This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In a school district buzzing with educational entrepreneurs test-marketing their brands of educational products, perhaps it was only a matter of time before one of them hit upon the bright idea to try to “brand” and market Paul Vallas himself, Philadelphia’s prominent and much-heralded CEO.
But that bright idea turned into a fiasco this spring, when the branding scheme surfaced on the web – apparently without having first obtained Vallas’s permission for the site, designed to market “The Vallas model” of school reform.
After inquiries from a Notebook reporter, the web pages marketing Vallas’s reform approach were disavowed by all parties and were quickly taken down. District spokesperson Cecelia Cummings said the District had threatened legal action if the website was not taken down immediately. She asserted that Vallas had not authorized the use of his name or the marketing of his reform model and had no financial involvement.
Then the culprit apologized, saying it was all a big “mistake.”
But what makes this marketing snafu intriguing is that this “culprit” was not just any two-bit salesman, but a consulting firm with connections to Vallas and to Princeton Review, a key District service provider.
The website touting Vallas belonged to Solomon Consulting Services, Inc., or SCS, a Chicago-based company offering services to school districts looking to boost student achievement.
SCS is headed by Gary Solomon. Solomon is also the lead consultant in Philadelphia for Princeton Review, one of the District’s largest educational services contractors, providing $6 million in services to the District this year. And Solomon also has a key role in St. Louis, where he was hired to lead the transition team of that district’s recently appointed schools chief, Creg Williams, a key administrator under Vallas in both Philadelphia and Chicago.
SCS’s “senior advisor,” according to a published report, is Phil Hansen, Princeton Review’s national director for urban schools, former chief accountability officer for the Chicago schools and a key advisor to Vallas – so trusted that Vallas recently turned to him for management support in the School District’s accountability office, despite his work for a major private contractor monitored by that office.
Both Solomon and Hansen continue to represent Princeton Review with the District.
Before it was taken down on April 28, the SCS website was full of stories about the successes of Paul Vallas. The site referred to both the Chicago Public Schools and the School District of Philadelphia as “our clients” and displayed charts of rising test scores in both cities under Vallas’s leadership, even though Solomon subsequently admitted his firm had no contracts with those districts. The SCS site also listed a “Team” that read like a “who’s who” of close Vallas associates from Chicago and Philadelphia, several of whom since have said they never authorized Solomon’s use of their names.
But most surprising was the claim published by Solomon’s Chicago-based web design firm, SolTyra Inc., in a promotional web page describing the creation of the SCS site. SolTyra said its work with SCS began “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.”
This web page about exclusive rights to the “Vallas model” on the SolTyra site also disappeared from the web shortly after a Notebook interview with Solomon, as did references to a purported SolTyra marketing contract with four Philadelphia public schools.
A new SCS site (www.solomonconsultinginc.com) with no direct references to Vallas, team members, or clients was posted a few days later.
The “exclusive rights” page was “a mistake,” Solomon said in a May interview, and was never approved by Vallas. He insisted the web design was one of “about 25 concepts” that SolTyra pitched, and he vetoed. He said the web design was also supposed to be located “behind a firewall and was completely secure on [the SolTyra] design site.”
Tracing the birth of an idea
To date, nobody has shed light on what conversations took place among Vallas’s associates about marketing the “Vallas model.” Nor is it clear why the concept developed into a full-fledged Solomon Consulting Services website that had over 20 positive articles about Vallas, including recently published stories from the national media.
Pressed to explain the SCS website’s highlighting of Vallas, Solomon stated, “As I understand it, Paul [Vallas] is the first to admit that he encourages members of his team to take credit for the reform that happens in the districts that he’s worked.”
Staff at web designer SolTyra did not respond to requests for comment on the website.
Princeton Review, meanwhile, offered a prepared statement on the incident. “It seems that SCS inadvertently exposed an internal proposal to the outside world,” company officials wrote. “As we understand it, the site was a work-in-progress, and overstated a relationship with the School District of Philadelphia and its CEO. We understand that there is no business relationship between the District and Vallas and SCS.”
The company added, “We have nothing but respect for Gary [Solomon] and Phil [Hansen] and, to the best of our knowledge, nothing about their venture should affect our relationship with the district.”
In a follow-up interview, Vallas stressed his discomfort with an unauthorized use of his name, but seemed ready to put the marketing snafu by Solomon – a five-year veteran with Princeton Review in Chicago – behind him.
“He made an apology that I have accepted,” Vallas said. “I am comfortable continuing a professional relationship with Gary Solomon.”
But Vallas offers little insight into origins of the marketing of the Vallas model on the SCS website. “We have no idea,” District spokesperson Cummings said.
Standards for contractors
But does the incident have any implications for Princeton Review or others doing business with the District or wanting to take credit for District accomplishments?
With questions being asked about the relationship between Vallas and key personnel representing Princeton Review in Philadelphia, some District insiders reported a lack of competitive bidding on Princeton Review’s contracts.
As the privatization of educational services has surged in Philadelphia since the state takeover, the need to develop and monitor performance standards for contractors and to provide the public with information have been areas of public concern.
Vallas said there is a process for contractors who want to publish claims of success in Philadelphia, requiring them to first contact the District and have their claims validated.
He added, “Princeton Review has been made to adhere to the same requirements for contract consideration as all other vendors.” He noted a contract bid by the company in 2003 that was denied.
“The District’s relationship with Princeton Review is based on performance and the ability to deliver quality programs that benefit District students,” the CEO asserted. He said the company’s extended day math programs had brought strong academic gains.
Vallas also observed that the company’s first contract with the District, for $160,000, predated his arrival in Philadelphia.
Princeton Review’s current $6 million in contracts cover the summer school program, afterschool curriculum, test preparation, and also small schools transition services at four schools. The securing of this latter contract came under public criticism earlier this year from small schools advocates in Philadelphia because organizations such as the Big Picture Company and KnowledgeWorks that are known specifically for their small schools expertise were not tapped by the District.
Alex Molnar, a professor at Arizona State University who monitors business involvement in education, warned of a growing need to grapple with unscrupulous marketing practices. “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,” 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,” Molnar concluded.