Friday, November 14, 2014

Will Wolf's PA Love Charters?

I'm going to hold my breath just a bit longer.

Public education boosters were pretty happy to see Tom Corbett shown the door on election day. But it still remains to be seen whether Tom Wolf is a Fresh New Direction or simply the Lesser of Two Evils. Today, folks are examining his first appointments for his new administration to see if they can guess which way the wind is blowing.

Wolf has been a successful businessman, helming the company that his family has run for decades in York, PA. But for public education advocates, York is also the site of one more attempt by charter privateers to create a happy new NOLA-style playground. This is where it becomes difficult to determine exactly which players are connected.

It was Corbett who budget-slashed York schools into charter vulnerability, and Corbett who appointed a Takeover Tsar (Chief Recovery Officer). But Corbett's choice was David Meckley, and that's where things ultimately became sticky for Wolf.

There has not been a great deal of journalism covering these next parts-- most of what you find leads back to the work of Colleen Kennedy, who is either out there in a conspiracy crackpot way or an intrepid crusading journalist way. I lean toward the latter, but time is indeed going to tell whether she got this right or not.

Meckley and Wolf are, according to Kennedy, friends. Both are connected to the York County Community Foundation, whose vision is to be "a catalyst for strategic philanthropy and a driver of community improvement." In 2013, the group issued a report calling for the 100% charterization of York schools. They also take credit for having pushed Corbett to appoint Meckley as Tsar. Michael Newsome, the CFO of Wolf's company served on that board, as did Kim Bracey,  mayor of York and longtime Wolf booster. Wolf has been a member of the board, including serving as achirman, but nobody is saying that he served on the 2013 charter-plugging board.

By August, with his eye on the governor's mansion, Wolf was disavowing the charterization, and he said so right in York. Reported the York Daily Record--

"I don't think it delivers as well on the promise that we all make to say, 'Listen, we're not opting out here. We're actually going to try to make sure the kids in the city of York get a great education.' That's a responsibility we all share," Wolf said.

Whether Wolf was just revealing what he always had thought, having an epiphany, or engaging in some political rebranding is still not clear. And listen-- York is small city (about 43K population) and if you're from a small city or town, you know that everybody is connected to everybody one way or another. I have lived most of my life in my town of roughly 7,000 souls, and by charting my connections you can prove that I am tied into the Tea Party, crazy hippie liberals, angry libertarians, welfare bums, and corporate stooges (as well as all political parties). So I get that it's easy to play this connect-the-dots game and come up wrong. Wolf's Democratic primary opponents tried to tie him to a racist killer and to a scam artist and just ended up proving that Wolf was the kind of guy who stuck by old friends even when it was politically inexpedient to do so. You can read Kennedy's more thorough argument and decide for yourself if Wolf passes the smell test on education..

You may want to decide quickly. On Thursday, Wolf announced some of his transition team. It includes BFF Mayor Kim Bracey as a vice-chair, and John A. Frey as chair. Frey is the president of Drexel University, which has made its reformy mark with a program offering a MS in Education Improvement and Transformation. Their television program interviewed Diane Ravitch in 2007, but one of their adjuncts (Katharine Beals) reviewed Death and Life of the American School System and found Ravitch "unconvincing." And Drexel has been involved in some "partnerships" with the Philly Public [sic] School system; so they have some chartery smell on them. Thin connections, again, but the Drexel connection has set off alarm bells for some folks.

Wolf tapped some former aides from "Smilin' Ed" Rendell, former Democratic governor who was no friend to public education or the teachers who work there. Probably Wolf's most interesting choice so far is Kathleen McGinty, one of his opponents from the Democratic primary.

Will Wolf be good for education? Hard to say. Off the top of your head, can you think of any Democrats who ran as pro-public education and turned out to be mostly interested in tearing it down? Senators? Governors? A President? In Pennsylvania, we're a little ahead of this learning curve, thanks to the aforementioned Ed Rendell. 

So maybe Wolf will turn out to be great for public education, or maybe we're just going to see more charter shenanigans. It's still too early to call, and I'm not going to breathe easy just yet.


  1. Colleen is a former student of mine; she actually took a course called Activism and Advocacy Writing from me. She's not always right, but I've never known her to overreact or hype an argument.

    And anybody who didn't wonder whether Wolf is a neoliberal Third Way Democrat didn't listen to anything he said, pretty much ever. I supported him and voted for him--after I told GOP canvassers one day at my door that "I wouldn't vote for Tom Corbett at gunpoint," I felt like I didn't have a lot of choice--but he's no prize.

    1. Man, I love the internet.

      That's my sense of her, too, through her work. And no, I haven't done a happy dance about Wolf's election. And of course in this piece I didn't even get to the other big question-- when you put a Third Way Democrat in front of a fossilized all-GOP legislature, what exactly do you get, if anything?

  2. And not just fossilized, but even more GOP. I don't know how far right the new folks are, but it doesn't bode well that Mike Turzai was chosen as House Speaker--after saying into a live microphone in 2012 that the PA Voter ID laws "will deliver PA to Mitt Romney."

    The faculty union for the PA state-owned universities (APSCUF) endorsed Wolf and worked pretty hard with PSEA and PA AFL-CIO to turn out for him. It's the conundrum for unions these days--how much can you afford (or not to) work for candidates you know almost certainly will take you for granted once they've won?

    In terms of K-12 ed policy, I think the trick is to keep all the mobilization that happened against Corbett alive. As long as that movement keeps movementing (I like making up parts of speech), it can clearly have some effect. Likewise, we need to keep an eye on districts that voted in GOP representation but voted for Wolf. Those are places where we might be able to get pressure on those legislators by reminding them why they ousted Corbett. Might.

  3. It is important to know that John Fry serves on the board of the Philadelphia School Partnership, a major force behind school privatization here in Philadelphia. PSP is also closely associated with the Gates-funded 'Great Schools Compact" that is making serious and detrimental policy decisions affecting Philadelphia public schools behind closed doors. I am very, very worried about Fry having Wolf's ear.