Talking Back to Mark Gleason

by Ken Derstine

April 19, 2014

The 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, held in Philadelphia from April 3rd - 7th, has come and gone. The thousands of delegates have left town, but for the general public of Philadelphia, the most memorable and long lasting thing to come out of the conference was to get a glimpse of the perspectives and plans of the Philadelphia School Partnership, the private organization which is overseeing the privatization of Philadelphia schools. PSP’s Executive Director Mark Gleason participated on a panel, The Landscape of Education Reform in Philadelphia, on Friday, April 4th where he made several controversial statements about Philadelphia and PSP’s plans for the city’s public schools.

Most controversial was his “dump the losers” comment when describing the corporate portfolio method for  reorganizing urban school districts. The audio of the panel and a partial transcript can be found on this website at A Glimpse Behind the Curtain. This statement made national headlines in The Washington Post: The new school reform model: ‘dumping the losers’.

The Philadelphia School Partnership conducts its meetings privately and in great secrecy. Despite having been given the control of the fate of almost 200,000 Philadelphia school children and the adults who staff their schools, it is proceeding undemocratically and with great haste to impose corporate education reform on Philadelphia’s schools. As a result, there was great interest in what Mark Gleason had to say at the AERA convention where he was speaking to a national audience of educational researchers about PSP’s plans for the School District of Philadelphia.

After the panel, reporters, AERA delegates, and Philadelphia citizens questioned Mr. Gleason about his perspective on corporate education reform in Philadelphia. The audio of this conversation is here:

A Candid Conversation With PSP’s Mark Gleason (17 minutes)

This post will highlight the most significant statements by Mr. Gleason in this conversation and offer commentary on each. The statements are in the chronology of where they were stated in the conversation.

In response to a reporter, Gleason says:

There is not a big city in America where we can say we are doing it right with low income and minority students. We’ve seen some great schools. We’ve seen some good progress, but we have not seen a city that is using a systemic bureaucracy led approach take the graduation rate up to suburban levels for low income and minority kids. What we have seen in lots of cities, New Orleans being the prime example because they have gone so far with it, when you push responsibility and accountability down to the school level, you will see great schools rise up and thrive. Some schools miss the mark. What’s exciting about what is happening in New Orleans is when those schools miss the mark they are not allowed to continue  exist on the taxpayer dime.

Now here, the Partnership is not proposing that we be New Orleans. We’re not proposing that we go all charter. The problem is we have a much bigger city, many more schools. There arent't enough great leaders and organizations in the charter sector where we can get to the day where every student has access to a good school if we just rely on charters. That’s why the Partnership is intentionally trisector. We’re funding schools in the District sector, in the charter sector, and the Catholic sector because to really get as quickly as possible to the day where every student has access to a good school we have to scale up what’s working in all of those sectors.

Here we see the evil genius of the neoliberal agenda on full display. Corporate education reform claims to be the next civil rights movement. It claims that to overcome the terrible conditions in many urban schools the students must be transferred to charter and parochial schools. This is the beachhead for privatizing American education. Gleason holds up suburban schools as the gold standard, which urban schools do not match, ignoring the differing social conditions with many students in urban schools coming from low income families with increasing extremes of poverty. Combine this with decades of the inequitable funding of urban schools and you have the conditions for the difficulties of those urban schools. 

Gleason and corporate education reformers would have us believe that it is all a matter of the will and the “laziness” (as it was portrayed in “Waiting for Superman”) of the staffs of urban schools that have led to the crisis of urban education, that suburban schools are more successful because their staffs are motivated. The minute you mention resources and funding, as will be seen later in the conversation, they jump all over the comment and say its not about money. Thus they blame urban public school staffs for conditions over which they have no control. 

Continuing with the conversation with Gleason he said,

In Philadelphia many of the religious schools are serving low income kids. They are doing it very efficiently. Yes, the families have to pay tuition, but there is scholarship money available. Many of the families are paying only one hundred dollars a month tuition. They are making that sacrifice because they feel they are getting a better quality education. Our research would show that there are many high performing Catholic schools. There are some not so good Catholic schools as well. We try not to fund in those. But there are a lot of good Catholic schools. When we look at school investments what we are doing is looking neighborhood by neighborhood, what are the good family options there. In some neighborhoods the Catholic school is the best option, in other neighborhoods the District school is the best option. We wouldn’t invest in a Catholic school in a neighborhood that had a good District school option. That’s not a portfolio approach.

Article III, Section 15 of the Pennsylvania State Constitution says : 

No money raised for the support of the public schools of the Commonwealth shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school.

