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PSP used lobbying firm to promote Green as SRC chair

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As Bill Green takes the helm of the School Reform Commission, new details have emerged about the process that brought him to the job.

Officials at the Philadelphia School Partnership say that their hired consultants from one of the state’s most influential lobbying firms, Wojdak & Associates, actively urged legislators in Harrisburg to support Green as SRC chair during the run-up to his approval by the state Senate.

“Our advocacy around the SRC was that the city needed a leader who is focused on reform and has the skills and experience to be effective,” said Mark Gleason, the PSP’s executive director. “Based on Bill Green’s vision and experience, we supported him as a candidate who could be a great SRC chair.”

Green, a Democrat nominated by Gov. Corbett, a Republican, says he was not aware of PSP’s effort on his behalf. “I didn’t realize anybody was being paid to lobby,” he said. “But … I’m happy for any support I got.”

Green strongly denied that PSP’s effort would give the organization any undue influence.

“The only people I owe for my position," Green said, "are the governor of Pennsylvania and 44 state senators" who voted to confirm him. “Nobody who’s seen my service in City Council would ever suggest that I do anything but what I believe in.”

PSP, a nonprofit group that uses philanthropic dollars to support school innovation, most frequently in charter schools, has long been on the record as supporting Green for the position, along with Corbett’s other SRC nominee, Farah Jimenez.

However, the fact that PSP’s lobbyists worked legislators on Green’s behalf was a surprise to city officials, union officials, and the head of the state’s largest charter school coalition, who did not learn of it until after Green’s confirmation.

“We did not know PSP was using their lobbyist for this,” said Lori Shorr, head of Mayor Nutter’s office of education. “We did not use our lobbyist either for or against either of the governor’s appointees, nor have we ever used our lobbyist around SRC appointments.”

Jerry Jordan, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that PSP’s support for Green was probably a sign of charter-friendly policies to come. “When we look at their values and their positions on the conversion of schools to charter schools, and other corporate reform models, that certainly tells us where he probably will go,” Jordan said.

Lawrence Jones, head of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said he wasn’t sure what to make of the news.

“There’s a lot of times where you have a candidate who’s endorsed by a group,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that person is going to work exclusively for those who endorsed him.”

PSP and Green: Aligned on some policies, not all

Green said he doesn’t agree with all of PSP’s positions. But the new SRC chair and the nonprofit, many of whose major donors are staunch supporters of charter schools and vouchers, share some territory both philosophically and in terms of policy.

In the big picture, neither Green nor Gleason believes that it’s absolutely necessary to maintain a traditional, unionized school district.

Asked whether it would be possible to run an urban district without a unionized workforce, Green said, “If it’s less expensive to do so, we have to. … I don’t have a preference for what delivery method a child gets an education in.”

Similarly, Gleason said charter operators could, in theory, run all the schools in Philadelphia – but that it’s more practical to try to accommodate the existing unionized system. “I think it’s possible to do it completely with charters,” Gleason said, “but I don’t think it’s the fastest way.”

When it comes to policy, Green and the PSP are closely aligned on at least one goal: the need for dramatic changes to the teachers’ contract that would allow union-staffed schools to replicate the practices of the best charter schools.

The union, both Green and Gleason maintain, must agree to allow principals to select their own staffs, extend the school day and year, and establish other building policies that wouldn’t be allowed under the current PFT contract.

Gleason said that PSP wants to see that contract resolved by April or May at the latest, so that the District can plan for next year – and thinks it would be appropriate for Green to use the SRC’s “special powers” to impose work rules.

“If [Superintendent] Bill Hite and his team don’t know how much money they have to spend until July 1st, they’re going to have to punt on a lot of big decisions until the following academic year,” Gleason said.

Green is less sure about the timetable – “I haven’t had enough of a briefing from Bill and the labor team to know,” he said – but he’s passionate on the subject of revising the contract and has said he’s willing to consider using the SRC’s “special powers” if an agreement can’t be reached.

The extent of those special powers, if invoked, would likely face a court challenge from the union. In the past, District officials have expressed doubts about their authority to impose terms on the teachers’ union. In 2012, Pedro Ramos, then chair of the SRC, failed in a Harrisburg lobbying effort to expand the SRC’s authority to unilaterally change union work rules.

Though Green and Gleason agree on the urgency of revising the teachers’ contract, they part ways on some important aspects of “turnaround” policies for struggling schools.

