Mantra #1 of investigative journalism: Follow the money.
My early investigation into the branding campaign that accompanied State Senators Tommy Tomlinson’s and Andy Dinniman’s press conference regarding PASSHE secession legislation is leading down some interesting paths to say the least. Exhibit A: Senators Tomlinson and Dinniman have hired the same public relations/lobbying firm that is entrenched in the Philadelphia education privatization – aka “reform” – movement through their list of clients and the Board of Directors of the powerful pro-privatization group Philadelphia School Partnership. That’s right, Tomlinson and Dinniman are calling upon a public relations/lobbying firm that has cut its teeth in the attack on public education in Philadelphia and around the Commonwealth.
As Tomlinson and Dinniman issued their call for secession on March 11, a massive digital and social media branding blitz dubbed “Stronger Pennsylvania Public Universities” was launched. This astro-turfed group projects the notion that this legislation is “bipartisan” by having Tomlinson and Dinniman side-by-side on the website and to the casual observer, you’d think that Tomlinson and Dinniman just thought it would be a good idea to have a web page to promote their legislation. But, the extensive and coordinated branding effort points to a more organized effort: the corporate-esque logo plastered on their website; the media packets provided by the Pennsylvania Senate GOP; the poster boards that the Senators were using during their press conference; and, a branded social media presence.
It was this branding blitz that made me want to dig deeper. And, digging through the website’s code revealed who developed the website and the person to which the domain is registered. The website was designed by Targeted Victory, which has an impressive right-wing client list: Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads, the Republican National Committee, and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. It was recently reported that Targeted Victory is running the show for Wendy Davis’s opponent in the Texas gubernatorial race.
The website for Stronger Pennsylvania Public Universities is registered to Rhett Hintze, who is the Chief Operations Officer & Technology Procurement Strategist with the Bravo Group. The Bravo Group has carried water for the Corbett Administration in the past; they have a client list that includes some of Philadelphia’s largest education privateers, and the president and CEO of the Bravo Group, Chris Bravacos, is a founding member of the Philadelphia School Partnership. The people that Senators Tomlinson and Dinniman have aligned themselves with have an endgame in mind: the total dismantling of public education.
Controversy between Governor Corbett and the Bravo Group dates back to the 2010 governor’s transition. Governor Corbett’s transition had over 400 members. Bravacos was part of the governor’s education team, which had members from charter schools, big banks and think tanks. In 2012, Bravacos was a Mitt Romney fundraiser, and the Corbett administration awarded his firm a $249,000 contract for the infamous Voter ID campaign.
Throughout this period, the Bravo Group has complied a client list that includes: ASPIRA (charter school company), K12 (cyber charter), PA Catholic Conference, Dellicker Strategies, Teach for America and the Reach Alliance to name a few. Bravo Group’s web page features a case study on how the Reach Alliance restored full funding to Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit in 2009. Some of the tactics included:
- Government relations outreach to legislators and key leaders
- Outreach to media outlets for news and feature coverage
- Dedicated website for campaign information and ability to fax and email legislators
- Social media campaign
What is most troubling is Chris Bravacos’ connections to the Philadelphia School Partnership, the William Penn Foundation, and the 2012 Philadelphia School District’s “blueprint” that closed dozens of schools.
In a City Paper article titled “Wealthy donors move schools decision-making behind closed doors for privatization,” Dan Denvir unveils exactly who the Philadelphia School Partnership is and what they have been advocating for. Denvir writes:
Since its founding in October 2010, PSP has evolved from a small third-party advocate of the “Blueprint” to the most powerful so-called reform group in the city. Seeded by an initial $15 million William Penn grant, the group has raised millions more to advance an agenda that prioritizes expanding charter schools and attacking the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
In some cases, PSP has even taken on the direct governance of city schools with support from Mayor Michael Nutter and the state-controlled School Reform Commission, running a public-private entity called the Great Schools Compact. The Compact, funded by reform stalwarts at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (also present at the conference), describes itself as “a collective commitment to transform or replace the worst-performing schools in the city.”
Then he writes about Chris Bravacos:
What is clear is that a number of conservative and corporate power brokers sit on PSP’s board, including: Janine Yass, BCG donor and wife of Bala Cynwyd-based hedge fund manager and choice-funder Jeff Yass; investor Michael O’Neill, who paid $100,000 of the bill for BCG’s analysis; and Chris Bravacos, a former state Republican Party director who now heads the pro-voucher REACH Alliance and Bravo Foundation, the latter being a middleman for the state’s school-voucher-like tax credit program.
Then in 2012, the William Penn Foundation, who seeded the PSP’s startup, paid $160,000 to pass the School Reform Commission’s “blueprint.” One of the two companies that was in charge of designing the radical blueprint was the Bravo Group. Benjamin Herold from Newsworks writes:
The William Penn Foundation has paid more than $160,000 for work being done by two private communications firms to support the School Reform Commission’s much-debated “transformation blueprint.”
It’s just one of several efforts undertaken by the city’s civic leaders on behalf of the cash-strapped District that was revealed by a review of William Penn’s recent grants.
The organizations doing the communications work, Sage Communications and theBravo Group, are being paid through William Penn funds that have been passed through the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, respectively. Each grant was for $82,500, the maximum allowable without the approval of William Penn’s board, which meets three times a year.
What is clear from my preliminary investigation into the money behind Tomlinson and Dinniman’s PASSHE secession legislation is that this is not a fly-by-night operation. At the very least, it raises the questions: Why are several high-powered public relations firms being hired to advocate for this legislation? What does it mean that several high-powered people involved in the privatization of public education in Philadelphia are now on the inside of a campaign to slowly dismantle PASSHE? And, are there other big money interests licking their chops at the prospect of breaking up the 10th largest public university system in the United States?
We’ll keep digging.