The separation of church and state has been a tradition of American society for over 200 years. It is a tradition that is the envy of the world because religious organizations do not interfere with the state because the state represents all, and the state does not interfere with religion. In Mr. Gleason’s statement we can see the danger that corporate education reform represents for this tradition. One of the democratic values that public schools represent is respect for all students regardless of religious belief. Not only is PSP promoting a system which would lead to sectarian divisions that American society had been moving away from, but it promotes the interference of corporate “philanthropy” as the arbiter of which, in this instance, Catholic schools should be dropped as “losers”. The corporate portfolio method of education reorganization ignores the religious mission of Catholic schools which does a disservice to children whose families do not share the particular belief of the school and does a disservice to Catholic schools because it negates their religious mission for market considerations.

A reporter questioned Gleason that given the scarcity of resources available for the School District does he think it is OK to give money to tuition based religious schools. Gleason responded:

Just to be clear, I’m giving private philanthropic dollars to those schools…The Great Schools Fund’s goal is to make sure there is a good school for every student in the city. If I can increase the number of good schools by giving money to Catholic schools, absolutely I want to do that. 

This is the essential sleight of hand being played by the supporters of corporate education reform to get around the Pennsylvania Constitution’s prohibition of state funding of sectarian schools. The PSP program depends on business tax breaks to fund those schools. Voters have repeatedly rejected attempts to introduce vouchers for private and religious schools in Pennsylvania. The Corbett administration has gotten around this democratic choice by passing legislation for an Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) which gives businesses a state tax credit of 75% (90% after two years) of their contribution up to $300,000 towards scholarships for students to go to private and parochial schools. Even though this has been in effect since 2001, it was largely ignored until the Corbett administration engineered a bill to increase its profile. So businesses are not paying taxes to the state but are giving money to parochial and private schools. The end result is the funding of sectarian schools by the businesses is reducing the money available for public school funding, precisely what the state Constitution prohibits.

This method of circumenting the Constitutional mandate against government funding sectarian schools was pioneered by Jeb Bush in Florida after vouchers were declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006. Funding for Florida's Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarhips program has risen dramtically since its inception. 

A reporter asked Gleason about his “dump the losers” comment during the just ended panel. Gleason said:

I regret that phrasing but in a three minute window you're trying to get to the point quickly. What I would say is schools in America shouldn’t have a right to exist. The right in America  should be that the student has access to an education. In America for way too long we’ve allowed schools that don’t deliver an education to draw in taxpayer dollars. That’s why taxpayers are jaded about  into putting more money into K-12. That’s part of the reason we don’t have a funding formula in Pennsylvania. Because folks don’t believe the money going in is going to yield a result.

Mr. Gleason has lived in Pennsylvania for two years, so when he talks about why "we don't have a funding formula in Pennsylvania" it is little more than speculation with no understanding of the economic, social, and political factors that are behind the inequitable funding of education in urban areas in Pennsylvania with a high number of low income families. 

What is the source of Mark Gleason’s hubris and power that he thinks he can come into Philadelphia and dictate what should be done with the students and Philadelphia School District staff? Why has the unelected School Reform Commission allowed this to happen? See Philadelphia columnist Will Bunch who said this about why PSP exists in a December 24, 2013 column:

During his (Gleason’s) tenure, PSP has been a money magnet for the leaders in big-bucks corporate-education reform - beginning with an unprecedented $15 million grant from the local William Penn Foundation in 2012, then $2.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, $4.5 million from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, millions more from donors like Cigna, Janney Montgomery Scott and JP Morgan Chase, and a $5 million challenge grant (its largest ever) from the Walton Family Foundation, led by the Walmart heirs, which already had named Gleason an "Education Reformer to Watch." 

The group is fast approaching its goal of $100 million, a baseline for funding 35,000 "high-performing seats." Gleason said that of $29 million doled out so far, more than half - $17 million - has gone to either Renaissance or lottery-based charter schools, with $9 million for district public schools and $3 million to parochial schools.

 The conversation with Mr. Gleason moved from the room where the panel took place into the hallway where AERA delegates and Philadelphia citizens continued the conversation. Gleason continued:

So what I would say is you have to set a bar that if you don’t achieve above this bar you’re not allowed to exist on taxpayer resources. If you want to operate a private school of poor quality, that’s up to you, but public schools should have to meet a certain bar. It’s the same with health care. We would not tolerate a hospital publicly funded where the death rate is over acceptable levels. But we do seem to tolerate schools that have a way below acceptable graduation rate. 

Asked about budget cuts that lead to a student’s death when there was no nurse in her school when she was developing an asthma attack, Gleason said, 

That’s just pure inflammation. A budget cut did not lead to that students death. It was an opportunistic inflammation.

He did not respond to the comment, “The lack of a nurse did!”

