Gov. Bruce Rauner once told some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most influential civic leaders that half of the Chicago Public Schools teachers “are virtually illiterate” and half of the city’s principals are “incompetent,” according to emails Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration released Thursday under a court order.
Rauner made the assertion five years ago when he was a wealthy private equity executive and an active participant in Chicago school reform. His emails were part of a discussion with affluent education reform activists connected to the Chicago Public Education Fund, including Penny Pritzker, now U.S. commerce secretary; billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin; Chicago investment executive Mellody Hobson; and Helen Zell, the wife of billionaire real estate magnate Sam Zell.
“Teacher evaluation is critically important, but in a massive bureaucracy with a hostile union, where 50% of principals are managerially incompetent and half of teachers are virtually illiterate, a complete multi-dimensional evaluation system with huge subjectivity in it will be attacked, manipulated and marginalized – the status quo will prevail,” Rauner wrote in a December 2011 email arguing for a strong system of teacher and principal evaluations in the district. “It’s much more critical that we develop a consistent, rigorous, objective, understandable measure and reporting system for student growth upon which all further evaluation of performance will depend.”
Asked about the governor’s characterization of Chicago educators, Rauner spokesman Lance Trover issued an apology. “Significant change can be frustratingly slow; this is especially true in public education. Many of us, at one time or another, have sent hastily crafted emails containing inaccurate or intemperate statements,” Trover’s statement said in part. “This particular email was sent out of frustration at the pace of change in our public school system. The governor regrets writing it and apologizes to CPS educators for making an unfair, untrue comment.”
Rauner’s remarks were included in a batch of emails the Chicago Tribune requested from Emanuel’s office last year in connection with its reporting about a CPS principal training program at the center of former district Superintendent Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s federal fraud conviction last year.
The mayor’s office either heavily redacted some of the messages or withheld them entirely. The news organization then sued the Emanuel administration, and this week Cook County Judge Anna Demacopoulos ruled the mayor’s office largely had violated the state’s open records laws and ordered City Hall to turn over the emails.
The Rauner emails were included in the release because they included a reference to the SUPES Academy, and the Tribune had sought messages connected to the corrupt principal training organization.
In his emails, Rauner made the case for more widespread reforms than had been considered by the education fund, a non-profit with a mission of improving public schools. Rauner recommended the fund do a “very deep-dive analysis of CPS strategic plan,” pick out the “most critical elements” and then focus “aggressively on effective implementation.”
Pritzker, a billionaire businesswoman who since has been tapped by President Barack Obama to serve as commerce secretary, pushed back on Rauner, the emails showed. Pritzker argued that projects the fund had chosen to back — including training district executives and improving classroom technology — were important, aligned with CPS initiatives, and endorsed by the district’s leadership, including then-Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard.
Rauner countered in favor of more sophisticated research to overhaul the district and noted that other wealthy businessmen, including Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, had failed to transform public schools despite spending millions.
“The good news and bad news is that dell/gates/broad have wasted close to $1 billion on public school improvement while we have only wasted less than $200 million in Chicago,” Rauner wrote. “We should be seeking their advice and coordination now – with our great mayor and solid management team, we should be aiming for world-class transformation.”
Rauner’s reference to Emanuel as a “great mayor” has some irony now, as the two friends who once vacationed together have spent much of the last year sparring over the future of CPS and its precarious finances.The governor has a long history of railing against the Chicago Teachers Union, both as a citizen and politician.Appearing at a panel discussion in September 2012 as teachers were on strike, Rauner outlined a long-term plan to try to split “good teachers” from organized labor’s grasp using the issues of evaluations and merit pay.
“The good teachers know they’ll do fine. They’ve got the confidence. I’ve talked to them. I know,” Rauner told an audience of business and political leaders at a seminar held jointly by the Dallas-based President George W. Bush Institute and the right-leaning Illinois Policy Institute. “It’s the weak teachers. It’s the lousy, ineffective, lazy teachers that — unfortunately there are a number of those — they’re the ones that the union is protecting and that’s where there’s a conflict of interest between the good teachers and the union bosses.”
A week earlier, Rauner penned an opinion piece for the Chicago Tribune saying the strike “provides us all with a clear opportunity to examine the grossly inadequate performances of many public school teachers and highlight and reward the great performances of other teachers.”
“I have sat in a CPS math class and watched division being taught incorrectly. I have seen the standardized test scores of CPS teachers that indicate many of them aren’t even capable of scoring 21 on the ACT, the absolute minimum score needed to be ready for college. How can we believe that these teachers can prepare our children for success?” Rauner wrote.
Rauner also has publicly lamented how little his donations have done to improve education.
“My wife and I have spent more than $20 million trying to donate to teacher training, principal development, charter schools,” he told an education conference in 2012. “And I would say probably 80 percent of the dollars that we donated have been wasted. Lost. No result.”
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has fired back over the years, including a controversial address in April.
“Rauner is the new ISIS recruit,” Lewis said in an address at a packed City Club of Chicago luncheon, using a term that refers to the Islamic State terrorist group.
“Yes, I said it, and I’ll say it again,” Lewis continued. “Bruce Rauner is a liar. And, you know, I’ve been reading in the news lately all about these ISIS recruits popping up all over the place — has Homeland Security checked this man out yet? Because the things he’s doing look like acts of terror on poor and working-class people.”
The Tribune’s FOIA request that sought the emails was centered on the city’s handling of the contract with the SUPES Academy. The two co-owners of the academy, Thomas Vranas and Gary Solomon, were accused in federal court in Chicago of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to Byrd-Bennett while she was schools CEO in exchange for steering no-bid contracts to their company.
Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty in October to a single federal count of wire fraud. She faces up to about 7 1/2 years in prison when she is sentenced, but her sentencing has been postponed until the charges against Solomon and Vranas are resolved.
Vranas pleaded guilty in April to one count of conspiracy to commit federal program bribery. He faces up to five years in prison. Solomon has pleaded not guilty but reportedly has been negotiating a deal with prosecutors.
At the same time, the Chicago Board of Education is seeking more than $65 million in damages and penalties in a lawsuit against Byrd-Bennett, Vranas and Solomon. SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates, education consulting companies owned by Vranas and Solomon that won more than $23 million in no-bid contracts, are also named in that suit.