The Growing Influence of the Philadelphia School Partnership

by Diane Payne, Karel Kilmnik, Deborah Grill and Lisa Haver

In 2015,  APPS published research reports on the Philadelphia School Partnership  in which we looked at board members, donors and political supporters.In the past five years, PSP’s influence has grown along with the organization’s programs. The School District of Philadelphia has accepted millions more in grants, along with the mandates and ideological directions that come with those funds. 

White Suburbanites Make Funding Decisions about City’s Schools 

When examining PSP’s outsized influence over District policies and practices, including targeted funding of certain schools, we begin with the handful of people making those decisions as PSP board members. PSP has insinuated itself into the District’s operations in a number of ways, including family communication and engagement, teacher recruitment, and training of educators and school administrators.   PSP’s  Board makes decisions about public schools in meetings that are closed to the public. Thus, the voices of public school families and the larger community are diminished.  Until recently, PSP  had eight  board members, all of whom are white, six of whom live outside the city: Chair Michael G. O’Neill, Bill Marx, William McNabb III, Evie W. McNiff, Megan Maguire Nicoletti, Benjamin Persofsky, Kevin Shafer, and Janine Yass. In April 2020,  PSP added two members: Colin Kelton, who is white and resides outside of the city,  has worked in finance for 30 years at Vanguard. Sean Vereen, an African-American man who resides in the city,  has some education background through Stepping Stone, Inc.  Neither Vereen nor Kelton have any experience in classroom teaching.     PSP’s Board now consists of ten members, nine white and one African-American; seven of whom reside outside of the city.  In 2018, Mayor Kenney appointed Vereen to the Nominating Panel convened for the purpose of selecting Board of Education members. 

PSP board members have been affiliated with various education disruption organizations.  Both Kevin Shafer and Janine Yass, one of the original PSP founders,  have close ties with the corporate teacher-training program Teach for America (TFA). Shafer taught briefly before moving into a coaching position; Yass served on the Mid-Atlantic TFA board. Three PSP Board members have ties to parochial schools and exclusive private schools. Michael O’Neill serves as Chairman of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), a non-profit organization supporting Philadelphia-area parochial schools. Megan Maguire Nicoletti taught briefly at Waldron-Mercy Academy in Lower Merion; she now sits on the Board of The Baldwin School, an exclusive girls’ school in Bryn Mawr.  William McNabb III taught Latin to 7th and 8th graders at The Haverford School before going into finance.  Three PSP board members are directly affiliated with charter schools.  O’Neill sits on the Board of Mastery Charter Schools.  Yass co-founded Boys Latin Charter School in 2006 and served on its board through 2010; she remains a financial and political supporter of the school. Persofsky initiated a failed attempt at opening a new charter school.  Persofsky worked with Mast Charter School to submit an application for Partnership School for Science and Innovation.    

As CEO of the hedge fund Susquehanna Intl. Group LLP, Jeffrey Yass  has made large donations to  support local school privatization efforts and  political candidates including State Senator Anthony H. Williams. Jeffrey Yass sits on the board of the conservative Cato Institute and is a major Republican donor through the Club for Growth Action PAC. Both Janine and Jeffrey Yass are perennial donors to Republican causes and candidates.

The Yass’ influence has expanded across the state and the nation.  Janine Yass’s  outspoken support for Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education  provides some insight into the views of PSP officials.  

PSP’s influence in local education cannot be underestimated.  Mayor Kenney chose two PSP board members, Bonnie Camarda and Stephanie Naidoff, to serve on his School Board Nominating Panel. (Neither still serves on the PSP Board.) The absence of any public school activists on the list of nominees submitted by that panel was glaring.  The Our City Our Schools coalition (OCOS) submitted a slate of people’s candidates in 2018, but not one of those individuals made the cut. Of course,  the OCOS “People’s Candidates” lacked the money and political connections that those advocating privatization and school closings have access to. 

PSP Staff From Business World, Not Education  

 As of April 2020, PSP’s website listed fifteen staff members including Sharifa Edwards, who just  left PSP  to take a position with The Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders (PSP connection explored in an installment to follow on the Neubauer  Foundation).  The current PSP staff team includes Mark Gleason, Mariah Bonner-McDuffie, Lucy Caffrey-Maffei, Sam Davidson, Gloria Feldman, Lydia Glassie, Imani Hester, Matt Kelley, Salma Khan, Allie Resnick, David Saenz Jr., Miriam Sondheimer, Kelsie Strunc, and Eileen Walsh.  

Gleason has served as  the Partnership’s Executive Director since its inception in 2010.   The most recent IRS 990 report lists Gleason’s total compensation package at $259,556.  No further compensation information is available on the remaining 14 team members despite the weight of their decisions on public policy. 

The work histories and backgrounds of the entire fifteen-member staff show few degrees in education and little experience in public school employment.  Four have graduate degrees in Education; one  has a B.A. in Education.  The remaining staff members have undergraduate degrees in fields unrelated to education.  Most came to PSP after working in finance, banking, hedge fund management or other corporate positions. Those with degrees in education did not go on to teach in public schools.  PSP staff member Allie Resnick taught for one year in the Success Academy charter chain in New York City. Success Academy’s harsh treatment of both students and staff is well-documented, as well as its aggressive co-location into public school buildings. 

