The “Philanthropists” Behind the Proposal to Close Philadelphia Schools

Newbie Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. proposes the largest school shutdown in the history of city. A total of 37 area schools would close under his plan. The School Reform Commission will vote on this idea in March of 2013.

Under Hite’s plan, schools would re-organize and geographically relocate students in order to get better use out of the money and space they have. Hite thinks he can boost the current 67% occupancy rate of Philadelphia school buildings to 80%.

The Superintendent argues that the closing will have positive long term effects for both students’ grades and the city’s pocketbook, potentially saving the district a sorely needed $28 million. This is a district that needed to borrow $300 million this year to keep facilities running and teachers’ paychecks paid.

The proposal first came up a few months ago. Originally, it advocated for the closure of “40 schools next year, and an additional six every year thereafter until 2017,” according to City Paper.

Also important: the plan “was prepared with the assistance of Boston Consulting Group” on a “$1.5 million contract paid for by the William Penn Foundation.” This foundation invested $15 million in Philadelphia schools around the same time. Boston Consulting Group’s name appears, along with Hite’s, on a report called “Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools: Key Findings and Recommendations,” published this August. It contains all of the same basic arguments for why Philadelphia’s only option is a major school closure, right now.

In an interview with The Notebook, Philadelphia Schools Partnership (PSP) executive director Mark Gleason dismisses the idea that “the school-closing recommendations are part of a larger agenda to privatize public education” as a myth. PSP happens to be the group that received the $15 million from The Penn Foundation.

Unsurprisingly, The Gates Foundation also has a spoon in the soup. Early this month, Philadelphia signed off on Gates’ “Great Schools Compact,” entitling the district to $2.5 million from their foundation if it agrees “to increase cooperation between the School District and the city’s charter school community.”

Before Hite, the former Superintendent of Philadelphia was Arlene Ackerman. Ackerman sat on the board of The Broad Foundation, a major advocate of school privatization. She also headed The Broad Superintendents Academy. Hite graduated from this academy.

What’s new? Private interests are in and out of bed with public officials. But if these foundations have all of this spare money lying around, and they are so heartbroken over underperforming inner city schools, why don’t they invest in them directly?

One answer from a hypothetical person who is extremely critical of charters and over privatization in general is the foundations prefer to do it through charters because it gives them more control over their investitures, and more flexibility to pull up their stakes and move on after they have made their money.

Someone less critical of these foundations like Frederick M. Hess would tell you something a bit different. In the past, according to Hess, they have invested in schools directly, and have been disappointed with the lack of impact that it made.

Although the $100 million that Mark Zuckerberg gave to the Newark school district sounds like a lot of money, it’s actually a very small sum in comparison to what it takes to run a district like this one for even one year. After investing directly and receiving results that felt futile to them, the education philanthropists have adopted a new agenda.

Instead, they now focus on the policies that regulate education. The $1.5 million the Penn Foundation paid to bankroll a study on what William Hite should do with his political leverage, for example, yields a more tangible result than if they invested that $1.5 million directly into renovating a public school building.

You could throw up your hands and say “Oh my god. These foundations are buying our public schools out from under our noses so they can rule them with a shadowy fist.” The problem is that once you conclude that they are all ghouls, the conversation either ends or drifts off into space about the whole world is turning into the dystopian, privatized future of Robocop 2’s Detroit, etc.

We know the The Gates Foundation, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and The William Penn Foundation now have investments in Philadelphia’s education system and will become extremely influential in this city’s education policy in the coming years. We need to know more about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.