Gatekeepers: Philadelphia Education Fund Adopts New Paid Access Policy

Farah Jimenez is a member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission and current director of the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF), a nonprofit that hosts monthly conversations on topics related to public education in Philadelphia. These days, if you want to attend one of their Education First Compact meetings, you’re going to have to jump through a lot of hoops. That wasn’t previously the case. Advance registration for meetings is now required, a policy put in place after Ms. Jimenez was hired in April 2016. When registering via the website, attendees are strongly encouraged to financially support the organization as either a series subscriber or by purchasing individual tickets. Corporate and foundation subscribers pay $750, while individuals pay $100; though there is the option to donate more.

PEF Subscriber

Until this month you could secure immediate admission to meetings via online registration without paying anything, as long as free tickets were available. However, a recent policy change states anyone who is not a paid subscriber is now automatically put on a waitlist. This policy will allow PEF to screen out people they deem undesirable, without requiring them to rescind tickets that have already been granted. PEF has done this to me twice, and not just to me, but to at least two other activists. There is a clear sense that Compact meetings are not meant to be truly “public” meetings, even though PEF’s mission revolves around public education. At the beginning of the December Compact meeting Jimenez stated that what was said in the room stays in the room; that nothing be shared via social media. I understood that to mean these are essentially closed-door discussions. So, moving forward if a person wants to have access to these discussions they have to 1) be willing to pay or 2) not voice any questions or opinions that might upset the people deciding if they get into the next meeting. That is a huge problem.

PEF Ticket Policy

This is my cancelled ticket for the November meeting. I did not cancel it, the Philadelphia Education Fund did.

PEF Ticket 5 Cancellation

I would like to share two videos I created using Facebook live that convey my experience at the December Compact meeting held at the United Way building. I had registered for the event and had a printed ticket. I was initially granted access but was then was asked to leave by a staff member who would not give her name. I was unable to embed the videos, so you’ll have to click the links to watch them from Facebook. But this image gives you a sense of the encounter.



The first clip includes conversations with Mr. Otis Hackney, the invited speaker who was there on behalf of the Mayor’s Office of Education. The second clip includes conversations with Ms. Jimenez in which I attempt to get an answer about why my previous tickets had been cancelled. It concludes with Ms. Jimenez and Mr. Hackney having a private conversation about the situation at the end of the hallway. Ultimately, I was allowed to stay, but it was highly contentious, and my questions about why my tickets had been cancelled were never answered. I suspect PEF’s new RSVP policy is a workaround to avoid having to address complaints about their actions.

Paid supporters of the Education First Compact Series are guaranteed a seat at the reserved table in meetings where initiatives, with reform undertones like universal enrollment, are discussed among a group of like-minded peers. Ironically, the topic of the meeting they attempted to eject me from was about the district’s return to local control. Looking around the room that day I got the sense many supporters are “Big C” community partners, the type that worry me when people start talking about community schools, more here. Chronic, inequitable funding for public education has created gaps that have morphed into opportunities for nonprofits to expand their programs. These gaps also create openings for foundation and corporate interests to influence school policy and facilitate outsourcing of core programs once housed within schools while still appearing somewhat benevolent.

Sometimes PEF’s Compact meetings are held at tony venues like the Union League. This exclusive club with a dress code and a history of racial, religious and gender discrimination might seem an unlikely meeting location for a back-to-school kickoff event in a district where many student families live in deep poverty. Yet the September 2017 Education First Compact meeting was held there as PEF welcomed think tank member and author David Osborne along with Superintendent William Hite. Osborne, despite having no background in education, was on tour promoting his new book “Reinventing America’s Schools” along with expansion of “high-quality” charters. For those tempted to jump to the conclusion that this was a conservative guy pitching privatization, it turns out Mr. Osborne is a member of the so-called “Progressive” Policy Institute and is solidly in the neoliberal “Third Way” Democratic camp. Turning schools into data-driven profit centers is definitely a bi-partisan enterprise.

I’ll share two pieces of advice with any of you who might be inclined to want to attend an ed reform meeting at the Union League. 1) You should not wear jeans. 2) You should not arrive early to write “Philanthrocapitalism can take a hike (heart) Philly” in chalk on the sidewalk outside the venue. For details on the impromptu sit-in precipitated by Union League staffers grabbing me in the lobby that morning click here. Of course solutions that truly serve the most vulnerable children in our district will not be developed at a reserved table in the Master’s House, so I cannot in good faith actually recommend anyone invest time attending these meetings.


