by Coleman Poses
August 25, 2015
Philadelphia School Partnership can trace its origin back to 2010, as a nonprofit organization with a mission to “create and expand great schools in Philadelphia.” To accomplish this mission, it had planned to collect and distribute 100 million dollars to successful Archdiocesan, charter, and district schools for their incubation, startup, expansion, and turnaround endeavors.
This mission coincided with the launching of the new District-Charter Collaboration Compacts, which would, according to the marketing, commit its signatories to usher in a new era of cooperation between school districts and charter schools across the country. In theory, there would be less competition for resources, and a universal enrollment would end the practice of schools luring students away from other schools. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued the grant to fund these compacts.
As of this writing, 21 districts have signed such agreements. Philadelphia’s agreement, called the Great Schools Compact (GSC), however, was unique in that it included Archdiocesan Catholic schools. Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) was charged with guiding the GSC as well as acting as its fiscal agent.
This article focuses on the activities that PSP has undertaken.
The Mission Schools
In 2013, PSP made an “incubation grant” of $500,000 to the Independence Mission Schools, a non-profit organization within the Philadelphia Archdiocese with a mission of turning around Catholic schools in a fashion similar to charter management companies attempting to turn around Philadelphia district schools (Jeremy Nowak, The Philadelphia Citizen, The Publics and the Catholics). According to PSP’s website, “incubation funds support the completion of a school plan, development of a business plan, or drafting of a charter application, for example. The grant may also support early stage start-up activities.” Mission president Aldo Cavalli, however, said the nonprofit “would use the planning grant to help assemble a small central office staff to assist [its schools] in raising money, handling tuition payments and helping families find financial aid.” This money would be used with $100,000 that the mission schools had received from the Maguire Foundation, an organization specializing in scholarship funding. 
In other words, the money did not seem to be used for creating or expanding great schools as much as it was used for channeling students into Archdiocesan parish schools who might otherwise attend public schools. Of course, one might argue that filling existing seats in the best available schools would be consistent with PSP’s mission. PSP’s website appears to present such an argument by making the rather lukewarm claim that “many of the Mission Schools – currently serving about 4,200 students with the capacity to serve 1,000 more – already outperform schools in the same neighborhood in reading and math.” This claim seems to be substantiated by Cavalli, who states, “Checking each of the schools against Philadelphia Schools Partnership data, ‘Mostly they are doing well.’”
Great Philly Schools
Apparently the data referenced by Mr. Cavalli is available from the Great Philly Schools database, a site owned and operated by PSP. According to the website, all public schools take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests (PSSAs), while the Catholic schools take the TerraNova 3rd Edition. Although Great Schools Philly could have used “mastery,” a measure on the TerraNova that is roughly equivalent to proficiency on the PSSA, it had elected instead to use a normed based measure – “grade mean equivalency scores” – that has nothing to do with proficiency.
The TerraNova methodology is not the only questionable issue with Great Philly Schools. Although the site warns the user of relying too heavily on its numbers, it has nevertheless created an “Overall Quality Rating,” by weighting ratings in various categories. For a high school, the Great Philly Schools’ weights are:
Math Achievement: 15%
Reading Achievement: 15%
College Bound (the percentage of high school graduates who attend college): 30%
Once these weights are applied, each school gets a final rating from 1 to 10.
These weights can produce rather interesting results, as the case of Boys Latin Charter School illustrates.
Even though Boys Latin ranked only 2 in math and 4 in reading, it still received an overall rating of 7. How this could happen is shown in the following table.
Reading and math achievement only account for 30 percent of the final ranking (i.e., 15% math and 15% reading), whereas attendance and getting its graduates into college accounts for 60% (i.e., 30% for each category).
With such a high overall rating, PSP gave Boy’s Latin $1.1 million in 2013 to add a middle school. In PSP’s words, “Boys Latin is one of the top-performing college-preparatory schools in Philadelphia,” which is a peculiar assessment for a school that gets many of its graduates into colleges who (according to its math and reading rankings) are unprepared to do college level work.
