Who Is Behind the Philadelphia School Partnership?


by Deborah Grill
November 9, 2015

The move to privatize public education has many players. Some attempt to move in giant steps. In Los Angeles, Eli Broad has raised $490 million in a bid to place half of Los Angeles public school students into charter schools. In New Orleans, city and state politicians took advantage of the chaos and destruction after Hurricane Katrina to fire public school teachers and convert all public schools into privately run charter schools. In Newark, Superintendent Cami Anderson, appointed by Governor Chris Christie, stripped the elected school board of most of its power and implemented “One Newark”.   This plan instituted a lottery eliminating the right of parents to enroll their child in a neighborhood school, closed many public schools, and increased the number of charter schools. Recently, New Jersey politicians have targeted Camden as the next city to close all public schools and replace them with an all-charter district.

Other school choice players, including those in Philadelphia, choose to go about it more subtly. While individual politicians and organizations have been involved in the push to open charters, the inception of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) in 2010 (originally the Philadelphia School Project) has provided the organization and money to speed up the privatization of the city’s public school system.   The Partnership has been able to do this through its management of the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact, formulated and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. PSP’s influence has grown through its lobbying efforts and through the grants it has bestowed on schools of PSP’s board’s choosing through its own Great Schools Fund. PSP facilitates and staffs the Compact Committee meetings as well as serving as it fiscal agent. The meetings of both PSP’s Board and the Great Schools Compact Committee are closed to the public.

As the District begins another round of school closings and converting neighborhood schools to “Renaissance” Charters, a closer examination of PSP’s history and board members is needed to understand how this private organization has become so influential in just five years. This article is part of a series on the make-up and influence of The Philadelphia School Partnership.

Philadelphia School Partnership’s past and present boards have been composed of investment bankers, realtors, hedge fund managers, philanthropists and lobbyists. In its complaint to the Philadelphia Board of Ethics regarding lobbying activity by the Philadelphia School Partnership, Parents United for Public Education stated that “…a number of PSP’s current board members and known funders have direct stakes in organizations and policies supported by PSP’s investments in Catholic schools and charter school expansion (including construction, management, or investment in charter schools and related contracts).” All but three of PSP’s nineteen board members live outside of Philadelphia.

Early board members included Michael O’Neill, founder and CEO of Preferred Unlimited; Jeremy Nowak, then Executive Director of The Reinvestment Fund (TRF); Chris Bravacos of the Bravo Group; Winston Churchill of SCP Partners; and Jordie Maine of Janney Montgomery Scott. David Hardy, CEO of Boys’ Latin Charter School, and Scott Gordon, founder and CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, while not voting members, participated in early board meetings and discussions.   According to the unpublished minutes of the November 18, 2010 board meeting, before Nowak resigned in June 2011 to head The William Penn Foundation, PSP contracted TRF to create a data map of schools and academic ratings. While Nowak neither participated in discussions, nor voted on it, the minutes indicate that the board awarded the contract to TRF despite the apparent conflict of interest.

Since its inception, the Partnership has placed most of its efforts on expanding charters and supporting Catholic schools. The November 18, 2010 minutes show that they approved four specific strategies:

  • Expand Charters
  • Convert Low Performing Charters
  • Support Renaissance Charters
  • Maximize Enrollment in Successful Parochial Schools

Public schools were not on the agenda unless they were candidates for the Renaissance process, in which a neighborhood public school was given to a charter operator to manage. Even then, David Hardy, who was present along with Scott Gordon, expressed concern that the Renaissance schools were not creating new choice. During the ensuing discussion concerning the quality of the District’s selection of charter operators to manage Renaissance schools, Gordon suggested that PSP influence the District’s choice by providing the District with advance notice of the charter operators that they would not fund.[1]

Why is it that a non-profit whose mission was to create and expand great schools in Philadelphia did not initially include expanding great public schools? In a city with 218 public schools and 86 charter schools, why has 70% of the grant money awarded by PSP gone to charters and Archdiocesan and Catholic Mission Schools? The answer is evident when you look at the makeup of PSP’s founders and its board members.

Michael O’Neill founded the Partnership in 2010 in conjunction with a group that included, in addition to Gordon and Hardy: Janine Yass, founder of Boys’ Latin Charter School; Bruce Melgary, Executive Director of the Lenfest Foundation; Evie McNiff, President of the Children’s Scholarship Fund.

Michael O’Neill is a former real estate developer and founder and CEO of Preferred Sands, a company that provides materials for hydraulic fracking. The Philadelphia School Partnership is not O’Neill’s first educational initiative. He was chairman, and is now a board member, of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), an organization whose mission is to raise money, through tax-deductible contributions, to provide tuition assistance or vouchers to students in Catholic schools. While PSP’s stated mission is to raise $100 million in philanthropic funds to support all quality schools, O’Neill’s primary interest is with Catholic and charter schools.   In a July 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer article describing the launching of PSP, O’Neill told reporter Martha Woodall, “In the long run, it’s not good for the city for charters to be pulling kids from successful Catholic schools that already are fulfilling a purpose. We have to help them develop a financially sustainable model.” In that same article Joseph P. McFadden, then an auxiliary bishop who oversaw education in the Archdiocese, told Ms. Woodall that he hoped this effort would appeal to a wider pool of investors to support Catholic schools: “I think Mike’s feeling is by looking at a more holistic approach, we may be able to attract the dollars and support from foundations and groups that wouldn’t necessarily give to Catholic schools but would be willing to support an initiative for choice in education.”  Samuel S. Fels Fund Executive Director and current PSP board member, Helen Cunningham, who was present when the launching of PSP was announced at an invitation-only breakfast at the Comcast Center, told Philadelphia Public School Notebook reporter Dale Mezzacapa, “Mike has been working for Catholic schools and watching them close down and have seats empty in neighborhoods where children desperately want to be in good schools.”