Asked about Governor Corbett withholding $45 million in federal funds from the School District at the beginning of the school year to pressure the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to make major wage and benefit concessions, an action that Philadelphia School Partnership supported, Gleason said,

The reason the budget cuts happened is that because for ten or maybe twenty years the school district has overspent. You have to spend what you earn…The School District has been getting by for far to long with money they didn’t have and now we have to pay the piper.

Who makes the state responsible (for providing for all student equally)? 

When a participant said the state Constitution makes the state responsible, Gleason replied, 

Voters! Voters make states do things. If you can convince voters in western Pennsylvania to give more money to Philadelphia schools, that’s great. The state is us. We are the state. When you say the state, who are you expecting to do it?”

The state Constitution says in Article III Section 14: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” Yet year after year, the SRC runs up the school debt due to lack of funds and the PSD is currently ranked 197th in Pennsylvania in per pupil spending.

Mr. Gleason is correct that the School District has been living on borrowed money for a long time. He does not take into account, however, the political reality that for many conservative politicians in Pennsylvania who dominate the state legislature, Philadelphia is looked at as little more than a colony to be exploited for low wage labor and to provide inmates for the prison industrial complex. Even as the funding for public education was reduced by almost $1 billion at the beginning of the Corbett administration, $700 million was allocated for the building of four new prisons. Legislators routinely say funding Philadelphia public schools is a “waste of money” or, more tellingly, “a financial black hole”.

The money borrowed over the last twenty years to make up for the inadequate funding, has led to a situation where 12% of the School District budget goes to pay for debt service. In my article The 2013-14 "Doomsday Budget" of the School District of Philadelphia: How Did It Come to This?, I said of the School District’s bank debt:

 … a major part of the budget crisis is the huge financing costs of the debt accumulated over the last ten years. The district’s annual debt-service obligation is up 32% from five years ago. Half of that debt, $159.9 million, goes to interest. According to 2011 Census data, districts nationwide paid an average of $155 per non-charter pupil on debt service. Philadelphia spends $1,684 per non-charter student. Last year the District borrowed $300 million to cover the deficit that year. The interest for that loan is $22 million annually for 20 years. Before the 2008 banking crisis, the District entered into $3.5 billion in variable rate bank swaps. The School District is out $186 million because they bought variable rates, which plummeted in the 2008 banking crisis, instead of fixed rates. Debt service is 12% of the FY14 budget for the School District.

The using of  the state budget to attempt to blackmail political opponents, such as the $45 million withheld from the SDP in September in an attempt to get concessions from unionized workers in the SDP, is becoming standard operating procedure for ALEC aligned politicians such as Pennsylvania’s Corbett. School districts all across the state are not receiving reimbursements as promised for school construction projects that the state government had approved. The reason given by Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller, “Perhaps, if pension reform is achieved, additional dollars could be redirected to construction reimbursements.”

Not being from Pennsylvania, Gleason can pull statements out of the air having no basis in reality. He says the School District has been spending money it does not have but the School District has been under state management through the School Reform Commission since December, 2001. It is they who hired Superintendents who spent money the state had not allocated. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, in particular, was brought to Philadelphia, after she was brought out of her contract in San Francisco for “incompatibility" with the SF School Board, and went on a spending spree like there was no tomorrow. At great expense, much of it borrowed, she greatly expanded the role of corporate education reform in the District by laying the groundwork for charters and Promise Academies with her Imagine 2014 five-year plan.

At the same time, the Corbett administration has made corporate tax cuts of $3 billion in 2012-13 alone. Also, Pennsylvania is paying a high cost in environmental and infrastructure degradation as the second highest state for the fracking of natural gas, but this has not benefited the state because there is no severance tax on this resource. So once again, Mr. Gleason is being disingenuous with the facts when he says Philadelphia has been spending beyond its means. The state has never met its mandate to provide “a thorough and efficient system of public education” for the children of Philadelphia.

 Mr. Gleason was then asked by a former New York Superintendent what his experience was in the classroom. He replied he was a school board President and now runs a non-profit that “provides capital for schools to grow”. Asked if he thought having a background in education is good for his job, he said, 

I find Superintendents who understand education real well and I find Superintendents who don’t. Just being a Superintendent doesn’t make you an expert.”  

Later he said, 

I don’t believe education should only be allowed to only people who have been teachers. I think teaching, obviously you need the credentials to be in the classroom.  I think I understand how kids learn. I don’t need to defend myself. I was on the School Board of a District that had a huge achievement gap and is narrowing it. We worked really hard. I did study the research. I sat down many, many hours with people I disagreed with. 

Mr. Gleason than claimed that the New Orleans Recovery School District is a great success which should be followed. The reality is quite different.

