Penn Foundation Weighs in on the Philadelphia Charter School Controversy

The William Penn Foundation stuck a big fat flag with their name on it into Philadelphia's education sector with a $15 million check to The Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) last year. The money will aid Philadelphia's School Reform Commission (SRC) and, love it or hate it, the Great Schools Compact. The stated goal of the Compact is in part to shut down "struggling schools and expand strong ones."

It makes sense thus far, but the elephant in the room is that most of the struggling schools are public; the strong ones are mostly charters, and mostly private. Some people think Penn Foundation spending gives "short shrift to the district schools," according to the Inquirer.

PSP gave $215,000 of Penn Foundation money to West Philadelphia's Samuel Powel Elementary School. As many parents consider it an oasis among other dangerous and poorly performing schools in West Philadelphia, Powel is the poster child of the "strong school" that interests like the Penn Foundation want to support. (Read Penn Foundation education program officer, Rashanda Perryman's IP profile).

The school currently enrolls students K–4, but Penn Foundation cash will allow the school to expand and accommodate fifth graders as soon as next fall. Powel also wants to develop a new middle school in the vicinity of their campus on North 36th street, north of Drexel University.

While PSP alleges sympathy with both public and private schools, as Newsworks reports, it is getting more than a few fish eyes from onlookers "for directing all of its early grants to charters and private schools" like Powel.

As the Penn Foundation takes an interest in "closing the achievement gap," some would argue that their grantmaking strategy achieves precisely the opposite result. They fund organizations like PSP that turn around and give almost exclusively to well-performing charters like Powell instead of the District.

A handful of kids benefit; Powel's ambition is some day to seat 500 students. Meanwhile 60,244 students in grades 1–5 in who are enrolled in Philadelphia's public school systems face shutdowns of as many as 50 district schools, according to The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

Why spend money setting up completely new charters instead of replenishing funding to the public school system that PA Governor Tom Corbett has bled dry while simultaneously castigating it for its poor performance?

Penn Foundation president Jeremy Nowak likened such concerns to misgivings over uneven distributions of ice cream in a separate Inquirer article. The foundation’s executive director, Mark Gleason, says people who raise these types of questions "are missing the point... What we're trying to do here is get people focused on outcomes."

The outcomes to which Gleason refers are large and varied. In addition to Philadelphia’s education system, the Penn Foundation has also given money to Creative MontCo, an arts-centered civic planning project in Montgomery County and $1.6 million to PennPraxis to develop the Central Delaware Riverfront. All of these investments considered, the Penn Foundation appears interested in situating itself as a major decision-maker in the development process of Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs over the next few years.