Great Philly Schools never explains the reasons behind its weights or the strange manner in which it has used the TerraNova to gauge proficiency, but its measures often appear to favor Catholic Schools and charter schools over district schools. A look at PSP’s Board of Directors, funders, staff and their non-mission related activities might shed some light on how this imbalance could have occurred.
Who are the People and Organizations behind PSP
Philadelphia School Partnership was the brainchild of Michael O’Neill, a suburban businessman and founder of Business Leaders Organized for Catholic schools (BLOC), an organization using tax-deductible donations to fund Catholic schools throughout the Philadelphia region. Evie McNiff is another founder, who is the President of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, an organization that also uses tax deductable donations to finance scholarships to private schools. Two other founders are Bruce Melgary, Executive Director of the Lenfest Foundation – a major funder of Mastery Schools; and Scott Gordon, the founder of Mastery Charter Schools. Other PSP founders include Janine Yass and David Hardy, founder and CEO respectively of Boys’ Latin Charter. Only three of PSP’s current board members live in the city.
PSP has raised millions from foundations, philanthropic organizations, and anonymous donors. The Walton Family Foundation, Janine and Jeffrey Yass, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation have all “invested” between $1 million and $5 million.
PSP has also received a $15 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, while under the leadership of Jeremy Nowak, for the purpose of creating “…18,000 high-performing Kindergarten—12th grade seats in schools managed by high-quality operators”. Nowak served as Chairman of the Board of Mastery Charter Schools from 2001 through 2008, and was also an early board member of PSP.
PSP’s lobbying and political activities show how far the organization has deviated from its original mission. In 2013, Executive Director Mark Gleason called on former Governor Corbett to withhold $45 million in federal funds until the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers made major concessions.
Gleason also lobbied the former governor to appoint then-Councilman Bill Green as Chair of the SRC. Earlier this year, Gleason and other PSP staffers created the organization’s lobbying arm, the Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, to further the school choice movement. In a move condemned by many pubic officials, Gleason offered to give the SRC $35 million in anonymous donations if the Commissioners approved most or all of the thirty-nine applications for new charters.
As the result of a Philadelphia Ethics Board complaint contending that Philadelphia School Partnership had engaged in lobbying activities, PSP created an advocacy arm – Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners (PSAP), which, according to its website, “advocates for policy and regulatory conditions, at both the state and local level, so that great urban schools of all types can thrive and grow.” One of the methods that it has used to accomplish its goal is television advertising. According to the website, “These ads are about better funding, more accountability and making sure all elected officials – those in Harrisburg and those running for office locally – know that the tens of thousands of parents on waitlists and in charter schools are engaged, are voting and most importantly are tired of being told to wait for the opportunities their children deserve.” Yet the one commercial on its website does not mention school funding, or accountability. The ad does however, mention charter schools. One parent says “I want to get her into a safe charter school, but there aren’t enough seats,” leaving the viewer with the impression of safe charter schools as opposed to unsafe district schools. From another frame in the ad, the words “Study cites strong performance of Philly charter schools” are prominent, while, in the background, the apparent title of an article “Philly charter schools gaining popularity” displays. Nowhere in the video does the viewer have the opportunity to discover the sources of these claims.
While the Independence Mission Schools, as an organization, is using PSP “investments” to finance fundraising operations, individual schools have received PSP money for cost saving endeavors. DePaul, one of Philadelphia’s Independence Mission Schools, received a $500,000 grant from PSP that the school would spend over a three year period, to implement Phaedrus, a program that allows half a class to engage in computer based learning while the other half works with a teacher during an instructional day. According to PSP’s website, “The grant will help DePaul accelerate student learning with technology and keep operating costs low while the school grows to 540 students.” The more complete Inquirer article, however, never mentions accelerated learning; only, according to PSP executive director Mark Gleason, that “the approach enables a school to add students without having to hire more teachers.”