It’s worth checking out the Philadelphia Education Fund Board here. Many represent the interests of the finance sector. Wells Fargo, Citi, Bank of America, Vanguard, and Morgan Stanley are all in the mix. It’s a perfect set up for social impact investing, which meshes nicely with growing local interest around developing Philadelphia as a social impact economy, see link and link. There is a lot of profit to be made from poverty. I fully expect a “Pay for Success” initiative or social impact bond focused on early literacy to show up on Philadelphia’s doorstep in the not-too-distant future. Other board members have ties to Big Pharma, regional higher education, law firms and companies in the technology (IoT sensors for Smart Cities!) and business development sectors. There are a couple (Drexel and the Free Library) that have ties to the MacArthur/Collective Shift badging/learning ecosystem initiatives. One board member is married to the head of the Mayor’s Office of Education. Philadelphia is such a small town. It’s important to note there are NO positions representing teachers, parents or students on PEF’s board. PEF’s mission is to support Philadelphia schools. So tell me how exactly do they determine what supports schools need if key stakeholders are not in the boardroom and they can’t even get into the Compact meetings?

The impending dissolution of the School Reform Commission has left many hopeful there will be more transparency around education decisions in our city. But moving forward under mayoral control, I wonder what role PEF will play? The head of the Mayor’s Office of Education and Ms. Jimenez did appear to have a close working relationship. What standing will non-profits, foundations, and business interests have to influence education policies that directly affect our children? Whose voices will be heard? Which people will be excluded? If you are willing to speak truth to power, will you be removed even if you are a parent with a child in the district? My encounters with PEF have not been positive, and I am not hopeful. I will be sharing this post with Mayor Jim Kenney and plan to ask him to reevaluate the City’s relationship to PEF as well as to any other group that purports to represent the interests of Philadelphia’s students while excluding actual stakeholders. We can do better. Philadelphia’s children deserve a humane education, one that values small class sizes, a rich curriculum, libraries in-school supports, safe and healthy buildings, clean water and extracurricular activities provided by school staff. We don’t want a system that looks at our children as human capital to be “fixed” and “molded” to suit some targeted workforce development slot. We refuse educational policies that serve the interests of those seeking to profit off of the misery of childhood poverty. Keep social impact investing out of education. We’re on to your game.

Money for what Mr. Kuhn? A Big Data, Future Ready Superintendent Promotes Funding Equity for NPE

This week the Network for Public Education launched another video in their series on the privatization of public education. The video featured John Kuhn, superintendent of the Mineral Wells Independent School District in Mineral Wells, Texas. Kuhn, an admittedly charismatic speaker, discussed the important issue of funding inequities and how lack of funding hurts students in low-income school districts. I was curious where Mr. Kuhn’s school district was located, because I have been following the work of a number of intrepid parent activists in Texas who have been busy exposing the next wave of privatization in the state including: education savings accounts, social impact bonds for mathematics instruction, and districts of innovation.

When I pulled up the Mineral Wells ISD website, I was surprised to see a link for “Future Ready” in the “Learn More About Us” footer of each page. I had shared my concerns regarding the “Future Ready” pledge last October. You can read about them here. If you want the short version, the program is affiliated with the reform outfit The Alliance for Excellent Education and funded by the Gates Foundation, Google, Apple, Pearson, Summit Learning and the Carnegie Corporation, among others. Those who sign the pledge commit to “implementing meaningful changes toward a digital learning transition.” The “About the Effort” page of the Future Ready website makes it clear pledge signers support the idea that “personalized” learning is about adoption of digital technologies: “We believe every student deserves a rigorous, personalized learning environment filled with caring adults and student agency. District leaders must recognize the potential of digital tools and align necessary technologies with instructional goals to support teaching and learning.”

The Future Ready link on the Mineral Wells ISD website takes you to a page promoting many elements of the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda: flipped classrooms, hybrid-distance learning, and gamification. The first thing that struck me was a description of how the district is using Google hangouts for so-called “peer” learning experiences. I found the associated image really upsetting. The district was promoting a pre-school age child being plugged into a headset and tablet doing a read aloud with a fifth grade student. Where are the children’s teachers? Where are the actual books? What data is being captured from this online interaction and for what purpose? There is absolutely no pedagogical reason this “Future Ready” approach should be imposed on young children. It is not developmentally appropriate, it erodes teacher autonomy in the classroom, and it is dehumanizing.

