In Philly, Helping Will Earn You Skepticism

The school district is lucky to have the William Penn Foundation's support. Let's thank them with conspiracy theories.

One of the big problems that has plagued Philadelphia for decades has been its lack of strong and competent leadership. The city is known as a “go-along-to-get-along” place.

Those who push hardest for change are often run out of town or get frustrated by the lack of progress and give up. The lack of corporate headquarters in the city has resulted in a power vacuum that is often filled by a one-party political class lacking in the vision or ability to solve the big issues of the day. The result is a city in decline as entrenched interests fight over a shrinking pie.

Nowhere is that more evident than the Philadelphia School District. The district spends about $2.5 billion a year and produces mainly violence, academic failure and zero accountability. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in increased funding during the Rendell years, enrollment continued to decline, test scores barely increased, and daily violence forced parents to search for alternatives.

Incompetent management under Superintendent Arlene Ackerman essentially bankrupted the district and has resulted in steady tax hikes by Mayor Nutter. Years have been wasted. The new members of the School Reform Commission are slowly trying to dig out from the hole.

Fortunately, a number of groups have stepped forward to help as well, including the William Penn Foundation, Chamber of Commerce, and the United Way. In most cities, the support by such groups would be welcomed and encouraged. But this is Philadelphia, where no good deed goes unpunished. And even a status quo that produces failure gets protected.

The Notebook, an excellent online publication devoted to covering the schools that is funded by the William Penn Foundation, has been raising red flags about the work of outside consultants funded largely by the foundation.

City Paper wrote a breathless story last week that essentially inferred there was some secret right-wing conspiracy to overthrow public education and turn it into a bunch of privately run charter schools. Never mind, the story was lacking in details to support the thesis, and few critics would speak on the record.

The story took particular aim at William Penn Foundation President Jeremy Nowak. He is tough, outspoken and doesn’t suffer fools. In a town well known for being corrupt and content, Nowak has somehow succeeded by being honest and driven. Frankly, the city could use a few more Jeremy Nowaks.

Indeed, the William Penn Foundation made a big statement last year in luring Nowak away from the Reinvestment Fund, where he built an impressive track record funding projects to build affordable housing and supermarkets in poor neighborhoods. Nowak was also on the board of the Mastery Charter Schools, which has an impressive track record of turning around poor-performing public schools in Philadelphia.

Somehow those accomplishments are cause for concern for some.

Apparently, the William Penn Foundation’s giving $15 million to a fund to help the best-performing public, charter or parochial schools and another $1.45 million (and raising a couple million more) to hire an outside consultant to help develop a plan to restructure the school district has some folks unnerved. It shouldn’t. For starters, a few million dollars is not going to upend public education. (Though some parts need upending.) The money and expertise was sorely needed. At the end of the day, the SRC will decide if the recommendations by the consulting firm make sense.

More directly, the William Penn Foundation has a long history of giving money to help support the environment, education arts and other causes in Philadelphia. The Haas family, which oversees the foundation, could spend their time and money playing polo or tooling around St. Bart’s. Instead the family is humble and dedicated to philanthropy and stewardship designed to improve the city’s quality of life. This is not some nutty, agenda-driven outfit.

The lack of a quality public school system is the main reason families leave or don’t consider moving to the city. The lack of a qualified workforce (along with the city’s onerous tax structure) is the main reason companies leave and new businesses don’t locate here. It’s a vicious cycle that results in a shrinking tax base and growing costs.

That’s why fixing the public schools is the key to the city’s future. Taxpayers can’t keep giving more money to City Hall and the schools and getting nothing in return. Making tough choices based on data and accountability should be a basic requirement.

There is nothing wrong with asking questions and demanding transparency with any process. But in a city devoid of leadership, students, parents, and taxpayers should be thankful the William Penn Foundation and others are helping to fix the schools.