School Board Vote Tonight on Boston Consulting Group
Yesterday I emailed all the Tulsa School Board members with some questions about Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The board is voting on whether or not to award an approximately $1 million contract to BCG to flesh out the details of the newly adopted five-year plan for TPS. The community was invited to participate by giving input to that plan, but the contract with BCG vote appears to have been quickly and quietly put on the agenda without any public input and apparently not much understanding of BCG by the board members who are going to vote on it tonight, even though it could have incredible impact on TPS. Whether or not you like BCG’s recommendations may depend on how much you agree that corporate charter schools are a good way to reform public education. The vote tonight may have lasting and devastating effects on public schools in Tulsa.
BCG is an international business consulting firm that also works with school districts. I was curious about why TPS needs a consulting firm. I was also curious about who is paying for BCG’s contract and why TPS may be offering a contract to BCG considering BCG’s record of closing schools, expansion of charter schools, cutting special education and paraprofessional positions, etc.
As I dug a little into BCG’s impact in other cities such as Philadelphia, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago and Little Rock, I noticed an interesting pattern.
Here are the responses so far from the school board: Gary Percefull emailed that he had visited at length with Superintendent Gist and Board President Turner-Addison, and reported that “I am inclined to trust their judgment as I think extraordinary action is merited in light of funding issues and pressure from lawmakers. My understanding is they can help with really fast development of an implementation plan for our Strategic Plan. I am willing to see what BCG comes up with.”
Suzanne Schreiber invited me to call, which I did, but we have not connected yet.
Cindy Decker and Shawna Keller said that Chris Payne, TPS director of communications, would be responding to my questions, so I’ll let you know what he says.
Lana Turner-Addison emailed yesterday that she would respond, but I haven’t received the response this morning.
First, I don’t know who is offering to fund BCG in Tulsa and, so far, not one board member or Chris Payne has told me who that donor(s) is. I suspect it will be a foundation or foundations. Shouldn’t we, the public, know? Shouldn’t the board know what they’re voting on? Why the rush? Why is this so under the table?
In other cities, BCG’s contract has been funded by foundations such as the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, the Gates Foundation (since 2008 Gates has paid BCG $35.5 million) and the Walton Foundation. It may sound wonderful that the public is not paying for BCG’s consultation, but it also takes away the transparency of public funding. A pro-public school parent advocacy group in Philadelphia had to sue to get BCG’s recommendations released for public viewing. That’s a question I have for TPS. If the board approves BCG’s contract, will the recommendations be made public?
Another disturbing BCG trend I found was that many of the foundations that donated money to fund BCG had board members on corporate charter school boards, so they stood to gain from the charters. For example, here is some information from Philadelphia.
And SRC (School Reform Commission) has connections to the William Penn Foundation, the group footing the $1.5 million, one-monthish gig for BCG in Philadelphia. Philly’s SRC, an unelected board, consists of Feather Houstoun, who as president of the William Penn Foundation, raked in a $374,823 compensation package in 2010 (page 119, PDF box). Moreover, the foundation’s director, chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s board of directors, Jeremy Nowak, is the former president of Mastery Charter Schools’ board of trustees, an Oprah funded network which employees Dawn Chavous, BAEO member, former consultant to Mayor Nutter, and the leader of Pennsylvania’s Students First front group. To help with BCG’s scheme, William Penn has partnered with one of its donors, the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Pedro Ramos, the chair of SRC and a big charter school supporter, is a United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania board member.**** It’s a corporate family affair in Philly, and BCG’s 27-page PowerPoint document for the city schools is mostly dead white space. In fact, it promises to do nothing to immediately eliminate a deficit of $218 million for the school years 2012-2013.
