The story of how one wealthy man engaged in secret negotiations with officials to impose his will on one suburban high school became front-page news for days. Commentaries expressed outrage about the district's rushed vote to rename Abington Senior High School in exchange for a $25 million gift from billionaire businessman Stephen Schwarzman, along with several other conditions, including changes in curriculum and technology. "Someone coming in with a lot of money can have a whole lot of influence over a public school," warned one parent at a subsequent school board meeting. One Inquirer columnist expressed uneasiness "that public schools could become beggars at the table of the uber-rich."
To these suburban parents and pundits, we say: Welcome to our world.
In November 2011, the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC), absent any public deliberation, approved a multimillion-dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In return, the SRC agreed to several conditions, including yearly charter expansion, implementation of Common Core standards, more school "choice" and testing, and permanent school closures. No one elected Bill Gates, typically portrayed in the media as just a very generous rich guy, to make decisions about Philadelphia's public schools. But his mandates have had devastating and lasting effects on the district, much more than renaming one school.
Abington residents were shocked to learn of the district's covert establishment of a foundation that would make decisions, rather than the elected school board, about how to spend money from donors. Here in Philadelphia, the Gates Compact conferred authority upon the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) "to provide funding …to low-performing or developing schools." PSP has since raised tens of millions from a stable of wealthy donors; most has gone to charter schools, in keeping with Gates' pro-privatization ideology.
PSP's influence has grown in the last seven years: the group now funds and operates teacher and principal training programs, oversees a website rating all Philadelphia schools, and holds the district's yearly high school fair. PSP's money, like Schwarzman's, always comes with strings attached, whether that means changing a school's curriculum or a complete overhaul of faculty and staff, as its 2014 grant to two North Philadelphia schools mandated.
Meetings of the PSP board, where decisions about funding, curriculum, and staff training of public schools are made, are closed to the public. This board, composed mostly of wealthy suburban businesspeople, often has more influence over city public schools than the residents do.
This practice of ceding public decisions to private investors on a large scale first reared its head in 2001, when Philadelphia came dangerously close to privatizing the entire district and handing over the reins to the for-profit Edison Schools founded by media mogul Chris Whittle.
Gates, whose Compact has been adopted in several other cities, including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Nashville, and New Orleans, is just one member of what education writer Diane Ravitch calls the "Billionaires Boys Club" of corporate education reformers. Real estate developer Eli Broad is using his wealth and political power to stave off community opposition to his push to charter-ize half of Los Angeles' public schools. The family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, heirs to the Amway fortune, have used their billions to privatize public education through the unregulated proliferation of for-profit charters in Detroit and other cities throughout Michigan. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million toward then-Gov. Chris Christie's 2010 plan to transfer Newark students from neighborhood schools to charters. Newark residents, who learned about this massive cash infusion when it was announced on Oprah, had never been consulted about what they wanted in the "One Newark" plan.
Abington residents were justifiably angry about the board's intention to rush through a vote without full public disclosure.
Like the opioid crisis, it seems to have taken a less urban and more middle-class population to alter the media's perspective on the damage inflicted. This appears to be a brushfire in Abington, while rule by the rich has been a fact of life for almost two decades in Philadelphia, where the less affluent, mostly minority community continues to be disenfranchised in matters of school governance.
Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and cofounder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools. Deborah Grill is a retired teacher and school librarian and a research coordinator for the alliance. appsphilly.net.