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School reform attracting billionaires’ money to Illinois races

Out-of-state billionaires and education-related not-for-profits funded by the mega-rich have taken a big interest in a couple of statehouse races — a further sign that school reform is a critical issue in Illinois.

Billionaire Eli Broad, already a political backer of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, donated $15,000 to Gov. Pat Quinn in March, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

The Los Angeles philanthropist “supports Gov. Quinn because Illinois, and specifically Chicago, needs pension reform and education reform,” a Broad spokeswoman said.

Broad, whose foundation promotes charter schools among other ideas for upending public education, also gave $10,000 to state Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) ahead of his March primary. Mitchell narrowly won over teacher union-backed challenger Jay Travis.

Another billionaire-turned-school reformer, Laurene Powell Jobs (the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs), also donated $10,000 to Mitchell, campaign records show.

The group Stand for Children – an Oregon-based not-for-profit that supports charter schools and other non-traditional educational models often at odds with teachers unions — was an even bigger contributor to Mitchell, donating almost $65,000 so far in 2014. The group was a large donor to Mitchell in his 2012 campaign.

Mitchell, a political ally of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), said changing school funding formulas is one of his biggest legislative goals near term, and he supports other education initiatives including converting the Chicago Board of Education to an elected, rather than appointed, body. He also supports pension reform, a point that puts Mitchell at odds with teachers unions.

Mitchell credited support from another national organization, Democrats for Education Reform, with helping bring Broad and Jobs into his campaign. A spokesman for Democrats for Education Reform said it put out a call to its large national donors when it saw the tens of thousands of dollars pouring into Mitchell’s opponent’s coffers. Madigan’s Democratic Majority political fund gave more than $50,000 to Mitchell to help him defeat Travis.

This isn’t the first time Broad and Jobs threw money at Illinois politicians. They each gave tens of thousands of dollars to Emanuel. The mayor received $50,000 from Jobs in the 2010 election and got more than $5,000 last year. Broad gave $25,000 to Emanuel in 2010 and another $5,300 last year, campaign records show.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, who’s facing Democrat Quinn in the November general election, previously contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Stand for Children’s national organization and was instrumental in bringing the group to Illinois. Foundations of the Gates (Microsoft) and Walton (Walmart) families are among the group’s biggest funders.

A sophomoric send?

To be sure, charter schools can be controversial — especially in Chicago where they continue to sprout while some traditional neighborhood public schools wither, much to the chagrin of various parents and teachers.

But a different kind of controversy flared recently at Pritzker College Prep, a Northwest Side high school run by the Noble Network of Charter Schools.

Pablo Sierra, Pritzker’s principal, sent an email to his staffers in which he made rather casual remarks about sex and fertility.

Sierra said he intended the email to be light-hearted — inspired by the large number of staffers pregnant this year. But some people apparently took offense and complained to higher-ups at Noble, and to us.

Part of Sierra’s email – which repeated news items, then followed with his own commentary – reads in part: “In all medical matters, physical fitness is king. You can’t be too overweight to conceive and you can’t be too underweight to conceive. According to researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology … having an exhaustive workout regimen was decreasing women’s fertility. — So start working out like the East German women swimmers of the 80’s!”

Another part of the email reads: “If you worry that the stress of trying to conceive will take a toll on your relationship, we have some promising research to allay your fears: Infertility problems can actually bring you closer together … couples who were able to overcome their fertility problems were more intimately bonded through a perception of joint hardship — a concept known as ‘marital benefit.’ — So don’t have babies — it makes for a better relationship!”

And there’s much more.

We reached out to Sierra, who said he apologized to his employees, and that administrators have discussed this with him already.

Michael Milkie, CEO and superintendant of Noble Charter School Network, said Sierra exercised “bad judgment” but wouldn’t lose his job over the email. “We certainly expect professional communication,” Milkie said.

Noble will be opening two more schools in the fall to bring its total to 16 — 15 are high schools, and one includes middle school and high school grades.

Noble teachers are not unionized and will have roughly 10,000 students across the network this fall, Milkie said. Pritzker has about 850 students.

This column was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase and Patrick Rehkamp. They can be reached at bchase@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9033.