When Mayor Rahm Emanuel was elected in 2011, he made some big decisions about education. He assured us his plan was going to save public education in Chicago, and although his tactics were a little extreme (closing schools and firing teachers), he wanted us to believe he knew what he was doing. He hand picked what Chicago Reader columnist Ben Joravsky described as “a merry band of privatizers, business leaders, and charter school supporters” to make up Chicago’s school board team. Here’s who was on that team:
It bears noting that all but one of the people on that original team have stepped down. (Jesse Ruiz remains, amidst strikes by parents and teachers, borrowing scandals, and an ever-swelling deficit.) To say things have not gone well for the era of Chicago education under Emanuel is a grotesque understatement.
After Brizard and Donoso each resigned after just over a year (Donoso left in May 2012, and Brizard was forced out in September after a citywide teacher strike), Barbara Byrd-Bennett was ushered in to take their collective place. Byrd-Bennett looked good on paper; she had the kind of pro-reform longterm credentials Emanuel wanted to be associated with.
Once she was in position, Byrd-Bennett got right to work implementing a $20 million contract to provide professional development for principals through an educational consulting firm called Supes Academy. She didn’t talk too loudly about how she had been previously employed by Supes Academy, or that she was still in close communication with the company’s owners. In 2013, Sarah Karpp wrote in The Catalyst that a contract of that size and from an organization so closely connected to the CEO should raise some major questions.
In April 2015 the FBI stepped in with an investigation. Byrd-Bennett was indicted in early October on 23 counts. According to e-mails, Byrd-Bennett has received a number of blatant kickbacks from her connection with Supes.
Since the indictment, Emanuel has gone to great lengths to ensure Byrd-Bennett shoulders the blame for the scandal. He, however, is responsible for selecting Byrd-Bennett in the first place, and e-mails sent at the outset of the initial contracts with Supes suggest that Emanuel understood Byrd-Bennett was up to no good. It was important for his political campaign, however, that he not see yet another hand-picked CEO step down so quickly.
As the story continues to unfold, Emanuel is skillfully diverting the public’s attention: He’s spending his time being publicly interested in what the rest of the city is interested in right now:
And while it’s easy to pin full responsibility on an isolated rogue like Byrd-Bennett, the truth is that the corporate education reform industry has ultimately made this scandal possible. Gary Solomon, the former joint owner of Supes Academy, is the more threatening character here. There are some other familiar names close to this story, woven together by a thread of common financial benefit allegedly in the name of education reform.
Byrd-Bennett will likely serve jail time for this kickback scheme. But the larger problem — the privatization of public education — is much direr than the simple greed of a single person. Byrd-Bennett symbolizes the corruptibility of a school board that is not publicly elected. She is also a mere pawn in a the wider problem of corporate education: The people who run our schools operate so far outside actual educational settings that they no longer humanize the children inside them. If this is allowed to continue, we invite a world in which the powerful few may continue to feed off the blood of the many.