JUST 10 years ago, Mark Gleason was a journalist and publisher working in New York, trying to launch a magazine called Book that was heavily funded by Barnes & Noble.
His first foray into education came a couple of years later, when as a sometimes-frustrated parent he ran for and won a seat on his suburban school board in North Jersey.
Now the 48-year-old Gleason - unknown in Philadelphia at the start of the decade - finds himself at the center of the maelstrom that is school reform in America's fifth-largest city.
As executive director of the deep-pocketed school-funding Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), he's vilified by protesters who march underneath his office window, defended by Mayor Nutter, popping up in the media pushing to shutter subpar schools or to end teacher seniority while winning awards from the billionaire advocates of corporate-education reform.
It's happened so fast that sometimes even those on the front lines of the city's education wars wonder: Just who is Mark Gleason, anyway?
Some might say the influence of Gleason and the barely 3-year-old PSP is a matter of having the right idea at the right time: leveraging private dollars to replace stagnant traditional public schools with new "seats" in schools that perform better, in a mix heavy with nontraditional charters.
Or is PSP's power solely a front for its megapowerful funders, who include Bill Gates and the heirs to the Walmart fortune, whose brand of reform would destroy teachers unions and hasten the end for conventional public schools?
No 'special access'
Not surprisingly, Gleason thinks some of the hype about PSP's influence in Philadelphia is overblown. "We try to be influential - as do lots of other folks," Gleason said yesterday in a phone interview as he prepared for the holiday break. "We don't have any special access."
Tell that to the roughly two dozen parents and activists who protested and sang Christmas carols underneath the PSP offices on South Independence Mall last week. They unsuccessfully urged the nonprofit to open its board meetings to the public, and place a parent and a student among its directors who play a role in deciding which schools win money. Its current roster of 15 board members is laced with several investment bankers and even a Harrisburg lobbyist - and 13 are white, even though most Philadelphia students are minorities.
"The way the partnership is doing things threatens our democracy," said Kia Hinton, an activist with Action United who took part in the protest and has three kids in Philadelphia public schools. "They don't allow these families and these parents that are being serviced to have a say."
For all the recent attention, there was little fanfare when Conshohocken-based businessman Michael O'Neill, a key figure in the financial bailout of Philadelphia's parochial schools, launched the partnership in 2010 as a way to steer private dollars to any high-achieving schools - charters, conventional public schools, Catholic or other religious schools.
Gleason came on board the following year. His career path had been marked by ambition but also sharp zigzags. A Georgetown grad who worked in marketing at Procter & Gamble, he then got a master's in journalism at Northwestern and was an editor at a Cincinnati business journal before a stint as a reporter in New York at Advertising Age. His boldest venture, Book magazine, collapsed when Barnes & Noble pulled its support.
By then, Gleason - who had two kids in the South Orange-Maplewood schools in North Jersey - had taken an interest in education, fueled by incidents that he wouldn't detail in the interview but that convinced him "that we were seeing schools making decisions that were in the best interest of adults, not kids." In education-reform-speak, that reflects an opinion that unionized teachers and administrators look out for their own self-interests.
He ultimately became president of the South Orange-Maplewood school board and raised money for a school in Newark that's part of the national Cristo Rey Network of Catholic prep schools. Arriving at the Philadelphia School Partnership - where 2012 tax records show Gleason was paid $209,332 as executive director (with benefits, $235,944) - he enrolled his son in a Philadelphia public high school. Education-watchers say that Gleason - who measures his words carefully and is given to long pauses - wields influence less by dint of his personality than by his position and his foundation's bank book.
A money magnet
During his tenure, PSP has been a money magnet for the leaders in big-bucks corporate-education reform - beginning with an unprecedented $15 million grant from the local William Penn Foundation in 2012, then $2.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $4.5 million from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, millions more from donors like Cigna, Janney Montgomery Scott and JP Morgan Chase, and a $5 million challenge grant (its largest ever) from the Walton Family Foundation, led by the Walmart heirs, which already had named Gleason an "Education Reformer to Watch."
The group is fast approaching its goal of $100 million, a baseline for funding 35,000 "high-performing seats." Gleason said that of $29 million doled out so far, more than half - $17 million - has gone to either Renaissance or lottery-based charter schools, with $9 million for district public schools and $3 million to parochial schools.
"We're funding quality and unfortunately sometimes when it comes to the district, sometimes it's harder to create the conditions for good schools, in the bureaucracy of the school district," Gleason said of the charter-funding edge. He added later that he supports more government funding for the district - which has laid off teachers, guidance counselors and nurses because of an ongoing budget crisis - but that the money won't be well-spent without deeper reforms.
An enthusiastic advocate of curbing teacher-seniority protections, Gleason backed Gov. Corbett's decision - eventually reversed - to withhold $45 million in state aid to city schools without union concessions.
"The Philadelphia School Partnership wants to invest more in district schools - but unless the conditions exist to support great teaching, that's hard for us to do," he said.
And despite the uproar over the closing of 23 neighborhood public schools this fall, Gleason said he wants to see even more classrooms that the partnership regards as failing - both district and charters - shut down and replaced with new, quality schools. He would use the district's growing inventory of vacant real estate when possible.
"We need to close more schools to create the opportunity to either do turnarounds in those schools or replace them with better options; that doesn't just apply to district schools," he said.