This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Even with all the private company entrepreneurship revolving around Philadelphia School District initiatives lately, local observers expressed surprise at signs that District CEO Paul Vallas himself was appearing to be in on the action.
Evidence of a business initiative involving the use of Vallas’s name and reform approach recently surfaced on the websites of two related Chicago-based businesses. Information about the venture on one website was apparently pulled from the web minutes after Notebook inquiries. The other website disappeared the next day. (Images of several of the removed pages referenced in this story were saved by The Notebook, and are linked to in this story).
Solomon Consulting Services Inc. (SCS), a new for-profit enterprise that counts among its team a number of prominent administrators and leaders who’ve worked under or with Vallas, had obtained exclusive rights to “The Vallas Model,” according to the website of SCS’s partner and online marketing firm.
Vallas categorically denies any such deal. But questions linger about how a website devoted to marketing Paul Vallas’ accomplishments and approach came into being and what will become of the enterprise that created it.
Did SCS obtain any commitments from Vallas? Or is the company said to be marketing Vallas’ school reform approach a rogue venture that overstated its connection to Philadelphia’s schools CEO?
Through a District spokesperson, Vallas said he has no commercial relationship with Solomon Consulting, adding that SCS had not been authorized to use his name or sell his reform model.
Vallas later invited a look at his tax forms as proof he hasn’t profited from a deal.
Spokesperson Cecelia Cummings said Vallas has acknowledged awareness of a number of his associates forming an enterprise. Cummings said the District had threatened legal action over the SCS website, which implied that the School District was a client of SCS.
Although Solomon Consulting Service’s website prominently featured Philadelphia school successes and references to Vallas, SCS founder Gary Solomon denies his firm is connected to the schools chief.
“What I do is try to take successful, reform-minded educators, best practices and school districts and bridge the three,” Solomon explained in a recent phone interview. “So we work with schools and school districts across the country.”
Solomon is known locally because he has worked closely with the School District as the representative of Princeton Review, a major recipient of District contracts.
Solomon explained the choice of his firm’s so-called client “success stories” highlighted on SCS’s website — the rising test scores in Chicago Public Schools under the leadership of Paul Vallas and the rising test scores in Philadelphia under the leadership of Vallas – as reflective of the work of his team members, some of whom he stressed did work with Vallas.
SCS’s team list names Phil Hansen, a former Chicago chief accountability officer who served on Vallas’ Philadelphia transition team and who now works for Princeton Review; Cozette Buckney, Chicago’s chief education officer under Vallas and a member of Vallas’ Philadelphia transition team; Sue Gamm, chief specialized services officer in Chicago during Vallas’ tenure, who also served as a consultant to Vallas during his transition; and Gery Chico, who served as chair of the Chicago Board of Education during Vallas’ tenure. Nancy McGinley, currently chief academic officer for the Charleston (S.C.) School District, who headed the Philadelphia Education Fund, is also listed as on the SCS team.
McGinley expressed surprise to the Notebook that she was listed as a member of the "team," commenting, "I don’t have a formal agreement with them. I have had a conversation with them about the type of work they’d be doing."
McGinley said her conversation about the company was with Phil Hansen, and that she had expressed interest in possible work in Philadelphia. She added, "I was told directly that Paul [Vallas] has no stake in it."
Paul Vallas’ biography was one of 22 “recent news” items featured on the home page of the SCS website – nearly all about the accomplishments of Vallas.
Yet Solomon disputed the fact that Vallas’ biography appeared on the SCS site.
Another news item pointed to a relationship between Solomon and a Vallas protégé – Creg Williams, Philadelphia’s former Deputy Chief Academic Officer. A news release on SCS letterhead stated Solomon had been named to head the transition team for Williams in his new position as superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools. A spokesperson for St. Louis schools confirmed the appointment.
