Meeting of big donors inspires protests

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Philanthropy Roundtable, with the help of the Delaware Valley Grantmakers, sponsored a meeting of big donors in Philadelphia on Monday and Tuesday. The philanthropic association offered advice, field trips, and workshops on how donors’ money "can increase a city’s total number of high-quality K-12 seats, regardless of the school sector(s)," public, charter, or parochial.

That the meeting came in the middle of an unprecedented budget crisis that has stripped city schools of essential services was an insult to several dozen protesters, who said that they felt the donors’ presence was part of a privatization agenda.

"The message of the young people is that they were upset that these groups had the audacity to come to Philadelphia in the middle of the worst financial crisis the School District has faced," said Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union. "These are wealthy people talking on how they can capitalize on this crisis while students are going to schools with no counselors, no nurses, no programs."

The requirement for participation was a prior donation of $50,000 or more to a philanthropic cause. There were about 200 attendees, and they were from Philadelphia and elsewhere, according to several people there.

"We’ll discuss investments that hold the promise of improving multiple types of schools and learn how donors are uniquely positioned to accelerate city-wide student achievement," according to the agenda published on the Roundtable’s website.

The Philanthropy Roundtable, a right-leaning donor organization, would not release any information on who attended the gathering or agree to an interview. Anthony Pienta, the Roundtable’s deputy for K-12 education issues, issued a statement:

"It’s been an honor to host a gathering of some of America’s most generous philanthropists, civic leaders, and educators dedicated to improving K-12 education here in Philadelphia and in cities nationwide. Through their hard work, we’re hopeful that every child in Philadelphia and around the country will have the opportunity to attend an excellent school."

Among the topics of the conference were: early literacy, teacher training, building public support for change, blended learning, increasing school choice, and strengthening Catholic schools.

A particular target of the protesters was the Philadelphia School Partnership, which has the goal of raising $100 million through its Great Schools Fund to distribute to "high-performing" schools. So far, it has given out some $29 million– about $16.5 million to charters, $9.5 million to District schools, and $3 million to Catholic schools.

The conference included two field trips — one to Mercy Vocational, an independent Catholic school, and the other to Mastery Charter School at Cleveland Elementary, a Renaissance "turnaround" school. There were no visits scheduled to any District-run schools.

PSP executive director Mark Gleason said that he was asked to speak and suggest schools for field trips, but didn’t sponsor the conference or set the agenda.

"We shared some of our perspective around Philadelphia … and told them about a dozen schools they could visit," he said. That included District-run schools. In the end, time constraints prevented visitation of more than two, he said.

Rivera, of Philadelphia Student Union, said that PSP doesn’t give enough money to District-run schools. Nor has the organization urged Gov. Corbett to release $45 million in appropriated state funds that he is holding up pending changes in the teachers’ contract, Rivera said. PSP lobbied Corbett to include conditions on the $45 million, including a change in seniority rules governing teacher assignment.

"In order for schools to be good schools, they need to be resourced adequately," Rivera said. "Anything that doesn’t talk about how we can fund all our schools fully and adequately is a waste of time, in my opinion."

Gleason said that PSP has advocated for more money for the District by urging City Council to pass the extension of a 1 percent sales tax that would funnel $120 million to city schools starting next year.

Although PSP agrees that the District needs more money, "I will reiterate what we’re saying all along, that money alone is not the problem," Gleason said. "We also need reforms and better management."

The students at the protest were from the Philadelphia Student Union, Youth United for Change, and JUNTOS.

Some protesters were upset that the meeting was closed to the public, because those inside wield great influence over school policy.

"Sure, we’ll take your money, but we don’t want you deciding where the money should go," said Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, an advocacy group that helped organize the protest at the Union League. "All decisions made about public schools should be made by the public."