And here’s more from BCG’s Philly plan:
The Philly plan, likewise, calls for shrinking the central office, firing teachers based on test scores, laying off nurses and psychologists for special needs’ students, closing 64 schools in five years, expanding charter schools, establishing networks of schools run by outside groups and nonprofits, and outsourcing “2,500 blue-collar, union jobs…to the lowest bidder.” …public school supporters have been out in force, protesting a visit by Governor Corbett, confronting the SRC, and taking to the streets and TV to show their disdain for the corporate school agenda. Using anaphora that has reverberated around the internet, Helen Gym–Parents United for Public Education founder, Parents Across America member, and Philadelphia Inquirer Citizen of the Year for 2007–lashed out at school recovery CEO, Tom Knudsen, and BCG, writing “You’re not speaking to me with this brand of disaster capitalism that tries to shock a besieged public with unproven, untested, and drastic action couched as ‘solutions’… You’re not talking to me when you’ll go out of your way to spend $1.4 million for six-week consultants with whom you’ll boast of an ‘intimate, hand-in-glove’ relationship, yet exclude community and public voices till you’re ready to drop the bomb.”
One of BCG’s recommendations in Cleveland was to outsource foreign language classes to Rosetta Stone!
Not only does lack of transparency, questionable corporate ties, school closings and wrenching away local control of schools follow BCG, but the parents and teachers in the cities where BCG swooped in were blindsided by the recommendations to close and privatize their schools. If you want to read about something closer to home, here’s an interesting piece from the ARKANSAS TIMES:
Digging into Little Rock school adviser, Boston Consulting Group Posted By Max Brantley on Sat, Jan 31, 2015 at 7:52 AM
FORESHADOWING: Walton heir Carrie Penner (photo above) has talked about taking on whole mid-sized cities with the family's education ideas. Could Little Rock, where the Walton Foundation has already employed a consultant, be one of them?
I wrote yesterday about focus groups planned in the Little Rock schools by the Walton and Rockefeller foundations with the Boston Consulting Group. The foundations talk little to the pubic — except in planned releases with few followup questions permitted — when they get involved in public entities. Likely, this session Feb. 10, though following quickly after the state's takeover of the school district at the urging of Arkansas business titans, will be styled as part of the Forward Arkansas education improvement project of the foundations, approved by state education leaders. But that doesn't mean it isn't heading down a road to radical change of Little Rock school district structure, perhaps a permanent loss of local control. Diane Ravitch, the reformed education reformer, points me to another education blogger she follows, Curmdgication. That blogger last night provided — prompted by Little Rock developments — many details about Boston Consulting Group activities in education around the country. From Curmudgication: Word went out today that immediately after Arkansas decided to make Little Rock Schools non-public, the Walton family called a "focus group" meeting "in conjunction with the Boston Consulting Group. This is worse than finding the slender man in the back of your family portrait. For a public school system, this is finding the grim reaper at your front door. And he's not selling cookies. …...BCG's arrival in Little Rock is unsurprising; they've been around the education block several times. They were in the news just last week when Parents United finally won a long court case to be allowed to see BCG's super-duper secret plans for Philadelphia schools, drawn up way back when Philly was first turned into one of the nation's largest non-public school systems, run by state-appointed executives rather than an elected board. A major feature of BCG's plan for Philly seems to be standard for them— close this bunch of schools, and open up some nifty charters. In other words, cut off resources to the dogs. As a top consulting group, BCG doesn't come cheap— their consulting fee in Philly was reportedly $230,000 per week. That's just under $33,000 per day. That's a little less than the starting salary for a teacher in Philly. Per day. BCG has proposed a similar program in Memphis. Reportedly Cleveland, Seattle, Arizona, and New Orleans have also felt the loving BCG touch. BCG also has close friends in the charter world, with several folks hopping back and forth between BCG and the board of KIPP. BCG joined up with many of the big players (Gates, Joyce) to form Advance Illionois. And they helped write North Carolina's Race to the Top bid (all these painful details and more can be found in this 2012 article at The Common Errant). Strive in Cincinnati— that's BCG, too. And last fall, they were spotted doing development planning for Connecticut's education sector. Again. I'm sure many will rise in reflexive defense of the Walton/Rockefeller move on the Little Rock