IMAGINE THIS: A lobbyist from the Chamber of Commerce approaches Mayor Nutter and offers a $10,000 donation to the city if the mayor will veto the upcoming vote requiring city employers to provide sick days. That lobbyist would be arrested and tried in a court of law.
When Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, spoke with School Reform Commission Chairman Bill Green last week and offered a donation of $25 million in exchange for the SRC to approve a number of charter-school applications, what followed was a discussion in the news media about whether he was offering enough.
But this offer from PSP to persuade the five members of the SRC to approve more charter schools is not about funding schools. Given the relationships among many of those involved, it might be considered a bribe.
Current members of PSP's board have close relationships with charter schools who have submitted applications for additional campuses.
For example: Janine Yass is a founder of Boys' Latin Charter; Mike Wang, former managing director of PSP and current executive director of the Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, one of the lobbying arms of PSP, is on the regional board of KIPP Charter Schools; Chris Bravacos, through his lobbying and consulting firm, Bravo Group, has represented both Aspira and KIPP.
And it is fair to ask how many of the anonymous donors whom Gleason claims to have lined up also have direct connections to charter providers in the city. They stand to benefit from an SRC vote to approve their applications.
This is not about a donor making a contribution for a school to build a playground or purchase more laptops, as some local sports and entertainment figures have done. This is about a perceived attempt to influence the vote of a governmental body that has been entrusted with the legal power to run Philadelphia's schools.
The Philadelphia School Partnership is not simply a philanthropic organization. It has a very clearly established political agenda: the advancement of a free-market ideology of school "choice"; the creation of more charters, whether for-profit or nonprofit; and an anti-union stance made clear when PSP supported then-Gov. Tom Corbett's withholding of $45 million until the teachers union made concessions. (Moving 15,000 students from district schools to charters means the loss of roughly 500 union positions.)
In 2011, PSP was designated in the Great Schools Compact, formulated by the Gates Foundation and signed by the district and several charter owners and advocates, to oversee the implementation of its mandates, including the "replacing or transforming of at least 5,000 low-performing seats annually for each of the next five years, beginning in 2012-13." This $25 million "gift" simply enables the continuation of the diaspora of Philadelphia's public-school children.
The SRC set a deadline of Feb. 1 for the public to submit comments on the SRC's charter-application process. PSP's conversation with Chairman Green days after that deadline represents one more example of PSP's special status within the district. As the influence of PSP and its benefactors has grown, the voices of parents, teachers and students have been diminished.
Perhaps PSP's donors, who have suddenly found $25 million, want to remain anonymous so that they don't have to admit to turning their backs on Philadelphia's children for the past four years while their schools have been trying to survive on a bare-bones budget, without full-time nurses or counselors or librarians.
The issue here is not whether one supports none, some or all of the charter-school applications. It is not whether one agrees with PSP's political and economic agenda. The question is: Should we allow wealthy people to attempt to buy the votes of elected or appointed government officials? The SRC has promised to vote on each charter application on only its merits. If PSP is allowed to influence the SRC's vote, the rights of the people to have a say in the democratic process will be lost.
The U.S. Attorney's Office should immediately open an investigation into the actions of the Philadelphia School Partnership.