Sharifa Edwards taught for one year at a KIPP charter school in post-Katrina New Orleans before moving up the ladder in that organization, landing in an administrative position at KIPP Memphis. KIPP’s harsh “no-excuses” policies have been the subject of several news articles and of education writer Jim Horn’s book “Work Hard, Be Hard”. 

The bio of staff member Imani Hester cites her graduate degree from  Relay School of Education.  Relay is not affiliated with any accredited institution of higher learning.  It is a stand-alone graduate school that devises its own curriculum.  Although some states have approved Relay as an alternative path to teaching credentials, Pennsylvania is one of the states in which Relay is not accredited.  Relay’s inadequate training has been well documented

Hester then taught for two years in the Uncommon Schools, a charter chain which touted its  “no-excuses” discipline policy.  Although staff member Miriam Sondheimer has a Master’s in Early Childhood and Elementary Education, she  lists no work history as a teacher or educator in any capacity.  

Donors Promote Privatization Agenda

An examination of the money behind PSP reflects the larger national picture of corporate ideologues mandating the curricula and policies for public school systems.  PSP did not grow as  a grassroots organization in response to community need.  Most grassroots organizations struggle for financial viability.  Astro-turf organizations, on the other hand, claim to  speak for the community but actually represent the interests of the billionaires and millionaires  far removed from that community, as an examination of PSP’s donors illustrates. 

Five donors giving $5,000,000 and above include the Maguire Foundation associated with PSP Board member Nicoletti’s family foundation, Jeffrey and Janine Yass, and one anonymous donor.  The fifteen $1,000,000 to $4,999,999 donors include many of  the biggest proponents of school choice:  the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Dell Foundation, and the Arnold Foundation, as well as PSP Board Members O’Neill and McNabb.  Thirty-eight donors, including PSP Board member McNiff, gave an amount between $100,000 and $999,999.  Finally, one hundred eleven,  including Board member Marx, gave up to $99,000.  These donors represent the wealth of individuals and corporations and how that wealth translates to political power. The political lobbying, often misrepresented as philanthropy in the news media, diminishes the voices of the true stakeholders in public schools, who must sign up for their three minutes a month at school board meetings. PSP’s role is to make sure that their donors’ money talks.

PSP Funds Initiatives Devised by Its Board, SRC Rubber-stamps

A review of PSP’s donations and grants to the Philadelphia School District from August 2013 to June 2016 shows how the wealth of its corporate donors has increased its access to District leaders in order to “reform” the cash-strapped district. PSP has funded programs hatched in its own offices but approved by the District as a condition of PSP’s paying for them (at least initially).  PSP has spread the ideology of corporate reform in many ways, most recently by funding recruitment initiatives for both administrators and teachers.  PSP has used its own political influence, and that of its donors, to lobby on many issues, including:  closing neighborhood schools, expanding “high-performing” schools, increasing enrollment in charter schools (not necessarily high-performing), incorporating more online “blended” learning and competency-based curricula, increased standardized testing, outsourcing educational services, and operating schools as businesses with top-down initiatives.

From August 2013 to June 2016, the Philadelphia School Partnership used approximately $7.7 million of its donors’ funds in order to impose “turnarounds” in eight District schools, including the addition of middle school grades to two high schools. 

Over $3 million of that money went into “transforming” the James G. Blaine and William D. Kelley Elementary Schools.   In 2014, the SRC approved a Resolution accepting a $3 million grant from PSP that was  “contingent upon the completion of successful achievement of projected outcomes as listed in the grant agreement.” Over the next three years, PSP was to donate goods and services to support curriculum, educational consulting services, enrichment activities, professional development, technology, facilities enhancements and hosting community events in order to effect the transformation of the two schools.  Not surprisingly, there was no mention of the churn and destabilization that would ensue, including the forced transfers of more than 75% of the faculty at both schools. In a bait-and-switch move that was to become a PSP trademark, the grant was advertised as assistance to North Philadelphia schools that had become “receiving schools”–that is, schools whose enrollment had increased due to closing of schools nearby. (PSP was a vocal advocate for school closings.) Teachers were led to believe that they would be partners in this transformation, but were told at the last minute that they would have to reapply for their jobs. With no guarantee that they would be retained, most had no choice but to apply for positions at other schools. As one teacher told the Inquirer, “We were encouraged to apply for this money, and now it is being used against us.”

In 2013, the District accepted a $2.6 million grant for the expansion of Hill-Freedman Middle School from middle school to a middle-high school.  The SRC also  approved a  $1 million grant to establish a new district school, Building 21, to follow a competency-based program affiliated with the Harvard School of Education.  However, PSP’s 2014 Annual Report shows a $2 million donation to Building 21.  We assume that the remaining $1 million went directly to the founders of the program on which Building 21 was built.  