Marketing the Vallas Model
The trail suggesting a business arrangement involving Vallas and Solomon began with SolTyra, a Chicago-based online marketing firm, which on a web page displaying a “case study” of its work, stated that its services were called upon by Solomon Consulting, “when some of the most successful leaders in educational reform came together to form a for-profit enterprise upon the exclusive rights to Paul Vallas’ model . . . ”
SolTyra described and listed the web address for Solomon Consulting Services’ web page. But that SolTyra page and two other references to Philadelphia public schools disappeared from the SolTyra website after the Notebook interviewed Gary Solomon on April 27.
Solomon had said of the statements about the “Vallas model” on his partner company’s page, “I don’t know how accurate that is,” and then excused himself to look at the web page before continuing the interview.
In a follow-up interview, Solomon said he had been unable to find the page. Solomon’s own site, SolomonConsultingInc.com, disappeared from the web April 28, one day after the interview with Solomon. [Solomon had told the Notebook that a newly designed site was to be posted soon. A new SolomonConsulting Inc.com was posted Saturday, April 30, with no references to Vallas and no list of personnel].
According to text on the SCS site, the firm’s founder is a former teacher, high school dean, long-time reform student, and founder of a nonprofit education reform organization.
Not mentioned is the position as assistant vice president of educational partnerships that Solomon held with Princeton Review as recently as January, when he was interviewed by The Notebook. Solomon is described by several School District central office personnel as a regular visitor to District headquarters – sighted there as recently as the week of April 18.
On April 20, the School Reform Commission approved a resolution for $2.6 million in categorical/grant funds for Princeton Review to provide curriculum, educational materials and professional development for the District’s summer program. Other Princeton review contracts this school year have been for $600,000 for consulting for four transitional high schools – Lamberton, Sayre, Vaux and Parkway Gamma High, and $750,000 for PSSA test prep materials, support and professional development.
During the interview, Solomon initially said he no longer worked with Princeton Review. However, in a Notebook phone call to Princeton Review’s New York office, an operator responded that the company did indeed have a listing for Gary Solomon. When the call was transferred, Solomon answered, and explained, “They’re a client of mine.”
A Princeton Review spokesperson clarified that Solomon has his own company but is listed in the company database as a "K-12 sales consultant" for Princeton Review.
A number of educational experts, researchers and advocates viewed the SolTyra and Solomon Consulting sites, before the pages disappeared, or received descriptions of it.
Responses ranged from “fascinating” to “troubling and very problematic.”
Site launched in December
The SolTyra website “case study” page said December 2004 was the launch date of the site they designed, www.SolomonConsultingInc.com. SolTyra Founder and President Tom Vranas is a member of Solomon Consulting’s “team,” and his company is a “partner” of SCS, according to the SCS website.
SolTyra displayed a low-resolution image of the SCS home page, containing a graphic emblazoned with the headline: “Paul Vallas: The Vallas Model,” and what appeared to be a trademark symbol.
Underneath, Vallas is quoted: “The key to reforming a district is not only the quality of the district’s programs, but it’s also the ability of the district to finance its reforms.”
However, the actual SCS home page viewed in April looked somewhat different than the image displayed by SolTyra. It had omitted the graphic, the headline, specific mention of Vallas’ name, and the quote by Vallas.
In place of the graphic, however, was a long list of articles with links to Vallas’ biography and newspaper articles about Vallas from as recently as mid-April – reprinted on Solomon letterhead — on the Philadelphia and Chicago school districts. On other pages were colorful graphs highlighting the rise in test scores in Philadelphia and Chicago schools under Vallas.
Meanwhile, the School District itself — along with Chicago Public Schools and the Maryland State Board of Education — appeared on SCS’s “Our Clients” page, under a “Current Projects” heading.
So, what is the reform model SCS was – or is — selling?
SCS described its mission as helping “K-12 institutions develop and implement financial and instructional strategies, practices and systems that truly align instruction to the core mission of today’s schools: achievement, accountability and staff development.”
Its list of service offerings stated turnaround management services, data-driven decision-making, curriculum and instruction, intervention programs and strategies, and professional development programs and strategies.
