Sarah Karp
Sarah Karp

The federal investigation into SUPES Academy is shining a light on a quiet though influential player in the city’s education arena: The Chicago Public Education Fund.

SUPES, of course, is the for-profit leadership training firm at the center of an FBI probe that has targeted CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett (who is now on leave). Before SUPES got its now-infamous $20.5 million no-bid contract from CPS, The Public Education Fund had given SUPES a $380,000 contract to train area network chiefs and their deputies. The Fund isn’t a target of the investigation and is apparently only a tangential player.

The Fund decided not to keep funding SUPES after its initial project, despite a request from CPS to do so. But that didn’t emerge until April 2015, nearly two years after CPS gave SUPES a contract for $20 million.

The larger question, though, isn’t about SUPES. It’s about the role of a privately financed foundation that is deeply entwined with a public school system.

If the larger school community had known about The Fund’s decision not to keep funding SUPES, taxpayers might have saved the $12 million SUPES was paid before its contract was cancelled.

For the most part, The Fund supports projects meant to be scaled up as part of the school system. In recent years, it has also paid consultants to conduct searches for top district staff and to help develop plans for the district.

Yet no one outside The Fund’s staff and board of directors know how it decides which programs to support, what the results have been and how or whether the results are communicated to CPS.

As the Fund’s CEO and President, Heather Anichini, explains it, her staff meet and talk with numerous people — from teachers to principals to other foundations to players in the field — and then decide what initiatives to support. To keep their funding, initiatives have to meet benchmarks set by The Fund.

“So we actually don’t do a ton of formal reporting in the way that many other organizations might,” Anichini says. “But we do have these checks along the way.”

Information on outcomes is communicated to CPS through “conversations with administrators,” Anichini adds.

The process might seem innocuous enough. But it also sounds ripe for manipulation. And it is certainly not public.

It is worth noting that The Fund’s board is made up of some of the richest, most powerful people in Chicago—people with strong and definite opinions about the direction of CPS and including some of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s staunch supporters and campaign donors. “It would be difficult to assemble a board that screams 1 percent louder than (The Fund)—from the schools its members attended to jobs held to marriages made,” as Chicago Magazine’s Carol Felsenthal wrote in a column.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is a former board president. Current board members are billionaire Kenneth Griffin, Penny Pritzker and Susan Crown of the Crown family.

The only way to make sure that the voices of the well-connected don’t drown out the voices of parents and the general public is to have complete transparency in decision-making about public schools. The public has the right to know the costs and the results of initiatives taking place in our schools, with our children, teachers and principals.

When The Fund was started 15 years ago, the Annenberg Challenge, which pumped $50 million into a variety of initiatives, was ending. Then- CEO Paul Vallas says he, former Mayor Richard Daley and other school leaders wanted to keep the momentum going.

The Fund’s current focus is on principals and educational innovation. In recent years, though, it has paid for consultant work affecting major district leadership and strategies.

In 2011, The Fund paid a consultant $100,000 to search for a chief financial officer; the man hired, Peter Rogers, only stayed for about two years. In 2012, The Fund paid three consulting companies — McKinsey & Company, Parthenon Group and Global Strategy Group — to do planning and marketing work for CPS.

The $1.5 million paid to Parthenon and McKinsey is particularly interesting. Parthenon helped CPS write the 2013 Request for Proposals for new schools.

McKinsey got the largest cut and was paid to provide data analytics and management support for the district’s 10-year master facilities plan—which was criticized for lacking detail—and to design the structure and duties for a new Office of Strategic Management, which analyzes trends, establishes school attendance areas and does long-term capital planning.

The Fund points that the consultants were needed because CPS leadership was new and state law called for the master facilities plan to be done on a “short time line,” and stresses that McKinsey did not “write” the plan.

CPS hired Todd Babbitz from McKinsey to run the new office, where he spearheaded the mass school closings in 2013.

During this time, thousands of parents and community members were attending numerous public hearings clamoring for to be heard on the closings as well as the facilities plan. It’s unclear how much of what parents said was taken into account by the consultants.

But neither the school closings plan nor the master facilities plan changed.

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Sarah Karp

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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