Days before the boom dropped on a sexual abuse scandal in Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was unveiling a $175 million plan to provide universal preschool for the city’s 4-year-olds.
His homegrown schools CEO Janice Jackson was touting CPS’ progress in commercials bankrolled by a nonprofit with close ties to the mayor.
But now, Emanuel’s plan to seek a third term using education as a major cornerstone has been blown out of the water by a scandal that hits home like none before it.
This time, children have been directly victimized. And the adults in charge — including the mayor of Chicago — should have protected them. They didn’t.
Like the Burge police torture cases and rampant priest sex abuse in the Catholic Church, the latest CPS scandal also threatens to trigger multi-million dollar lawsuits for years to come against a district that is just now emerging from threats of bankruptcy following a $450 million cash infusion from the state. It could also lead frightened parents to yank their kids out of CPS, exacerbating the enrollment decline.
Jackson refused to comment on Emanuel’s political strategy for convincing Chicago voters to give him a third chance. But she argued emphatically that the latest scandal doesn’t diminish the story line about “remarkable” progress at CPS.
“I hate to even be having this conversation in the middle of a crisis because it’s not appropriate. But I will talk to anybody who’s willing to talk about the success that has happened in the district,” Jackson said.
“My wish is that the progress our district is making is covered and treated with a level of respect for the educators who do it … Any questions about the mayor’s campaign, you can direct those to him.”
Campaign spokesman Pete Giangreco said, “Like all Chicagoans, the mayor is disgusted by the actions of these employees, and no reasonable person would hold the mayor personally responsible for the actions of monsters going back decades. What he will be held accountable for is fixing the systematic problems that allowed to these tragic crimes to occur.”
CPS’ repeated failure to protect students in more than 100 cases in recent years, as the Chicago Tribune has reported, has taken center stage in the 2019 race for mayor. The problems documented included teachers and principals failing to alert police or DCFS of suspected abuse as required by law, and staffers with sex crime histories slipping through CPS’ ineffective background checks.
It would have been bad enough for Emanuel had this been the first major scandal at CPS, but it isn’t. In his seven years as mayor, he has weathered seven more under a revolving door of CEOs:
Former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was hailed as an education savior after cozying up to Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and playing a pivotal role to end the 2012 teachers strike, the city’s first in 25 years.
Emanuel’s second schools chief, whom he affectionately dubbed “B3,” flamed out after a no-bid contract kickback scheme landed her in prison. The plot was outlined in brazen emails.
At one point, Byrd-Bennett wrote that she had “tuition to pay and casinos to visit (: ” — a reference to the bank accounts she allegedly had the SUPES Academy owners set up to pay for her twin grandsons’ college.
The scheming began even before Byrd-Bennett replaced her predecessor, Jean-Claude Brizard. And the embarrassing, ill-timed scandal gave state lawmakers an excuse to withhold $480 million for pensions needed to avoid devastating mid-year budget cuts.
Weeks after appointing his friend of 30 years as chief of staff, Emanuel dispatched Claypool to CPS to clean up Byrd-Bennett’s mess. But the career bureaucrat with a reputation as a governmental Mr. Fix-It left one of his own.
Claypool resigned after being exposed by CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler as the architect of a “full-blown cover-up” of an aide’s ethics violation.
Claypool called it quits after two days of the mayor defending his old friend, giving every indication he would allow Claypool to ride out the storm caused by his decision to “repeatedly lie” during Schuler’s investigation sparked by Chicago Sun-Times stories.
Emanuel announced the changing of the guard at a bizarre Friday afternoon news conference reminiscent of a funeral. There, Emanuel lauded Claypool as “selfless,” saying he could “walk out with his head high because he did the job well.”
A third Emanuel schools appointee was recently accused of “horrible” ethical lapses after joining the school board in 2013.
Investor and philanthropist Deborah Quazzo shouldn’t have talked up products of companies she’d invested in to CPS principals or introduced them to company reps, Schuler said, adding that she only admitted her actions after his investigators presented emails as proof. Nor should she have discussed a pending $6 million contract involving one of her companies with Byrd-Bennett before the school board voted on it, he said.
The IG began investigating after Sun-Times reporting revealed that companies in which Quazzo had a stake saw their CPS business triple since her appointment, taking in more than $3.8 million from deals with CPS schools and more from CPS-authorized charter schools.
Emanuel has defended Quazzo, saying the city was “lucky to have her.”
Emanuel and Jackson have publicly accepted an independent state monitor they had hoped to avoid to remedy a 2016 special education overhaul that violated federal law protecting special education students. But really, they had no choice.
An investigation by the Illinois State Board of Education following a WBEZ radio investigation concluded that Claypool’s 2016 special ed overhaul at CPS had “delayed and denied” mandated services to students.
The state board took the rare step of recommending an independent monitor empowered to independently review CPS’ special ed staffing formula and budgets, and to approve any future special education changes.
That’s a whole lot of power for a notoriously controlling mayor to cede. And the fixes could potentially cost CPS.
CPS sold its 2014 plans to privatize janitorial and facilities services as a cure-all to clean schools without hassling principals, all while saving money.
But complaints quickly emerged at schools about the work done by Aramark and by SodexoMAGIC, whose co-owner Magic Johnson put $250,000 in Emanuel’s campaign coffers.
After years of placating parents with passing grades from inspections done by an outside auditor, CPS noted cleanliness shortcomings during surprise internal “blitz” inspections at 125 schools — 91 of which failed. Janitors have since said they were told when the outside auditor was coming so schools could put extra effort into preparing for him.
As African-American aldermen representing schools where severe violations were found demanded action, Emanuel declared himself “beyond outraged.”
Emanuel managed to survive Chicago’s first-ever mayoral runoff after African-American voters who elected him in 2011 forgave him for closing a record 50 public schools. But the mayor may have a harder time seeking political forgiveness for breaking promises about the outcomes of the closings.
Recent research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago showed that students whose schools closed didn’t fare as well academically as kids whose schools stayed open — especially in math. And families and teachers interviewed described the closings as “chaotic.”
Equally troubling is how many of the shuttered school buildings in South and West Side neighborhoods remain empty. That breaks yet another mayoral promise to repurpose them.
MANIPULATED GRADUATION FIGURES
Emanuel’s press shop has churned out a conveyor belt of press releases about every new education program and uptick in test scores at CPS.
But one of the mayor’s favorite stats — an upward trend in graduation rates — was found to be artificially high after CPS misclassified thousands of dropouts as transfers. That investigation by WBEZ and the Better Government Association forced the lowering of grad rates for 2011 through 2014.
No amount of positive P.R. can paper over the damage in the crowded mayoral field that includes former schools CEO Paul Vallas and Troy LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.
Particularly not when a Chicago Teachers Union that helped bankroll Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s failed mayoral campaign against Emanuel in 2015 has unveiled a 30-second video it calls the #SameOldRahm campaign to counter the big bucks being spent by Emanuel allies at “Progress Chicago.”
“They all take a toll. It is a drip, drip, drip with respect to death by a thousand paper cuts,” said Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee. “But I believe the mayor is going to probably double down based on the test results and other things that are [signs of progress] that he can point to.”
But LaRaviere, who decried the scandals when they unfolded, said they happen “because the only voices Emanuel respects are his own and those of his wealthy donors. … Consequently, his decisions help his donors and hurt the people who matter.”