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Don't scare private money away from public schools

IN FILMS AND FICTION, a MacGuffin is a plot device that seems to hold some importance, but turns out to be a distraction from the ultimate plot. We can't help thinking that an ethics complaint filed this week by Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Home and School Council, NAACP and the Public Interest Law Center is an educational MacGuffin.

The complaint maintains that work by the Boston Consulting Group on behalf of the School District but paid for by the William Penn Foundation was in fact lobbying work - an attempt "to influence administrative actions and policies of the School District" - and that the consulting group should have filed as lobbyists with the city's Ethics Board. (Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation has funded "It's Our Money", a partnership between The Daily News and WHYY.)

In February, the William Penn Foundation gave $1.5 million to the district to hire BCG to analyze and make recommendations on the economic crisis the district was facing. Additional work after that initial phase was paid for by William Penn and other donors; the money came through United Way, but the contract was not directly with the district. The groups filing the complaint are crying foul, saying that BCG had access to the district and was lobbying for, among other things, charter-school expansion, school closings, and transportation and maintenance services. They claim that BCG is a narrow private interest with a specific agenda.

The problem with that claim is that those issues are what the district, under Chief Recovery Officer Tom Knudsen, directed BCG to work on. Subsequently, the district failed to act on some of the BCG recommendations.

The complaint is confusing, since the district and a newly configured SRC clearly needed outside help to pull back from the fiscal and operational cliff it was standing on; BCG is a consulting firm that claims expertise in a range of industries, from technology and environment to retail and automotive, as well as education. They don't operate schools, like Edison. It's hard to guess what exactly they might be lobbying for, besides more consulting contracts.

The complaint is potentially damaging if it chills the willingness of donors to give money to the district. Although it didn't stop the Gates Foundation from announcing a $2.5 million grant to the school district this week. Will Gates now be subject to scrutiny, accused of having an agenda of installing Windows into every classroom computer?

We think the idea that corporate and private interests are stepping up to public education with checkbooks is a development that should be encouraged. Of course, that comes with caveats. But the idea that behind every checkbook is a nefarious agenda is both naïve and self-defeating.

That's not to say that public education has remained unscathed by people wishing to do it harm. But that harm has been done by a group a lot closer than Boston: the lawmakers in Harrisburg who have systemically starved public education of funding, and have directed a major charter-school expansion without paying close attention to the often-damaging consequences.