School District. Wealth equates to superiority in many minds. The district has needs. But if it means giving up public accountability — private scheming will render powerless the Freedom of Information Act — it is too high a price. Trust but verify. Just because a Walton heir says it doesn't make it so. Curmudgication concludes, after detailing BCG fingerprints in many business-backed school ideas: Bottom line? Say a little prayer for the formerly public schools of Little Rock, because BCG is in town and they're sharpening their axe. Another reader contributes a quote from Forbes not long ago about Carrie Walton Penner, Sam Walton's granddaughter. She's the point person on spending some of the family's $165 billion on education. The quote is in the context of the limited reach so far of charter schools, despite huge investments. "In terms of reach, Penner knows that even when performing at their very best, these schools teach less than 6% of public school children. Her new strategy will be to take on entire cities. There’s already been an emphasis on places like New Orleans and Washington, D.C., where almost half the kids are in charters. The new five-year-plan will go further – expect the Waltons to soon announce two to four midsize 'proof point' cities with high poverty rates where they will work with on-the-ground partners to support students in and out of the school setting."
When we hire someone to do work for us – maybe a roofer or a painter – we get recommendations. We look at their record of performance. BCG’s record of performance concerns me greatly, and I see no reason that their recommendations for TPS would be any different from the other cities. Charter schools do not out-perform public schools, and in most cases, public schools are much better. Charters segregate students. They can be scripted, low-level, test and drill programs. Corporations that run charter schools are not local. They do not understand the needs and concerns of local families. When a school is for profit, the bottom line will be money, not learning. Once corporate charters are opened in a community, even when they’re failing, they’re difficult to close. I hope the board is going in to this vote with their eyes wide open. It’s not enough to say, “Well, we just need to do something.” We need to start with some true, heartfelt questions: Is this the reform we want? Is this really the best we can do for the children in Tulsa?
UPDATE: TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 16 AT 2:15 P.M.
I just now received this from Chris Payne at Tulsa Public Schools. He said that “it was sent out to all TPS employees this morning explaining the need for Boston Consulting Group.”
Here is the letter in its entirety. Why was this information just sent this morning? Isn’t the vote tonight? I just glanced through this, but I didn’t see who is funding BCG. Dr. Gist mentions transparency. Where’s the transparency? She says to just trust the “district leadership.”
And, why can’t I go to school board members to get information? They all referred me to this, which says nothing. I urge all of you to do a little research on Boston Consulting Group. I’d also like to know who is funding the contract and how much transparency we’ll have for that.
Think what you will. It looks like a done deal. — Betty
Dear TPS Team Members, I hope you have returned rested and relaxed from the long weekend. Of course, I also hope that you are also re-energized to get back to the exciting work of inspiring and preparing every student to love learning, achieve ambitious goals, and make positive contributions to our world. As you may know, at tonight's meeting, the Board of Education will consider a contract with the Boston Consulting Group. I wanted to be sure that you had some background on how they were selected and what we're asking them to do for the district. Also, as members of the TPS team, you may get questions about our work with them, so I want to be sure that you had that information. BCG was carefully selected by district leadership including both cabinet and Board members. We reviewed a number of proposals and interviewed four consulting firms in person to identify the best partner get TPS to Destination Excellence. We spoke with references and asked each group to present their visions and plans to support our work. At the end of this review process, the Board and district leaders decided to move forward with BCG to assist us by providing the necessary capacity to put our strategic plan into action. The contract with BCG focuses on three sets of deliverables: · Phase I includes identifying priorities, creating timelines, and determining resource needs. · Phase II includes the development of action plans and a larger district plan including a master timeline, an analysis of human capital and of financial requirements. · Phase III includes developing a structure for week-to-week management of each plan initiative and the overall plan. BCG will also create a process for annual evaluation (and/or realignment) of district priorities for the Board and superintendent to carry implementation forward. Transparency