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Half of CPS teachers ‘virtually illiterate,’ Rauner wrote in 2011

Gov. Bruce Rauner, flanked by Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis, is shown earlier this month as he announces he'd formed a bipartisan commission to propose a new school funding formula. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

Long before he was governor condemning Chicago Public Schools as “crumbling prisons,” Bruce Rauner was a wealthy champion of education reform deriding half the public school system’s principals as “managerially incompetent” and half its teachers as “virtually illiterate.”

That’s according to emails released by City Hall on Thursday from the account of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s then-deputy for education who sat on the board of a powerful education non-profit with the future governor.

Rauner, an influential ally of the then-newly elected mayor Rahm Emanuel and large donor to the Chicago Public Education Fund, was discussing future investments by the Fund with other billionaire board members — including Emanuel donor Ken Griffin, Ariel investments president Mellody Hobson and Helen Zell, whose husband’s lucrative real estate dealings funded her family foundation — pushing for structural change within the district.

“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 complex multi-dimensional evaluation system with huge subjectivity in it will be attacked, manipulated and marginalized – the status quo will prevail,” he wrote in all lowercase letters to other members of the board of directors of the Fund in an email on December 11, 2011. Rauner also advocated for “system structure, competition and incentives” as “key” to making sure that only “superstars” took jobs as network chiefs supervising the principals.

Gubernatorial spokesman Lance Trover apologized, saying in a statement listing the governor’s years of donations to education that “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.”

“Also,” he wrote, “I hope you note this was written five years ago — prior to being governor.”

The harshness of Rauner’s rhetoric is somewhat startling — even for a man who referred to Chicago schools recently as “crumbling prisons.”

But it’s not at all out of character.

Prior to becoming governor, Rauner was a leader of the education reform, pro-charter movement and an outspoken critic of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Rauner not only bankrolled charter schools with a charter school in the Noble network that bears his name, but also was a key player in the provocative legislative maneuverings that set the stage for 2012 teachers strike that was Chicago’s first in 25 years.

The Illinois General Assembly agreed to raise the strike threshold to 75 percent at the behest of Stand for Children, a group that Rauner lured to Chicago from Oregon to go toe-to-toe with the Chicago Teachers Union.

Chicago teachers were so incensed, they blew past the 75 percent threshold with a vote in which 90 percent backed the strike.

While Chicago teachers walked the picket lines for seven days, Rauner kept himself busy excoriating the union in scathing op-eds in the Chicago Tribune.

“While there are many excellent CPS teachers, the reality is a tragedy of epic proportions. Hundreds of thousands of children are being doomed to an unacceptably poor education and the diminished lives that come with it,” he wrote in one of those op-eds.

“It’s time we say ‘enough.’ Let’s recognize the CTU strike for what it is. Plain and simple, it is about the union’s drive to protect Chicago’s incompetent teachers at the expense of students and good teachers. We must not be fooled by the rhetoric that teachers are striking in the interests of students. Baloney. This strike is about protecting political power.”

After the strike was settled, Rauner wrote another op-ed condemning the deal that coaxed teachers off the picket lines. He was furious that step-and-lane salary increases had been preserved, merit pay blocked and job evaluations for tenured teachers had been delayed.

Rauner also railed about what he called “unaffordable salary increases in tough economic times.”

“It will take a tremendous fight for us to take our schools back from the union bosses and their fellow bullies,” he wrote then.

CTU president Karen Lewis took offense, saying she has yet to meet an illiterate teacher.

“Doesn’t that speak to his elitism and his attitude toward who we are?” she said by telephone of the governor she has long sparred with. “If he said that and put in an email, think about what he really says when he feels comfortable.”

The 37 pages of emails were handed over after a Cook County judge ordered City Hall to release them in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed more than a year ago by the Chicago Tribune in the aftermath of the SUPES contracting scandal that ousted CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and will almost certainly lead to her imprisonment. SUPES former owners Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, the two men to whom she admitted to steering $23 million in no-bid contracts in exchange for kickbacks, also face federal charges.

The newspaper went to court after the city refused to disclose several specific email chains. Regarding the two messages involving Rauner, the city argued that they had no bearing on the transaction of public business and could be withheld because they dealt with the Fund’s plans.

A thorough reading of the messages begs the question: Why did Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration fight so hard and long to keep the emails from public view?

There is no smoking gun. In fact, the emails underscore what Emanuel said last year: That his top aides “did the right thing by asking hard questions” about a whopping $20.5 million no-bid principal training contract at the center of the federal conviction of his handpicked former schools CEO.

“So even if all principals plus deputy chiefs and others total 750 people that they will train over the 3 years, that means CPS is paying more than $25K per person to train them,” wrote Lisa Schrader, Emanuel’s chief of staff in 2013, in one of the just-released emails. “Or more if they still need to raise private donations.

“That’s a pretty hefty investment. Maybe a semester tuition @ UofC. Are you comfortable? Is the board? Just seems very expensive for 10-day workshop plus weekly ‘coaching’ given the other financial challenges they face.”

Perhaps the mayor fought to keep the emails secret to spare his old friend and former business associate Rauner the embarrassment.

But that motive has also diminished. The marathon budget stalemate and the name calling that came with it has strained to the breaking point the friendship between Rauner and the man who, back in 2011, he called “our great mayor.”