O’Neill has been a strong advocate of Education Improvement Tax Credits (EITC). In 2008, as Chairman of BLOCS, he wrote a guest commentary in the Philadelphia Business Journal explaining EITC and exhorting companies to contribute to the program.  In addition to promoting EITC as a means to support Catholic schools, he has urged Archdiocesan officials to recapture students lost to charters by opening charter schools in underserved areas of the city, especially in the Latino community. Consequently, during last year’s round of charter applications, one Catholic affiliate, Liguori Academy, submitted an application after changing its website to eliminate references describing it as a “Catholic high school” and its mission as “providing a Catholic education to students who otherwise might not be able to experience the benefits of such an education.”

Fighting Chance PA PAC, which lobbies for vouchers and EITC, and is funded by Students First PA PAC and by the founders of the Susquehanna International Group, shares an office with the real estate company of O’Neill’s brother, Brian.)

In 2012, Michael O ’Neill donated $100,000 of his own money, in addition to PSP’s $500,000, to the William Penn Foundation so that the Boston Consulting Group could continue to develop its controversial blueprint for the District.

In 2011, O’Neill told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook that PSP hoped to use the data map that it was creating of neighborhood schools and their academic ratings to “guide charter school policy” so that charters will expand to neighborhoods where high-performing schools are needed. O’Neill is also on the board of Mastery Charter Schools. To date, PSP’s Great Schools Fund has invested in seven Mastery Charter schools.

Chris Bravocos is the CEO of Bravo Group, Inc. and a prominent political lobbyist and fundraiser who has served as the Executive Director of the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania. He is President of REACH Alliance (Road to Educational Achievement Through Choice), a pro-school choice organization which was, according to its website, “instrumental in the drafting, passage and recent expansions of Pennsylvania’s EITC program.” He serves on the Executive Committee of the Alliance’s sister organization, the REACH Foundation, whose website states that it “worked with the state Department of Community and Economic Development to create user-friendly guidelines for the program and has assisted scholarship organizations with start-up money and technical assistance.” Bravocos is also on the Board of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, whose stated mission is “to provide children from low-income Philadelphia families with financial access to quality, safe, K-8th grade, tuition-based schools.” PSP board members Winston Churchill and Robert Stine II are also on the Fund’s board. PSP board member, Evie McNiff, is President of the Fund.

Bravocos’s company, the Bravo Group, Inc., worked with the REACH Alliance to restore funding for EITC grants when funding was reduced due to the 2008 recession. The Bravo Group has also represented the Philadelphia Independent Mission Schools and the PA Catholic Conference, as well as many charter organizations including KIPP, Aspira, Mosaica, Universal, Young Scholars, Connections Academy and K12.

Winston Churchill, Jr. is a Managing Partner of SCP Partners, a private equity investment firm. He was instrumental in helping to save the Gesu Catholic School located on the 1700 block of West Thompson Street in North Philadelphia. When the school was threatened with closure in 1993, Churchill and others intervened to keep the school open. To increase enrollment, the school revised its longstanding mission; it now educates poor, inner-city children, most of whom are not Catholic. Churchill is a current Trustee of the Gesu School as well as a Trustee of Young Scholars Charter School. In addition, he helped found and fund the Churchill Institute for Leadership Development (CHILD). CHILD provides pastors and principals with a two-year program designed to remake their schools by adopting educational and financial practices similar to those used by private schools.

Evie McNiff is President of the Board of Children’s Scholarship Fund. The stated mission of the Fund is to provide children from low-income families with four-year, K-8th grade scholarships to private and parochial schools. PSP Board members Winston Churchill, Chris Bravados and John B. Stine II also serve on the Fund’s board. McNiff is also a board member of CHILD and the Education Plus Cyber Charter School. (The CEO and co-founder of Education Plus Charter, Nicholas Torres, is a former CEO/President of PSP.)[2]

Janine Yass is the founder of Boys’ Latin Charter School and the educational charity Choice Academics. Yass is Vice-Chair Emeritus of the Board of the Center For Education Reform (CER), an organization that advocates for reform through charters and school choice. She has also served as a board member for Teach For America, Mid-Atlantic region. Yass donated an undisclosed amount of money through the United Way to help fund the Boston Consulting Group’s blueprint for Philadelphia schools. She is married to Jeffery Yass, a founder and partner in the Susquehanna International Group, a private global trading and technology firm whose founders advocate for school choice. SGI’s partners made contributions totaling $5.38 million to the unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial campaign of State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, who helped push a controversial pro-voucher tax credit program through the Pennsylvania State Senate, allowing SIG to take considerable tax breaks. For example, Jeffery Yass gave his wife’s charity, Choice Academics, a $375,000 donation through a company he controls. State records indicate that his business received approximately $337,000 in tax credits for this donation. The charity subsequently donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Boys’ Latin.

This represents just six of the present Board members of the Philadelphia School Partnership. Other current and past board members have ties to charter schools, Catholic schools and organizations which profit from school choice policies. In subsequent articles we will explore more of those connections.

[1] The unpublished minutes of this meeting were submitted as Exhibit X in the ethics complaint filed by Parents United for Public Education.

[2] Unpublished minutes of November 18, 2010 board meeting.

Also see:

5 new charter schools get $10.5M in grants
Philadelphia Inquirer – December 2, 2015

Meet the DeVos family  – super-wealthy right-wingers working with the religious right to destroy public education
Raw Story November 24, 2016
Important information about Betsy DeVos’s connections with school privatizers in Pennsylvania and nationally.