The civic group Parents United and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia have been fighting the School Reform Commission for access to secret documents created by the Boston Consulting Group as its “reform” plan for the Philadelphia public schools. The plan was shared with district officials and the foundation that paid for the report, but was not made public. The groups just won a victory and were able to review the report, see the list of schools that BCG wanted to close, and see how flawed BCG’s projections were. Of course, BCG wanted to privatize as much of the district’s schools and operations as possible.
BCG called for closing 88 District-managed schools, which would have displaced a conservative estimate of 22,000-31,000 students districtwide – more than triple the number of students displaced by the actual 2013 school closings. A five-year plan sought the removal and reassignment of up to 45,000 students, more than one-third of the District.
This information and more came to us after Parents United for Public Education and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia won a two-and-a-half-year battle to get BCG’s list of school closings. After losing three times in official proceedings, the District this month agreed to hand over BCG’s recommendations.
Parents United’s fight for this list wasn’t just about legal technicalities, although some interesting issues arose as a result. Our fight was about the importance of public transparency and dialogue on matters of grave importance to communities and taxpayers.
In 2012, the Boston Consulting Group came under intense criticism for a controversial plan that promoted school closings, massive charter expansion, and privatization of key functions within the District. Under its multimillion-dollar contract with the William Penn Foundation, BCG agreed to provide the foundation with a number of “contract deliverables,” one of which was identifying schools for closure.
In court proceedings regarding our case, the District sought to make a troubling, and fortunately unsuccessful, argument that “certain stakeholders and members of the philanthropic community” ought to have special access to information denied to the public – a move that we think is closely akin to pay-to-play.
We argued that large donors, such as former William Penn Foundation president Jeremy Nowak, had special access to school-closing documents and to District officials. An Ethics Board investigation later found that Nowak did have private meetings with District officials and reviewed and commented on draft reports.
The District held that some “members of the philanthropic community” and undefined “stakeholders” get to have a different level of access than the rest of the public. This reveals a lot about decisionmaking and voice in a state-takeover district.
It should make a difference that some of the entities that helped contribute to the Boston Consulting Group plan had board members who were real estate developers and individuals with financial and political stakes in charter school operators. These were groups that pushed hard for school closures, which rocked the District in 2012-13, forcing 7,000 children to crowd into schools that today are worse off than the ones they had attended. A number of the properties were then fast-tracked for sale.
We know that mass school closings didn’t improve the District’s finances. They didn’t stop the loss of nearly 4,000 jobs just a few months later. They didn’t buy us any good will from the state legislature. And most important, they didn’t improve the academic opportunities for students in schools targeted for closure or for those in the rest of the District.