Chicago Schools and Rahm's Inauguration: Feeling Patronized About Patronage?

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel is famous, or notorious if you prefer, for his ability to make connections and raise money. It’s an in-demand skill, as the attentions of well-funded nonprofits turn to public institutions. Is it good for us?

April 18, 2011, 9:38 pm

Item: "At a time when schools across Chicago are bracing for severe cuts in next year’s budget, many of the city’s elite institutions rely on independently run nonprofits to raise money to stem the losses of teachers, staff and popular programs."

(Really interesting story about nonprofit foundations connected to public schools, which control hundreds of thousands of dollars, and what sort of oversight, or lack thereof, parents and the Chicago Public Schools have. Worth a read.)

Item: "Knupp, who founded that Chicago Public Education Fund, a venture philanthropy which has raised $50 million for CPS programs to improve city schools, said in recent focus groups she’s heard from teachers that they want to be evaluated, and that they want to figure out how to become better teachers."

Item: "The city of Chicago, which hasn’t had a new mayor since 1989, didn’t set aside any money for the transition or inauguration. With Emanuel inheriting a budget running hundreds of millions of dollars in the red, asking departing Mayor Richard Daley to pay for either was a non-starter.

"So Emanuel went to the foundations. For the various interest groups and individuals giving political cash to Emanuel’s three funds, the hope is access to the new mayor and his administration."

Item: "While noting that there will be  ‘free, open and accessible’ events around the ceremony, our writers took him to task for being the first Chicago mayor to charge a fee of any sort for his inaugural.

"The Emanuel team says that money will pay for the event and save the taxpayers."


A lot has been made, especially in the wake of Citizens United, about the corporate financing of politics towards clearly ideological ends. But reading up on Jean-Claude Brizard’s appointment to run the Chicago Public Schools, I was reminded of something that seems to be increasing, though I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility it’s just something I only started really noticing: the influence of well-funded non-profits, supported by the wealthy and well-connected, with non-ideological goals (or opaquely ideological, if you’re the suspicious type). Particularly in the area of public schooling.

For instance, the aforementioned Chicago Public Education Fund: "The Fund’s board of directors reads like a who’s who of Chicagoans. Chairman Timothy Schwertfeger is head of Nuveen Investments, a 108-year-old firm managing $119 billion in assets. The Fund’s other vice-chair is Bruce Rauner of GTCR Rauner, a $6 billion private equity and venture capital firm. Other directors among the 27 on the board include Scott C. Smith, the founding chairman of The Fund and president of Tribune Publishing." (Philanthropy Roundtable, 2007)

Rahm Emanuel represented Rauner’s company in one of his biggest deals during his short stint in investment banking. Rauner’s wife is on Emanuel’s education transition team; a former investment banker herself, she now runs the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which does advocacy for early childhood education. Bruce Rauner is also on the board of the Renaissance Schools Fund, whose president praised the selection of Brizard, as is Schwertfeger.

The secretary of the Renaissance Schools Fund is Harrison Steans, president and CEO of the Steans Family Foundation… and you may recognize Steans Family Foundation trustee Robin Steans as the director of Advance Illinois, one of the school-reform groups responsible for the amendment to Senate Bill 7 that would change the length of the school day and modify provisions about strikes and collective bargaining. Advance Illinois receives backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (major backers of Renaissance 2010), which has teamed with the Broad Foundations in public school philanthropy; the latter founded the superintendents academy that Brizard graduated from.

That Philanthropy Roundtable piece mentions that the Joyce Foundation was one of the early large backers of the CPEF, and director Ellen Alberding is also on Emanuel’s transition team; the Joyce also supports Advance Illinois, and was one of the organizations Emanuel’s team went to for the inauguration.

The occupation of the wealthy with education in America goes way back. I went to not one but two colleges that were built around the beginning of the 20th century with the money of wealthy industrialists, Lucien L. Nunn and John Rockefeller.

But that’s private education. The intense involvement of wealthy philanthropists in public education, particularly in big city schools, seems to be a fairly recent development; at least it seems to have increased in breadth and depth during my lifetime. And Chicago is hardly alone; a 2005 New York Times piece noted the rise of philanthropic attention to that city’s public schools during the Bloomberg era.

And there’s tension about it; educational historian Diane Ravitch calls the three big public-education-focused philanthropic organizations (Gates, Broad, and Walton) the Billionaire Boys’ Club, and urges caution: "Removing public oversight will leave the education of our children to the whim of entrepreneurs and financiers." Joanne Barkan, in a critical piece, calls them the Big Three.


Though it might seem minor by comparison, I included above the skepticism about the big-donation-funded mayoral inaugural (skepticism from the press at least; I don’t know how the public at large feels) since I think they’re related. While there’s a natural disinclination to look a gift horse in the mouth, even for a free party featuring the city’s biggest musical export by certified units sold–sorry, Kanye, you have a long way to go–the increasing reliance of public institutions on private generosity comes at an awkward time: one of increasing disparity between the very rich and everyone else.

Not to mention declining tax revenues in the wake of the housing bubble. Philanthropic influence over public institutions is increasing as budgets are stretched.

It’s a difficult question. Many of the educational institutions that made the country what it is came from the pockets of the titans of industry from the last end of a century, like the Carnegie libraries (nor have the wealthy gotten out of the public library business). As I mentioned, I attended a couple of them myself. But public institutions are inevitably collective, and to have them be reliant on the the attention of the very rich, even with the best of intentions, feels a bit… well, I guess it’s what being a charity case feels like.

Yesterday, Eric Zorn wrote that the "inauguration cum coronation seems to be provoking more despair and resignation among Chicagoans than enthusiasm."* If that’s indeed the case, I can’t help but wonder if it’s reflective of broader economic tensions: a party the city can’t afford, paid for by private organizations that can.

* I would kill to poll that: "How do you feel about Rahm Emanuel’s inaugural? Press 1 for enthusiasm, 2 for resignation, or 3 for despair."