The problem with the District’s philanthropic fund for literacy

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by Lisa Haver

April 12, 2015

Reprinted from the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

The state takeover of the School District of Philadelphia more than 15 years ago brought a new set of problems, not the least being the failure of the School Reform Commission — and a succession of highly paid superintendents and CEOs — to fulfill its stated purpose of restoring the District’s financial stability.

At the same time, the public’s ability to be heard on these and other issues has been squelched by growing corporate influence, as grants from outside organizations, including the Gates Foundation, the Philadelphia School Partnership, the William Penn Foundation, and others, have come with mandates for school closures, charter expansion, and weakening of some collective bargaining rights such as longstanding seniority protections. The Great Schools Compact Committee, which oversaw distribution of the Gates money, acted as a shadow school board.

The revival of the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia appears to be an extension of that model, in which private money has a growing influence on a public institution. Established in 2003 as a fundraising arm of the District, it later collected private donations to buy out former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s contract, although the District ultimately picked up the bill. Its 17-member board is made up of representatives from banking, energy, cable, financial investment, and consulting businesses — and two educators. “Investors” include GlaxoSmithKline, Wells Fargo, and the Barra, Carnegie and Lenfest Foundations.

Executive Director Donna Frisby-Greenwood said in a NewsWorks interview in January that “the Fund is committed to transparency.” But when I called to ask when the next board meeting would be held, Frisby-Greenwood told me “those meetings are private.”

The fund’s website says that the board will be working with Superintendent William Hite to “help set funding priorities … toward the needs of Philadelphia’s public schools to improve educational services and academic achievement.” But it is not the role of a handful of people from one stratum of society to make those decisions. Giving corporations and foundations a larger voice in decisions on education cedes control of the democratic process to those with the highest net worth. The rest of us get three minutes a month at the SRC meeting.

One of the fund’s initiatives is to build “classroom libraries” in the lower grades to promote early literacy. Countless studies show that having a school library with research facilities, staffed by a certified librarian – not just a small collection of books in each classroom – makes significant improvements in student learning.  The fund’s spending priorities, in this case, send the message that our children should settle for a lesser version of a school library instead of the real thing. No one should be setting those kinds of low expectations for our students.

Schools have long been recipients of donations from local businesses, some of whom develop a relationship with the students and faculty.  But having this kind of funding become institutionalized places our children in the role of charity cases, who can only receive a decent education if they have demonstrated their worthiness. The fund’s website may tell us that “the private donations that we contribute to the District do not supplant government monies,” but it does send the message that someone is here to pick up the slack when Harrisburg comes up short year after year.

Wealthy individuals and corporations, and their lobbyists, have significant influence in  Harrisburg. They should use that power to speak in one voice for a permanent fair funding formula so that principals and teachers don’t have to beg for what their schools deserve.

Mayor Kenney, who hosted a $5,000-a-person inaugural party to benefit the fund, should not place his stamp of approval on an organization that shuts out the people he has vowed to represent.  “I trust these folks and know where they stand on the issues and trust them for raising money for them,” he said of the fund’s board. But the public does not know those who staff the fund. The people, as citizens and taxpayers, are the fund for the School District of Philadelphia. That ensures us an equal place at the table when decisions about our children’s futures are made.