District spokesperson Cummings said she was unaware of Vallas himself ever having made reference to the term “Vallas Model.”
Is there a model?
Research for Action principal researcher Eva Gold dismissed the idea of a reform model being the domain of one person.
“As part of a group that has studied reform, both nationally and in Philadelphia for more than a decade, I feel that reform can never be attributed to just one individual.”
Gold added, “Reform is the result of the history of experience and experimentation with change efforts. One district leader might put particular emphasis on one set of practices over another. But the set of practices are the result of layers of experience and reform. It’s just misleading to ever attribute reform to just one individual when it takes many years of honing experience that leads to the next generation of reform or the next leaders’ reform program.”
Questioning the idea of an established model, Henry Levin, of the New York-based National Center for the Study of Privatization of Education, insists Philadelphia’s successes are too new – two years old — and relatively small, to uphold as a model.
And he called results in Chicago “a mixed bag,” with the system still weighed down with retention problems and low graduation rates.
“Superintendents come and go, and they all make claims of having produced results. And yet, urban school systems are still pretty miserable,” Levin said.
Vallas’ employment contract appears to expressly prohibit outside business pursuits, stating, “During the time of employment Vallas shall devote his entire working time to diligent and faithful performance of the obligations assigned to him, and shall not be engaged in any other business or employment pursuits whether or not for pecuniary gain . . . .”
Vallas signed the five-year contract with the District in July 2002, paying him $225,000, with cost-of-living adjustments determined by the teacher’s union contract. This July, he will be eligible for an additional annual $100,000 payment for longevity with the District, to go into a trust fund. Contract language allows Vallas to perform periodic speeches, and accept appointments to boards, commissions and agencies or “other such activities” consistent with the best interest of the District.
Further clarification of the contract could not be obtained from District attorneys by press time. However, Cummings noted, “No matter how one reads the contract, he has never received any payment for consulting. If he helps other districts, he just goes. Sometimes he might be called upon to speak and receive an honorarium. But he turns that over to the Children First Fund,” the District’s nonprofit organization.
Alex Molnar, Professor and Director of Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University, offered reasons why a for-profit, Vallas-linked venture such as the one SolTyra described would be problematic.
“In the same way in which we believe that judges should not be involved with corporations or individuals who come before their courts, there not only can’t be the actual fact of impropriety in dealing with a corporation, there can’t be the appearance of it if our public institutions are to retain their standing in the community,” he said.
“I think that we’re reaching a point in American public education,” Molnar added, “where it’s going to be necessary to make some clear decisions about ethical propriety. We have plenty of examples of for-profit firms bending the boundaries of ethics in public education, by importing practices from the business community, which are standard practices in the business community.
“In everyday language we call these practices ‘influence peddling,’” he said. “And what is happening is we have a whole industry being created which relies almost entirely on public funds, which is largely operating outside of effective public oversight.”
Even given the ambiguities inside the SCS venture set-up, Gold too stressed it provides evidence that the public needs to become more vigilant and aware of issues around public/private relationships in public education.
“As the private sector, which may well have a contribution to make to the functioning of the public sector, increases its interests in public-sector services, there are important questions to consider,” she said.
“Increased commodification of products that are generally regarded as a product of the public sector, as well as an increased sense of proprietorship among those who are actors in both the public and private spheres, means we need to think hard about issues such as conflict of interest and accountability and how these new relationships can really change to whom and for what a public institution is accountable.”
[Technical note: Pages taken down from the web can sometimes be at least partially retrieved. "Cached" versions of the html code of web pages are saved for a time by search engines like Google and Yahoo. Deleted and amended pages from the SolTyra website had been indexed by Google and may be viewed by doing a Google search for "Soltyra Philadelphia" and "SolTyra Vallas" and then selecting the cached or html version of documents. The text from 23 deleted pages of the SCS website had been indexed by Yahoo and can be viewed by doing a Yahoo search for solomonconsultinginc.com and then selecting the cached or html version of documents.]