, but will just say that I am indeed a proud Philadelphia resident paying my taxes and contributing my resources, both on a monetary and volunteer basis to make this city a better place. I am passionate about child education, urban planning, fiscal responsibility, crime reduction and job creation in our wonderful city. Myself, like so many others, have chosen to root our lives here and try to make a difference. I assume you are in a similar situation, given your passion for creating this website and confronting what you see as injustices in the city.

      I appreciate the opportunity the read your posts, as they often differ from my viewpoint. I do not view BCG as the primary problem to education in this city, but reading this and other blogs allows me to hear a perspective different than my own. In a time that is rife with segmented and fractured news outlets, it is important to hear the voice of those who disagree with us. However, when I disagree with your assertions, my posts are deleted by moderators here, such as my comment to the ‘We are above the law’ blog post. Indeed, isn’t this what you are fighting against in the school district, that the voice of the dissenters is being stifled during the district closing proceedings? If you wish to create a bully pulpit here, I would suggest you close public commenting, rather than performing piecemeal modering, leaving posts in agreement, while deleting those who disagree with you. It is only fair that commenting be open to all, even those who disagree with you, after all, isn’t this what you are fighting the school district for?

      • You’re not getting the point. The sole reason you are posting is to comment on what we don’t know and how much you do know. At some point, doesn’t it seem that it’s worth a reflection of what you’re doing and why? For clarity, this blog is for dialogue and exchange, not your own manifesto.

  6. Don’t feed the trolls. Asking for a review is our right, because, as noted, the BCG contract was not handled the same way Wm. Penn handles financial support for every other thing they fund. To pick up their checkbook and stomp off gives an impression that Wm. Penn believes it is above scrutiny, and also gives the impression that they are against transparency. What they have done is essentially extortion. Who has the will to call them on it?

  7. “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.”

    So perfectly put, Rebecca! We can’t afford to be so carelessly naive in our assumptions.

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