Phaedrus is an example of “blended learning” – one of a number of programs that combine computerized instruction with that of a teacher. Despite the claims of PSP’s website, there is little evidence that blended learning by itself has any affect upon student achievement. In September, 2014, the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium released a meta-analysis of blended learning models and concluded, “As one might expect in a relatively new and evolving area of study, the empirical evidence on the effectiveness of blended learning is thin and is based on differing or vague definitions of the technique.” The SRC, nevertheless, elected in May of 2015, to approve $10 million worth of blended learning materials. With such a large investment from the PSD, it will be interesting to see whether PSP provides any matching funds.
Not All Turnarounds Are Created Equal
In addition to Catholic and charter schools, PSP has also contributed $11,737,000 to district schools. In the 2014 school year, the James G. Blaine and the W.D. Kelley Schools augmented their rolls by 98 students and 69 students respectively from schools that had been shuttered the previous school year. The district asked PSP to help fund some of the schools that had received additional students. Ultimately, PSP agreed, provided that the schools submit to “turnaround conditions,” conditions normally associated with failing schools. After undergoing an interview and an application process, PSP approved the disbursement of 1.5 million dollars to each school.
Although PSP has funded initiatives that have allowed outside companies to assume management of district schools, the schools in this case would keep their current leadership, while giving additional autonomy to the principals. In both cases, the principals replaced at least a half of their teaching staffs. According to Blaine Principal Gianeen Powell, “We want teachers who want to be a part of this vision and mission. We have teachers here who don’t think that we should be using technology. They like paper and pencil,” she said. Although it is uncertain how Ms Powell had determined which teachers were Luddites, she did disclose that “Blaine will have one computer for every two students next year.” That would be the number of computers that a school would need to implement a Phaedrus type of blended model. If this was PSP’s intention, then additional children will be educated at the school without additional teaching staff.
One of the most unusual aspects about these events is that these turnaround schools were already deemed successful. Generally, turnaround schools are failures. In the public school world, charter school managers generally take over a turnaround school. In the Archdiocese, Independence Mission Schools (IMS) – the manager of parish schools, and Faith in the Future (FIF) – the manager of Catholic high schools, have been the turnaround managers. One major difference between public and parochial management, however, is their degree of independence from the original schools’ managers. Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, an Archdiocesan Auxiliary Bishop, sits on the boards of both Faith in the Future and Independence Mission Schools. No similar arrangement appears to exist in the public sector, where someone connected with either the School Reform Commission (the State controlled school board for Philadelphia) or the School District of Philadelphia are on the boards of any of the charter school management companies. The fact that religion is still very much a part of the curriculum in the IMS and FIF schools also brings into question the independence of these management companies.
A turnaround in an Archdiocesan school therefore creates a fiction of an outside management company which keeps a good deal of control within the Archdiocese. A turnaround in a district school, however, generally means that a district school is converted into a charter school. A turnaround in a charter school generally means that one charter management company becomes supplanted by another.
Nowhere in this process have charter or diocesan schools been converted into district schools. This process only allows for money, and subsequently students, to flow out of district schools into parochial schools and charters, and PSP has used its own funds, as well as its connections with the other institutions such as the William Penn Foundation, to expedite this process.
Over time, the district sector will diminish as the parochial and charter schools expand.
Charter schools became a part of the Philadelphia educational landscape in 1998 as a way to block what some observers believed to be a monopoly of the Philadelphia School District over public schools. Since the advent of the Great Schools Compact, however, Philadelphia School Partnership has worked to create and maintain a cartel of charter and parochial schools, while diminishing the role of district schools in the City. PSP has accomplished this objective by providing economic supports to specific schools and programs based upon non-existent criteria. It has also financially supported the removal of teachers without cause from schools deemed to be successful. Finally, educators, parents, politicians, and the general public have received misleading information from PSP that has stymied efforts to determine the best way to educate children in Philadelphia.
 Interestingly, the Maguire Foundation is one of the “Lead Investors” in PSP, which means that it has contributed at least $5 million – more than the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
South Phila. Catholic school to get $1.4 million grant
Philadelphia Inquirer – September 24, 2015
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Raw Story November 24, 2016
Important information about Betsy DeVos’s connections with school privatizers in Pennsylvania and nationally.