In 2013, the Partnership donated over $1.3 million for the planning and implementation of a middle school addition to Science Leadership Academy.  Actually,  PSP donated the funds via Inquiry Schools, a consulting firm founded by Chris Lehman, Principal and CEO of Science Leadership Academy.  One of the SRC Resolutions notes that PSP originally donated to SLA through grants to Drexel University.

According to its 2013 annual report,  PSP donated $1.5 million  to the Workshop School via Project Based Learning, Inc. a non-profit affiliate of the school whose only executive is Matthew Riggan, one of the designers of the Workshop School.  

PSP also donated funds to the District for the planning of an addition of a middle school to George Washington Carver High School.   

PSP gave money to the District for several programs in other schools:  extended learning time and sports for freshmen at Roxborough High School; principal training through Relay Graduate School of Education; materials and professional development for pre-school programs; and funds to hire a “Teacher Effectiveness” coach.  The SRC also extended a grant to support the district recruiting services in identifying and hiring district senior leadership positions.

PSP Connections with Drexel and University of Pennsylvania

Drexel University President John Fry has exerted a great deal of influence in the District in his many roles as PSP board member, corporate representative,  and leader at both Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Fry started as a MBA graduate and partner at the accounting and consulting firm Coopers Lybrand focusing on higher education. Fry has simultaneously inhabited the worlds of finance, real estate investments, and higher education. Throughout his career, Fry has emphasized civic involvement combining “economic development, housing, public education, and safety”.  Drexel has turned a deaf ear, however, to public demands that the university pay PILOTS (Payments In Lieu of Taxes).  Penn was among Fry’s clients at Coopers Lybrand in 1995 when then-Penn president Judith Rodin tapped him to become a senior vice president at the University. In that role, Fry helped create the Penn Alexander School in partnership between Penn and the District. Fry left Penn to serve as president of Franklin & Marshall College for eight years. He returned to Philadelphia to serve as Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce for two years. Fry currently serves on the boards of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Tower Health, the Kresge Foundation, the Wistar Institute and Lafayette College.  In 2010, he became president of Drexel University.  

In 2013, at the urging of business interests across the city, including many PSP board members and donors,  the District permanently closed twenty-four neighborhood  schools.  University City High School, Charles Richard Drew Elementary, and the Walnut Center for early childhood, all sharing a 14-acre tract just outside the Drexel campus, were among them.  Drexel entered into a partnership with Wexford Science & Technology, LLC  to purchase the land and the buildings on it, all of which were razed to make room for a mixed-use complex that  includes a District-operated elementary school. Years after the agreement was finalized, Fry and Drexel returned to ask the District to put up an additional $7 million to complete the construction. Despite ongoing funding problems, the Board of Education voted to approve the payment to Drexel. 

In recent years, PSP has set its sights on Powel Elementary School (K-4), on the outskirts of the expanding Drexel campus in Powelton Village. Powel is a relatively stable and well-performing school that could expand its student body with more space.  In 2012, PSP provided an “Incubation Grant” to Powel as they planned for expansion. PSP has supported the development and growth of SLA-MS (Science Leadership Academy-Middle School). According to Drexel,  The grant from PSP guided the District leadership team in both the designing and opening of SLA-MS in Fall 2016 — to ultimately serve 360 students — and the expansion of Powel to serve 150 more students. These two schools will be relocated to the former University City School property now renamed “uCity Square”.  In November 2017, the SRC accepted a $160,000 grant from PSP to pay for the salary and benefits of two additional classroom teachers at SLA-MS. The following month, the SRC approved a $75,000 grant from PSP, through Inquiry schools, for “professional development and consulting services” at SLA-Beeber. In May 2018, the SRC approved an additional $160,000 grant to continue funding the two teaching positions at SLA-MS. 

PSP’s  reach into Talent Development now extends to both Drexel and Penn as they seek ways to train future educators in their own corporate ideology.  Drexel’s program Dragons Teach Middle Years  has been in the works since 2015 but launched two years later after a $1.2 grant from PSP.  TNTP (a creation of Michelle Rhee formerly known as The New Teacher Project) helped Drexel design this new program geared toward training Middle School teachers. APPS member Deborah Grill submitted footnoted testimony on TNTP to the SRC in 2017.  TNTP has been criticized in accredited education research for a lack of educators on its board and for using internal research to promote its ideology.  

According to the District’s website, the Teacher Residency Program at the District’s Office of Talent Support Services partners with Drexel, Penn, Temple, and Relay GSE.  This program provides the following Program Benefits: Salary of $38,611 plus full benefits; $7,500 tuition stipend; and support with job placement in the District. Requirements include a BA and passing a Praxis exam in at least one course area. Candidates undergo a one-year  training program working alongside an experienced teacher for one academic year. Candidates must commit to working in the District for at least three years following their residency year.

In 2018 PSP went one step further and set up a website to control the  recruitment of  teachers for public schools as well as charter and private schools.  TeachPHL is organized, controlled and bankrolled by PSP.  The site was backed by the Mayor and Philadelphia Superintendent Hite.  

This is the first of several articles on the Growing Influence of PSP. The next installment  will take a close look at the recruitment and leadership programs funded by PSP.