Philadelphia’s Mayor’s Office of Education Responds to Demands For Transparency

Last Monday, parents, teachers, and community members took to the streets outside the marble halls of Girard College to protest a closed-door event where representatives of the Mayor’s Office of Education, the Philadelphia Education Fund, and the Read by Fourth Campaign met with Chamber of Commerce affiliates about the future of business in Philadelphia’s schools. We handed out a sheet with five demands to the attendees on their way into the event and requested the Mayor’s Office of Education respond by February 9, 2018.

I share below the response we received with annotated comments. While I appreciate Mr. Hackney’s efforts to address the demands, I am left with a lack of clarity about the role private interests, corporations and non-profits, will play in shaping education policy going forward. We specifically asked the mayor to take a public stance against adaptive learning management systems for literacy and the use of Pay for Success or Social Impact Bonds to fund early childhood or K12 education and workforce development. The letter below endorses the former and says nothing about the latter, which is a serious concern. It supports the use of software in literacy but there is no mention of reduced class sizes, restoration of libraries with librarians, or reading specialists.

The letter also indicates an acceptance of closed door meetings whereby “feedback from a diverse set of stakeholders” is obtained. What stakeholders would need to meet with the mayor and his representatives in small groups outside the public eye? As we move to “local control,” that is a very important question. Will we have a version of “local control” that preferences “Big L” interests like Comcast over “little l” interests like regular parents and teachers? Who gets a seat at the table? Will community engagement drive policy development or remain an easily-dismissed charade as it was under the School Reform Commission?

For reference, these were the original demands:

1. No private “stakeholders” who have financial dealings with the Philadelphia public school system will sit on any policy boards or committees. The voices and needs of students, teachers, and parents must take precedence over those of private interests, including corporations and non-profit organizations.

2. No public official or employee of the school system or school board may be present at any closed-door meetings where public education business or policies are discussed. Public education policy and business will NOT be developed in any venue that restricts public access. All provisions of the open meeting laws will apply: nothing about us without us.

3. Philadelphia’s corporations and non-profits are obligated to pay their fair of taxes and PILOTs and vigorously advocate for the full public funding that is needed to make our neighborhood schools whole.

4. Establish a clear public commitment to early literacy by reducing class size, restoring school libraries with librarians, and providing reading specialists to all schools. Refuse technological solutions, like Waterford UPSTART, and adaptive online learning systems that isolate and data-mine children.

5. The City of Philadelphia must take a public stand against the use of social impact finance “solutions” including Pay for Success contracts and social impact bonds to fund early childhood education, K12 education and workforce development. Public schools should be funded with PUBLIC dollars, not philanthropy or venture capital.

This is the response that was offered:

Mayor's Office of Ed Response to Chamber Demands 020618

Mayor's Office of Ed Response to Chamber Demands 020618-2

Mayor's Office of Ed Response to Chamber Demands 020618-3

In light of this letter, it is important to know that Comcast sent a bus of ed-tech, social impact investor conference attendees to the Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences on February 7, 2018. Mayor Kenney was a featured speaker with David Cohen at the conference, which was billed as a Social Innovation Summit. This tweet indicates Cohen and Kenney participated in a morning discussion about “innovation” and the “future of work.” I wonder if any teachers, students or parents were included?

Social Innovation Summit 6


An informational picket was set up outside Feltonville that morning to welcome Comcast’s investor guests. Banners were laid out on icy sidewalks: “Teachers Before Tech,” “Children Are Not Data, Human Capital or Impact Investment Opportunities,” and “Public Schools NOT Private Profit.”

We handed out this flyer. To print a copy, use this Link.

Feltonville Flyer

A quick glance at some of the conference lanyards indicated the following were in attendance: a representative of the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City that is working with Ready Nation to promote the securitization of early childhood social impact bonds; venture capitalists from Landmark Ventures; and a person with the Lili’uokalani Trust serving poor indigenous Hawaiian youth.

Superintendent Hite was there as was Fran Newberg, Deputy Chief of the Office of Education Technology for the district. On April 10, 2018 she and Melanie Harris, Chief Information Officer, will be guest speakers at a “Day of Discussion on the Next Stage of School Transformation.” An email forwarded to me indicates the event will examine: “a new incursion of data from software, from the intersection of technology with redesigning the physical environment, and more. This event helps you make sense where it is all going.” Read the full event description from the email here.

It seems we are facing some challenges Philadelphia. We have a school district that desperately needs additional funding. Austerity doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. We have a mayor who is pretty cozy with Comcast, seems very interested in social impact investing and educational technology, and who might very well be inclined to fund our schools through “innovative” financial tools like pay for success and/or social impact bonds. We have education policy officials condoning special meetings with unspecified diverse stakeholders who seem open to “cross-sector” opportunities. To me this sounds an awful lot like public-private impact investing opportunities. If you haven’t yet, please spend some time with my video about social impact bonds. I have a feeling the information is going to be relevant very soon.