After an AERA delegate said a tremendous amount of money was being wasted on corporate experiments by people who have no experience with education, Gleason responded he didn’t know what she meant by a “silly market model” and “privatizing”. Gleason then claimed there “is no public money going into private schools” and then, of course, said the standard charter schools are not private

Gleason said he was going to have to get to work which led to a rapid back and forth with the assembled crowd during which he made the following statements:

You think we should have a model where the kids are allowed to go to only to lousy neighborhood schools? (He did not respond to the comment, “They should be funded.”)


 The reality of fifty years of urban education in America is that we have been failing urban and minority kids miserably.


 I don’t know many people who would voluntarily send their children to the schools we have here in Philadelphia. The only people who go to those schools are people who have no other option.

When asked, “Why aren’t these schools fixed, why don’t they get funds, why don’t they get resources?” Gleason replied,

Because it’s not about funds. It’s not about resources. Do you know what just happened at Bartram High School?  Do you think that’s a funding issue?

When told that funding is an issue at Bartram because they took staff away that would intervene in those situations, Gleason replied,

When the staff was one hundred and fifty that school was more dangerous statistically than it is today.

 When asked if the statistics on serious incidents are reliable, he said,

I think the methodology is the same as three years ago. Was it perfect in either year, no. There’s no such thing as perfect data. Here is what I know: Bartram was a dangerous school three years ago, and it’s still a dangerous school with less funding. It’s not a more dangerous school.

He did not say what he was basing that judgement on. Finally, he was asked if the students at Bartram that are causing problems were put in a charter school, would the charter school have the same problems, Gleason replied,

I think a charter would do better.  

When told the problem students would be put out of the charter, they would be sent back to the public school where they would not be expelled, Gleason replied, 

Public schools can expel students. They would have be be expelled from Bartram, and put them somewhere else.

 So there you have it. According to PSP Executive Director Mark Gleason public schools have “failed urban and minority kids for fifty years.” This is true! What he and all corporate education reformers try to spin and gloss over, is why this is so. Sixty years ago Brown vs. Board of Education ended legal segregation. It did not change the fundamental caste system in the United States which keeps many lower income people in a permanent underclass. As a result, separate and unequal schools may not be written into law, but it is still the practice. Today all schools, public, charter, and parochial schools, are more segregated than was true sixty years ago but it is based more on income, rather than being based on race alone.

In the film “Waiting for Superman”, the central narrative of the corporate education reformers was established that the problem in urban schools is “bad teachers”. The reason for this was portrayed as lazy teachers who are protected by their unions. For technocrats like Gleason the  solution is non-union charter schools and parochial schools managed by arbiters like the Philadelphia School Partnership which will “dump the loser” schools and fund the schools their spreadsheets tell them are worthy. They will build up these schools by manging student enrollment through a Universal Enrollment system that will have bureaucrats looking at spreadsheets to  determine the fate of tens of thousands of students based on market need, not student and family needs, the way products are sorted at packing plants. 

Mr. Gleason gives the basis of his agenda as a concern for “urban and minority kids”. Are we to believe that the corporate and financial elite which for decades accepted the underfunding of urban schools are suddenly interested in “urban and minority kids”  for anything other than the latest gold rush to gain access to the $600 billion in taxpayer funding of the public schools. While it is true that urban school districts have been underfunded for sixty years, the same corporate and financial elite which decided funding urban school is a “waste of money” and a “financial black hole” are who Mark Gleason works for in a crusade to turn Philadelphia schools in low income communities over to charter management companies.

Like all corporate education reformers, Mark Gleason’s neoliberal “progressive” veneer is really a cover to obscure that he represents these political forces. His “progressive” veneer falls away the second you mention funding and resources. When resources are mentioned, he is like a dog with a bone wanting to take any talk of resources out of the debate. Is this any different than the rightwing canard which in the decades since Brown vs. Board of Eduction holds that equal funding for urban schools is a waste of money?

Equitably funding public schools would prevent the ultimate goal of corporate education reform which is to make billions of tax dollars available to private companies in a privatized education market devoted to profit. Far from being a new civil rights movement, the Mark Gleason’s of this world are a traveling medicine show who are huckstering the same old nasty fake medicine in a new bottle.

Also see:

Hearings start Dec. 8 for 40 new charter school applicants
Philadelphia Public School Notebook - December 26, 2014

A charter school named for a saint, but with secular aims 
Philadelphia Inquirer, Novmeber 28, 2014 

Mark Gleason Turns 'Dump the Losers" into a Pseudoscience
Defend Public Education - December 16, 2014

Philadelphia Inquirer - February 4, 2015
How can a Pa. tax program help both Catholic schools and Pa. taxpayers?
Philadelphia Inquirer - February 12, 2015
Read the comment. 
An Analysis of How Philadelphia School Partnership Has Implemented Its Mission
Alliance  for Philadelphia Public Schools - August 25, 2015 
Who Is Behind the Philadelphia School Partnership?
Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools - November 9, 2015