Joe Watkins has worked for a U.S. president and a senator, has served as an investment company manager, and twice ran for statewide office.
In 2010, Students First, the pro-vouchers and charter-school political action committee he headed, made the largest total contribution from a single source to one candidate in Pennsylvania history - $3.3 million to Philadelphia Democrat Anthony Hardy Williams.
Watkins, 59, lives in Philadelphia, where he's the pastor of a North Philadelphia church. His career has taken turns as varied as working for the singer Whitney Houston, as an assistant to the University of Pennsylvania's president, and as a Republican political television commentator.
Watkins' newest job, crafting a recovery plan for the ailing Chester Upland School District, has made him a target for critics who say he got the job as a political reward and was put there to dismantle public education in favor of privatization and charters.
"I come to this with an open mind and an open heart," he said. "I don't come in with preconceived notions about what to do. Every school district is unique and the challenges it faces are unique. . . . We don't have to get rid of everything that exists, but we have to figure out how to do things better."
The Chester Upland School District has been financially and academically distressed for decades and has operated under state oversight for 16 of the last 18 years.
Watkins was appointed this month by state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis under new legislation that gives him broad power to recommend closing schools, renegotiating the teachers' contract, budget cuts, management privatization, and turning schools in the 4,500-student Delaware County district into charters. His pay: $144,000 a year, including expenses.
If Chester Upland's school board, which has resisted many of those steps, does not agree with his plan, the state can get its way by turning the district over to a receiver.
Tim Eller, Tomalis' spokesman, said Watkins has experience with finance and education and the "leadership, skills, and tenacity to bring people to focus on the goal. . . . He has a proven record of bringing groups together to move things forward."
Still, Watkins' job, daunting to begin with, faces more scrutiny because of his advocacy of vouchers and charters as the solution for public school woes, and the large donations his committee made.
Students First, which Watkins headed between 2010 and this month, was given more than $6 million by three Bala Cynwyd pro-vouchers businessmen, partners in the Susquehanna International Group, and millions more by the American Federation for Children, which styles itself as "the nation's voice for school choice."
Watkins' appointment has drawn national attention. Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former U.S. assistant secretary of education, called it "so astonishing, so breathtaking, and simultaneously so disturbing that I don't know how to characterize it."
In an interview, Ravitch said: "This is truly putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. This leads me to have a real concern about whether there will continue to be a public school system in Chester Upland." She labeled Watkins' appointment "unconscionable."
Watkins said last week that he hoped to reach agreement with the school board on how to stabilize finances and improve academics.
The aim of his voucher and charter-school initiatives, Watkins added, was to strengthen public schools. "The hope of school choice . . . is that there is competition, and parents can choose where they send their kids to school." That way, "the schools that are underperforming will work harder to perform better, so that parents will choose them. Eventually, you will have a lot of great schools and a lot of great choices for parents."
Lawrence Feinberg, a Haverford Township school board member and cochair of the Keystone State Education Coalition, a statewide group of several hundred board members and other public-education supporters, said that despite Watkins' assurances, "I think the purpose of appointing him was to further dismantle public education and put it in the hands of groups that have no accountability to the public."
Feinberg said that four men "are setting the education agenda for Pennsylvania." All will benefit politically or financially from Watkins' appointment, he said.
Joel Greenberg, Jeff Yass, and Arthur Dantchik, the Susquehanna International partners who made huge donations to political campaigns through Students First, could see their pro-school-choice agenda advanced. And Chester charter-school operator Vahan Gureghian, Gov. Corbett's biggest individual campaign donor, could see enrollment at his school grow even more.
Gureghian operates the Chester Community Charter School, which enrolls about half of the children in the Chester Upland district.
Watkins said he worked for the Chester Community Charter between October 2011 and May 2012, helping design its website; he was paid $7,500. "I had a very positive experience there. . . . The kids that were there seemed to be thriving," he said.
Eller, the Education Department spokesman, said Watkins' appointment was not a political reward. "It has nothing to do with who worked where or what they contributed," he said. Eller added that Watkins' familiarity with Chester Community Charter would help the district. "I hope his knowledge of what is working in the charter school can be transferred back into the district," he said.
Chester Upland School Board President Wanda Mann said last week that the board had a "positive meeting" with Watkins and "I will take him at his word that he wants to make our schools better and help our children."
But she had a different tone when asked by resident Calvin Williams at a school board meeting: "Are we going to fight for our children?"
Mann answered emphatically: "We are not giving up. We are not giving in to any suggestions that we send our children to charters or outside the district. We're not letting anyone come here to take our children."
John Shelton Jr., the head of the teachers' union, echoed Mann. "This is a public school district and we're working to keep it that way," he said. "If that is what he's here for, we're with him 100 percent. But we can't afford to have anyone here who is not moving in that direction."
If anyone can reach accord with the board, it is Watkins, said Dawn Chavous, Anthony Williams' former chief of staff, who worked with Watkins at Students First.
"He's great in addressing people's perspectives in a way that opens up the vision of the shared goal: providing the best education for children," she said. "He is also a genuinely nice guy. . . . I'm sad to see him go, but I'm excited because he's taking on the mission in a different way in Chester Upland. This is about giving children access to a good education, not just about vouchers or school choice."
Joe Watkins' life story has had many chapters.
Raised in Queens, the son of a public school teacher, later a principal, he graduated from
a private high school in
A University of Pennsylvania and Princeton Theological Seminary graduate, he became a campus minister in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he caught the attention of Sen. Dan Quayle, becoming an assistant state director in 1981. He lost a run for Congress on the Republican ticket in 1984.
In 1986, he returned to Philadelphia, working with Penn president Sheldon Hackney on fund-raising and community projects until 1989.
Watkins worked on the Bush- Quayle presidential election campaign, then served as an associate director in the White House Office of Public Liaison from 1989 to 1991. He left to work for singer Whitney Houston and founded a marketing firm that included professional basketball players as its clients.
He was cofounder in 1995 of Advent Capital Management Partners, working for it and its successor, MDL Capital Management, until 2001. He worked in government relations with Hill Solutions and
Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney from 2001 to 2008.
Watkins also ran in the Republican primary for Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seat in 2004 and was a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2009-10.
In 2010, he became president of the voucher and charter-school advocacy group Students First, heading its political action committee.
He has been a radio talk-show host and commentator and is a television political commentator. For 14 years, he has been pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in Philadelphia.
Now 59, Watkins is married and has three children.
- Dan Hardy