"This is putting a stake in the ground about the need for great schools," Nowak said in an interview.
Nowak said the gift would help foster the ideals of the Great Schools Compact, a document recently signed by representatives of the Philadelphia School District, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, charter school organizations, and city and state officials that pledges to close or overhaul 50,000 seats in "low-performing" schools and replace them with high-quality ones, possibly in charters, in the next five years.
"We love the idea of the compact," Nowak said. "Close down what doesn't work, scale up what does work, use good information."
Janet Haas, a physician and William Penn's board chair, said the new direction reflected the foundation's view that "there are few issues more important to our region than closing the achievement gap and reforming Philadelphia's broken schools."
"The status quo has failed the children of this city for too long," Haas said in a statement. "The costs of educational failure are too high. Solutions to Philadelphia's difficult, long-term education problems are attainable, but they involve significant change, which won't be easy."
The moves by William Penn and the Philadelphia School Partnership are in line with the goals of the current School Reform Commission, which has signaled its plans for overhauling the district, closing struggling schools and expanding strong ones.
For the Philadelphia School Partnership, William Penn's gift is just a start.
Executive director Mark Gleason said Thursday that while William Penn's $15 million donation was its largest to date, the organization was close to announcing "additional large commitments that will bring us north of $30 million, maybe even north of $40 million," in its "Great Schools Fund."
The Philadelphia School Partnership hopes to award between $8 million and $12 million in grants this year, with up to $10 million to $15 million given in subsequent years, said Gleason, whose organization is not yet two years old but is clearly rising in influence.
"We are seriously looking at investments in the public district sector, the public charter sector, and the Catholic sector," said Gleason, who also facilitates the work of the Great Schools Compact. He said about a dozen applications were being vetted across all those types of schools.
The organization awarded $2.4 million last year to charter providers turning around district schools. Mastery Charter Schools, Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania, and Universal Cos. Inc. all received funding in 2011 for their "Renaissance schools."
In some cases, grants of a few hundred thousand dollars will pay for planning for schools that don't yet exist; in others, the money will help new schools ready to open but in need of capital to buy computers, secure a building, or train staff, for instance; in still others, the money will help strong existing schools expand.
"We're trying to raise $100 million, and if we do, we can have a direct impact on a large number of students - we're scaling reform," Gleason said. "Even more important, potentially, is that if we can raise $100 million from a broad cross-section of funders that cuts across traditional political and ideological boundaries, we think we can help to change the dialogue in Philadelphia away from the tension and rivalries between different kinds of schools and into a more collaborative focus on how we can all work together to make sure we have lots of good school options."
In a city where there has historically been great tension, particularly between public and charter schools, that would represent a sea change.
Nowak said he believed William Penn's donation encourages others to kick in to the Philadelphia School Partnership.
"We hope it will attract national money," Nowak said. "That would be good. I think the Gates Foundation will put some money in, though at the end of the day, I love the idea that local philanthropy will put up the lion's share."
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has already awarded Philadelphia a $100,000 planning grant for the work of the Great Schools Compact. The city is competing for more money from Gates.
The rising influence of William Penn and the Philadelphia School Partnership and the Great Schools Compact is not universally admired. Some fear that the compact gives short shrift to the district schools.
And when William Penn spent $1.5 million this year to fund the Boston Consulting Group's examination of the district's finances and operations to help arrive at an overhaul plan for the beleaguered organization, many were wary of a plan they call too corporate, too expensive, and too secret. District officials have since said their draft transformation plan is not final, is subject to more public input, and won't be approved until next year.
"Unless you gave everybody ice cream, there was going to be some suspicion," Nowak said of the plan.
Haas, the William Penn board chair, defended the decision to fund the consultants.
"The SRC wisely decided that it was time to get help from outside experts," Haas said in a statement. "Insiders have not done a great job of helping our schools to succeed in recent years. BCG has an outstanding track record of helping to turn around urban districts in crisis, and we were more than happy to support their efforts to identify solutions. The cost of the work is not insignificant, but we think this is money well spent given how critical the success of the School District is to the futures of our children, families, and city."
The consultants began work in the district this winter, but none of their findings have been made public. Haas said that BCG's analysis and recommendations, due in a few days, will be "fully transparent."
Gleason said that when the coming announcement about more money for the Philadelphia School Partnership is made, some donors have asked to remain anonymous, but most will be named.
"The folks who are critical or wary of these sorts of donations are missing the point, because they're focusing on intentions or perceived intentions," Gleason said. "What we're trying to do here is get people focused on outcomes."
Contact Kristen Graham
at 215-854-5146, firstname.lastname@example.org, or
on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.