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