Gleason has said that charter turnarounds offer the best bang for the buck. In a recent op-ed in the Philadelphia Daily News, he wrote, “Dollar for dollar, it’s the most efficient way to dramatically improve neighborhood schools.”

Green disagrees, saying that District-run turnarounds could be cheaper than charter-run turnarounds, and just as effective – but only, he said, if the union’s work rules are changed to allow more charter-like practices.

Reforms tied to funding

Green and Gleason also share some ideas on the basic strategic approach to the challenge of increasing state funding. Before demanding more from Harrisburg, both say Philadelphia must do more itself.

Gleason said one of his hopes is that Green and the SRC are able to convince City Council to adopt the extension of a 1 percent sales tax, approved by the legislature, which would send the District $120 million annually.

“The funding ball is squarely in City Council’s court,” Gleason said, adding that Harrisburg is unlikely to increase its own contribution until legislators see Council act.

(Council and the mayor are discussing putting aside half that money for pension reform and raising money for schools with a new cigarette tax, but Harrisburg has balked at that.)

Green, for his part, reiterated that revising the teachers’ contract is the linchpin of any strategy to increase funding. Harrisburg won’t budge, he said, until Philadelphia can show that it has a plan to allow District schools to replicate successful charter school policies, unfettered by union work rules.

In fact, asked about the many complaints that have emerged in the wake of the budget cuts – bare-bones staff, two-week waits to see counselors – Green said simply: “There’s not more money. There’s not more money. No more money is coming.”

The only way to get more funding, Green said, is for the union to agree to concessions on work rules and seniority.

“We have to be able to compete on a level playing field with [charter schools like] Mastery and ASPIRA,” Green said. “And until we can, there’s no point in asking for money, because there won’t be any. Until there is a competitive equivalency, in terms of what we can do [in schools], how are we going to convince people that the money will be put to good use? Especially in Harrisburg?”

One strategy he is not likely to follow is to start criticizing Corbett’s budgets.

“The governor is my appointing authority. I would not ever say or do anything publicly that would potentially harm him,” Green said. “I’m very grateful for the appointment.”

An agenda of his own

And if some of Green’s ideas match the PSP’s, he chafes at the idea that he’s supporting their agenda.

“I came first,” laughed Green, who released his first education policy paper in 2010, the year PSP was founded.

He insists that he came by his education priorities honestly, through hard work. “They are based on a lot of research by my staff and others,” Green said. “They’re not something I invented around the kitchen table.”

Nonetheless, despite his reputation as an independent thinker, news that PSP put its time and money behind Green raised concerns for more than one observer.

“What this means is that the PSP, based on its money and political influence, pretty much can have their way with the SRC,” said Ron Whitehorne, a retired teacher and activist with the Philadelphia Coalition for Public Schools (PCAPS). “The elites call the shots, [and] parents, students, teachers and the community are left to protest.”

Walter Palmer, a pioneer of the city’s charter movement and head of one of its fastest-growing charter schools, said the question about PSP’s support for Green was “to what extent that will translate into them making decisions in closed meetings, where they will influence the superintendent, the charter school office, the SRC, [and] the Great Schools Compact.”

The advocacy group Parents United for Public Education said in an email that PSP’s “secretive” use of lobbyists was “troubling,” particularly because Green’s confirmation process included no opportunities for public comment or testimony.

“By hiring paid lobbyists, PSP gained access to legislators when that same voice was specifically denied to the public,” the group wrote. “That is a serious problem no matter how you look at it.”

But Parents United’s Helen Gym said that despite those concerns, she has been encouraged by some of the work the group has done with Green.

“He’s been extremely receptive around our analyses of budgets,” Gym said. “I appreciate his independence on a number of issues. … It’s too early to definitively say what type of SRC chair Bill Green will be and how he’ll choose to exercise the authority he has.”

Helen Cunningham, a PSP board member, said the organization backed Green because of his political savvy and his strong ideas on policy and because he was the only qualified candidate who publicly expressed any interest in the job. PSP does not expect him to favor charters over traditional public schools, she said. “It is our expectation that he will be fair with all kinds of schools,” she said.

And Zack Stalberg, head of the watchdog group the Committee of Seventy and a longtime observer of the city’s political scene, cautioned against reading too much into the PSP’s support, citing Green’s independent streak and his commitment to effective policy.

“Beware of simplifying this,” Stalberg said. “Bill will do what he feels like doing. The Green family have never fit easily into anybody’s pocket.”

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