School & District Management

Education Activist Boasts of Power Plays, Then Apologizes

By Rick Pearson, Chicago Tribune (MCT) & John Chase, Chicago Tribune (MCT) — July 13, 2011 4 min read

An education activist’s blunt tale of wooing the Illinois House speaker and outfoxing teachers unions created a stir Tuesday by violating a cardinal rule of Statehouse power plays—what happens under the dome stays under the dome.

Now Jonah Edelman, the co-founder and CEO of the well-funded Stand for Children organization, is apologizing for taking a boastful tone and backing away from his remarks about his role in a new law that authorizes longer class days and tougher work rules in Chicago schools.

Speaking at the Aspen Institute think tank in Colorado, Edelman claimed his group drove a wedge between powerful Democrats and teachers unions, fed Mayor Rahm Emanuel one of his signature campaign lines, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on 2010 legislative races “to execute a political objective, which was to tilt toward (Democratic House Speaker Michael) Madigan.”

A spokeswoman for the group, Mary McClelland, said Edelman “had a bad day” at the Aspen conference. She said he mischaracterized and exaggerated the group’s role in school reform.

A joint statement issued by the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association accused Edelman of “falsely claiming to have manipulated people engaged in honest negotiations” and overstating his group’s success.

Stand for Children quickly went from a political startup to a key player in the negotiations over one of the most contentious issues in Springfield, largely because of money. It raised more than $3.5 million from some of the Chicago area’s wealthiest families.

In his Aspen remarks, Edelman said some people mistakenly thought Illinois would turn Republican in the November 2010 elections. But the group correctly concluded veteran Democrat Madigan would remain in control.

“So we interviewed 36 candidates in targeted races and essentially—I’m being quite blunt here—the individual candidates were essentially a vehicle to execute a political objective, which was to tilt toward Madigan,” Edelman said in a recording posted on the Aspen Institute website.

“We endorsed nine individuals—six of them were Democrats, three Republicans—and tilted our money toward Madigan. That was really a show, an indication to him that we could be a new partner to take the place of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. That was the point.”

The bulk of the group’s roughly $600,000 in political donations went to the six Democratic candidates in contested races.

Edelman said that after the election he “went back to Madigan” and confirmed the speaker’s support for the group’s agenda. The following day, he said, Madigan created an education reform committee, and “his political director called to ask for our suggestions on who should be on it.”

The group also hired a team of 11 lobbyists, including two former Madigan chiefs of staff and the lawyer for the state Democratic Party, “preventing the unions from hiring them.”

“Essentially what we did in a very short period of time was shift the balance of power,” Edelman said. “I can tell you there was a powerful sense of concern, if not shock, on the part of the teachers unions in Illinois that Speaker Madigan had changed allegiance and that we had clear political capability to potentially jam this proposal down their throats.”

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said Tuesday that the speaker had an early meeting with the group and, believing that it would be likely to back GOP candidates, “urged them to look at balance” by supporting Democrats. Brown also said it was common practice for Madigan’s issues staff to “reach out to groups all the time” about legislation.

Brown and teachers union officials disputed that Stand for Children was the driving force behind the education legislation. “It was the topic du jour in legislatures across the country,” Brown said of teacher performance and collective-bargaining issues.

Edelman also noted Chicago’s new mayor “strongly” supported the group. He said Emanuel adopted one of the group’s political talking points: that a student in a Houston public school spends four more years with a teacher than a student in a Chicago public school.

“He repeated (it) 1,000 times probably on the campaign trail,” Edelman said.

In the closing days of pushing the legislation, the group was assisted by “Emanuel’s involvement behind the scenes” in helping divide the union ranks, Edelman said.

Emanuel spokeswoman Chris Mather said the campaign came up with the Houston comparison on its own. She also said the mayor “worked with the CTU to pass the legislation to provide better education for children.”

In his apology to the teachers unions, Edelman said he deeply regretted “an arrogance in my tone.” He also said his explanation of the bill’s passage “does not reflect the good-faith and substantive negotiations that drove this process on all sides.”

The head of the IFT called Edelman’s Aspen remarks “very self-serving.”

“We’re out there to build better schools, and that’s what we believe in. We’re not doing it for cynical purposes like this, and we will not be daunted by his cynical reading of the situation,” union President Daniel Montgomery said.

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Copyright (c) 2011, Chicago Tribune Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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