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Education Writers Surrounded by Big School Stories in Chicago

By Mark Walsh — April 20, 2015 3 min read
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As scores of education reporters rolled into Chicago over the weekend for the annual conference of the Education Writers Association, they were greeted with headlines about the latest crises in the Chicago Public Schools.

CPS chief will take leave amid fed probe,” said the Chicago Tribune on Saturday, in reference to Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett stepping aside amid what the paper says is a federal investigation into a $20.5 million no-bid contract between the school system and a consulting firm that once employed Byrd-Bennett.

Murky past of company boss in CPS probe,” said the Chicago Sun-Times on Sunday, in a story about the past professional troubles of the former high school dean who founded the consulting firm.

And the Tribune on Sunday carried a front-page story under the headline, “Feds eye CPS records on elite nonprofit,” about the role in the story of the Chicago Public Education Fund, a nonprofit support group “closely aligned” with recently re-elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and once chaired by Bruce Rauner, a Republican who was elected governor of Illinois last fall.

Catalyst Chicago, an independent news outlet on education in the city, linked back to its July 2013 story that appears to have spurred the federal inquiry into the no-bid contract with SUPES Academy, a Wilmette, Ill.-based concern that provides professional development to educational administrators.

Meanwhile, the Sun-Times highlighted another crisis for the school system on its front page on Sunday: “CPS’ $228 million time bomb,” about a depletion of the district’s cash reserves.

There were so many big education stories going on at the local level that EWA officials were fretting that Chicago education reporters would not have time in the next few days to come to the conference, which is being attended by 275 working journalists and more than 300 other participants, such as policy experts and public relations professionals.

Meanwhile, Timothy Knowles, the chairman of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, referenced the headlines at a dinner kicking off the education writers’ conference. In fact, he suggested there seemed to be at least a correlation between recent EWA seminars in Chicago and big news involving the city’s school system.

First, there was an EWA seminar at the University of Chicago in 2012, the same year Chicago teachers went on strike, the first such labor action by the city’s teachers in a quarter century.

And in 2013, Knowles noted, EWA hosted a seminar with the University of Chicago on teacher evaluations. That meeting occurred soon after the Chicago Board of Education closed some 49 schools in a cost-saving move, a huge story that played a role in forcing Emanuel into a runoff election this month.

“Now you come and there are federal investigations,” Knowles told chuckling education writers at the April 19 dinner in the university’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

On Monday, the story over the SUPES Academy inquiry was mentioned at the luncheon session of the EWA conference at a downtown hotel.

Rauner gave a frank, 25-minute talk on national, state, and Chicago education, saying the city’s school system was broken, that teachers (in general, he seemed to mean, not just in the city) deserved more pay and respect, and that he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Common Core State Standards, but that his state was too far along with the standards and the PARCC test to reverse course.

Asked by a Catalyst reporter about the SUPES Academy investigation and possible ties between that organization and the Chicago Public Education Fund, the governor first offered some context for this national group of reporters.

“First, let me back up,” the governor said. “Illinois and Chicago have a long, long, sordid history of insider dealing and corruption and conflict of interests. We’ve had four out of our nine last governors go to prison.”

“My youngest daughter, 13 years old, said, ‘Daddy don’t run for governor. I don’t want you to go to jail,’” Rauner said.

As for reports of potential wrongdoing over the no-bid contract between CPS and the SUPES Academy, the governor said, “I hope that the potential wrongdoing that I read about didn’t occur. But I hope anybody who did wrongdoing is fully prosecuted.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.