Kuhn 3

Kuhn signed the pledge while working at his former district Perrin Whitt in Jack County, Texas. Gail Haterius, who preceded Kuhn at Mineral Wells, signed the pledge on behalf of her district at the time. Kuhn, upon taking over Mineral Wells, maintained the district’s “Future Ready” status. If you’re wondering where NPE stands on the “Future Ready” pledge, Diane Ravitch’s blog lauded it in a post from February of 2015 featuring Thomas Ralston, a superintendent from my home state of Pennsylvania. Ralston was at the launch of the initiative in Washington with Arne Duncan. At the time “Future Ready” was being pitched as an antidote to high stakes testing, though we later figured out the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda was designed for technology-based all-the-time testing, including data collection on workforce-aligned soft skills. If you read the comments on Ravitch’s post, it is clear parents and teachers know something is not quite right and push back against the program’s technology focus. It turns out Ralston is part of the “Remake Learning” initiative in the greater Pittsburgh region, a program that aims to implement badge-based learning ecosystems as part of the MacArthur Foundation/ Collective Shift funded Cities of LRNG program. This foresight document “The Future of Learning in the Pittsburgh Region” from Knowledgeworks is a real eye opener, I assure you.

Future Read Kuhn

Many have said Mr. Kuhn is a wonderful person. I am certainly willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, which is why I tweeted him a few questions about this Google hangout peer learning program and what his funding priorities would be as an avowed “Future Ready” school superintendent. I was also curious about an infographic promoting “grit.”  I am still waiting to hear back, because neither he, nor NPE, nor Diane Ravitch have acknowledged or replied to my tweets as of the time of this post. See: link, link, link, and link. If you would like to hear their responses, consider helping me out by retweeting. If I get an answer, I will be happy to post them here.

John Kuhn

Kuhn says he wants equal opportunities for poor children. Ok, so if he were to switch places with the superintendent of the poor district described in the video, and the funding inequities were addressed, how exactly would he spend that money? All children deserve cruelty-free education. Having more money doesn’t guarantee the education being purchased is humane, especially if it is spent on devices that are designed to employ learning management systems, gamification, and big data to profile students based on their academic performance and behavioral compliance. See Kuhn’s opening remarks in this piece written for other school superintendents.

So, with whom do you stand Mr. Kuhn?

Carnegie or children?

Gates or teachers?

Pearson or Parents?

Future Ready Funders

As a Future Ready signatory would you spend increased funding on literacy coaches, librarians, real books, foreign language teachers, and reduced class sizes for poor children? Or, with the Alliance for Excellent Education and their cloud-based partners looking over your shoulder, would you instead spend it on intelligent tutoring systems like Dreambox, Duolingo, online classes, and grit training? The NPE video tells part of your story. It’s the story people want to hear. But buried underneath is a murkier truth; one you share with fellow superintendents as you pitch “ethical” Big Data solutions for childhood poverty. In various articles Kuhn’s language aligns very closely with that of social impact investing-stay tuned, my instincts are pretty good.

I encourage education activists to please pay attention to what is NOT being said as much as what IS being said. That is an important skill. Sins of omission are sometimes hard to spot. Knowing the onslaught of online learning that Texas teachers are facing at this very moment, it is telling that Mr. Kuhn does not speak to that threat nor does NPE surface it. My concern about TASA and online learning in Texas goes back almost two years, details here. As many unthinkingly consume superficial content that tugs at the emotions but doesn’t promote organized resistance, urgent new threats are taking over classrooms one chromebook, one tablet, one headset at a time. This is not the time to sit disconnected, absently clicking “like.” We must build communities of resistance and begin to take direct action. I will close with a comment I shared on my personal Facebook page about this situation. It’s time to do the work folks. It’s well past time.

“Future Ready schools are the next privatization threat. I’m sure it is very hard for people who have embraced Mr. Kuhn and his message to accept that they have been manipulated. For people who really need a ray of light, having a shadow cast upon it seems unfair and a huge blow to teachers who have lost so much. I get it. But his adoption of this corporate agenda that will further data-driven profiling of children, particularly the most vulnerable among us, means he cannot be the role model we need. We need to acknowledge that and move forward. I am offering no apology nor looking for others to apologize for actions taken or not taken. There is work to be done. It’s time to organize and do the work. We know what has to be done, and that is unplugging kids, protecting them from predatory community partnerships looking to profit from their data and “fixing” them via evidence-based programs, and standing up for humanity. For goodness sake, isn’t it about time?”