is both our priority and our commitment to our team members, parents, families, and larger community. BCG will also assist us with a communication and stakeholder engagement plan for keeping the community apprised of priorities and progress toward our goals. The Board and district leadership make decisions with the best interests of Tulsa children and families in mind. It is also important to remember that you helped to set the direction for our strategic plan. The priorities, values, and core beliefs set forth in the plan are direct reflections of the many conversations that we had with our team members, students, families, and community advocates. Our contract with BCG will provide the district with critical tools that will ultimately ensure that we are working effectively and efficiently to achieve the ambitious vision set forth in our plan. Our biggest challenge right now is that due to lack of adequate funding for our schools and looming budget cuts, we will be setting on this journey to do more with even less than ever before. We have a tremendous responsibility to Tulsa families, and we must do everything that we can to honor it. This means building essential internal capacity and systems to best serve the children in our care. We are able to enter this contract because of the incredible generosity of our community. This work is being completely supported by private funding and no district funds will be allocated to this initiative. We are so fortunate to have community partners who are willing and able to invest in public education. If you have any questions about our work with BCG, I encourage you to share those with me directly or through Chief of Staff Paula Shannon at firstname.lastname@example.org. I want all of our team members to understand, and be connected to, the process of workplan development and strategic plan implementation. Thank you for all that you do, Deborah
UPDATE: TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 16 AT 4 P.M.
I just spoke with Suzanne Schreiber, TPS board member.
I appreciate her call this afternoon.
I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t appreciate the hard work and the time that all board members put into their positions. I know they have a difficult and often thankless job. I also know that, whatever their opinions about public education, they are doing their best.
I also support public schools and feel that questioning and expressing concerns is a healthy thing.
Schreiber wanted to assure me that much time and effort has gone into choosing BCG, and that she trusts her fellow board members and Dr. Gist. She wanted to “put a human face” on BCG and said that board members had spoken to them face-to-face. (Personally, I prefer to look at their past work performance).
When I asked why TPS needs an outside consultant, she said that the extra capacity was needed to help with “sequencing all of our plans” and that it would “grow our own staff capacity.” The board, the superintendent and administrative staff are all very busy, as you can imagine, with the day-to-day work of running a large school system. I don’t envy them that task. And, of course, they’re looking at even more budget cuts, which creates more stress and work for everyone.
BCG was chosen from several applicants because “BCG brought the most to the table.” We didn’t get into specifics about that, but in fairness, Schreiber may not know exactly what those are.
The board wants to work closely with BCG to make the TPS “strategic plan operational,” she said, making it clear that BCG will be doing what the board requests and not vice versa. But, I have to wonder what the board will do if BCG says that to reach X objective, you will have to close X number of schools, or privatize X or get rid of all paraprofessional positions, etc.
I asked if she had looked at BCG’s action in other cities, and she said other members looked at that, and assured me that BCG isn’t an “evil entity,” but “has a human face,” reminding me that I can find any kind of negative thing on the internet. (I did try to look at sources that I trust, and they were all very consistent).
Schreiber said that BCG would be working for TPS and BCG would not be making a proposal, but working with the board to bring the strategic plan to fruition. Honestly, I don’t know how they’ll do that without making some proposals and recommendations to TPS. But BCG’s work will be open to public scrutiny, she said.
She did not say that privately managed charter schools were off the table. To some, that may be the future of school “reform.” I’m not saying that privatization, charters, closing schools, etc. are “good” or “bad.” What I want to do is make sure we, the public, have information before something is done to us that we may not welcome. And, I can’t help thinking how much good that $1 million could do if it went to something more substantive than an outside consulting group. Most of us have had experience with that and know how it goes.
I guess we’ll soon find out what else will be on the table for TPS.
The donor for BCG’s contact is the Schusterman Foundation, according to Schreiber.