I'm getting to this party a little late, but better late than never. There was a great story last week on the cover of the Philadelphia City Paper -- a holiday week when a lot of folks were off or not paying close attention or both. (Yes, this too was written by Daniel Denvir...the dude's on a roll). In addition to the horrible timing, it wasn't about the things that usually get us all whipped up here -- race (well, maybe a little) or sports or sex or...did I mention sports? Still, I'm getting the vibe that the piece threw some of the city's elites into a tizzy, even if the common folk didn't notice it.

It's a story about power in this town -- who has it these days, and how they are using it.

And the focus is on Jeremy Nowak, the head of the increasingly influential philanthropy, the William Penn Foundation.

You didn't vote for Mr. Nowak. Nobody did. But the article makes this case that he has more say over the future of Philadelphia schools than any elected official.

The group that gathered in May identified two key opponents: Labor unions and the black middle class, the latter led by the Rev. Alyn E. Waller of Germantown’s Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. The unionized teachers were a particularly formidable — and expected — source of opposition. Ramos planned to reopen the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) contract after the July 1 budget deadline, and the group discussed a multifaceted plan to defeat them. While Ramos had asked the Chamber of Commerce to bankroll a lobbying campaign, Nowak felt the chamber was not pulling its weight and wanted it to pay for public relations. But the lobbying, whoever ultimately paid for it, fell apart once infuriated Philadelphia Democrats discovered that Ramos had bypassed them and directly appealed to Republicans for new union-busting powers.

The public-relations objectives outlined at the May meeting were not all achieved — yet the Blueprint proposal lives on. Critically, perhaps the most important player didn’t come from within the district administration, city government or the state. Rather, Nowak — from his 11th-floor office in Logan Square, at the helm of a $1.9 billion foundation increasingly shaped in his image — has been in many ways charting the course. 

Behind the scenes, he has had a hand in not only the Blueprint, but the recent superintendent search, dealings with unions and the advancement of a pro-charter, even pro-voucher, agenda. And that’s just the schools. Long before Nowak’s arrival, William Penn had funded urban planning, news media and environmental and community-organizing groups in the city. Now, via the checks he writes — and the apparent political calculus behind them — Nowak has become one of the most influential Philadelphians most Philadelphians don’t know.

A couple of points here. There's no "shock and awe" revelation here, other than the strong suggestion that the recent selection of schools superintendent William Hite was rigged well before the rushed, so-called "public input" (which actually isn't even that surprising). More importantly, here in Philadelphia we're used to power brokers in the Full Voldemort mode (why yes, I was thinking about Vince Fumo, actually) -- corrupt and self-interested if not out-and-out Pure Evil.
The case of Nowak is not like that. He and the William Penn Foundation seem motivated to do what they think is best for the Philadelphia schools. The disturbing questions here are a lack of democracy, a lack of transparency, and the accumulation of a lot of power in one source to make those decisions.
I'm seeing this influence in the part of Philadelphia that I know best: The news media. While the two major newspapers here have struggled with bankruptcy and a string of different owners, an alternative media landscape has sprouted in Philadelphia -- including WHHY's Newsworks, the outstanding Public School Notebook, and a new, well-funded media project called the PPIIN -- that shares a common link: Major funding from the William Penn Foundation. That gets tricky if the foundation does indeed have a bigger agenda -- as the City Paper article strongly suggests.
But the bigger issue is this. No one disputes that the Philadelphis schools have been horribly, horribly mismanaged. But the solution we've hit on is to hand control to the meritocracy -- a small cadre of unelected and unaccountable elites (so often intersecting with hedge-fund Captains of the Universe, who have the money to fund these ventures) who worship the power of the free-market -- as well as their own intellect.
Isn't that the kind of thinking that crashed Wall Street?
Now the meritocracy wants to save Philadelphia's schools? Thanks, but no thanks. There's got to be a Third Way -- still open to the Best and the Brightest but with an active role for parents, teachers, and others who a stake in a future of Philadelphia education for all, and not just for some.