New force in Illinois quickly pushes state toward school reform
— A West Coast group has emerged as a new force in Illinois politics, helping push through major education reforms aimed at ensuring kids have strong teachers.
In short order, Stand for Children tapped into a network of the city's rich and powerful — including billionaires with names like Pritzker, Crown and Zell — to raise millions of dollars. The stockpile of money is geared toward influencing elections and paying an all-star lineup of lobbyists across the political spectrum to prod lawmakers to act on issues that previously failed or were thought to be undoable.
Now the changes, blessed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, are poised to become law Monday at a bill-signing ceremony held by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. The measure will allow Chicago to lengthen its school days, lessen the chance of a Chicago teachers strike and make it easier to fire bad teachers.
Stand for Children was "kind of an instigator, a catalyst, you might say," said departing State Board of Education Chairman Jesse Ruiz, who is leaving to be vice president of Emanuel's new Chicago school board.
The story of how the Portland, Ore., organization landed in Illinois and made such a quick impact starts with Jonah Edelman, the scion of Washington insiders who comes with his own track record of success in overhauling school rules in other states.
The group's work in Colorado attracted the attention of Bruce Rauner, a wealthy Chicago venture capitalist who backs school reform. Rauner has strong ties to Emanuel and former Mayor Richard Daley.
Edelman has generated a trail of praise, scorn and perhaps grudging acknowledgment from unions that his invasion of a state means he plans to make a mark. "We go into states for the long term," Edelman said.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis offers a different assessment, calling Stand for Children's record "pretty much union-busting."
Race to raise cash
As Edelman focused on Illinois last fall, he saw an opportunity. A new state law set to take effect Jan. 1 would for the first time limit the size of political donations, but the window was closing fast.
"I didn't need a rocket scientist," Edelman said.
He shook the money tree.
The people who quickly poured big bucks into Stand for Children's campaign kitty include a Chicago-centric crew of philanthropists whose interests in improving education coincide with a willingness to write big checks.
Several of them served on the board of the Chicago Public Education Fund, which backs charter schools and higher standards for teachers and principals.
Businesswoman Penny Pritzker, who was President Barack Obama's national finance chair in 2008, gave Stand for Children $50,000, part of the $300,000 the well-known family donated Dec. 29. She's the education fund's former chair who is now on Emanuel's school board.
Brian Simmons, a partner in the private equity firm of Code Hennessy & Simmons, donated $100,000 on Dec. 30.
"My charitable priorities are compatible with what Stand for Children is trying to achieve, better outcomes for students," Simmons said.
The Crown family threw in $500,000 by year's end, an amount matched by Kenneth Griffin, founder and CEO of Citadel Group.
And Sam Zell, chairman of Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune and other media properties, gave $100,000 on Dec. 20.
In fewer than 100 days, Stand for Children raked in about $3.5 million.
The group didn't spent it all, and it's now sitting on about $2.9 million, a significant sum now that the biggest check an individual can write a political action committee is $10,000.
Edelman acknowledged the stockpile is helpful for the future and can be used to protect legislators who back the group's reforms.
Stand for Children got into the Illinois political game ahead of last November's election, spreading more than $600,000 around on seven House and two Senate contests.
It targeted Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, with a $100,000 contribution.
"I was in a race," said Hutchinson, a mother of three children in public schools. "My job was to neutralize my opponent and make sure that that money didn't go to my opponent. ... They decided to endorse me. Thank God. Thank God."
Hutchinson won. A few weeks later, Edelman invited her downtown for a kind of tea summit. He needed an introduction to Hutchinson's friend, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, an assistant majority leader who would emerge as the lead negotiator on education reform issues this spring.
Also there was William Filan, a leading lobbyist who once served as a top staffer to powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.
Edelman and Lightford did most of the talking. "It wasn't all sweetness and light," Hutchinson said.
Lightford said she thought Stand for Children was looking at Illinois as "just the next trophy."
She found it "offensive" that Edelman began pressing for far-reaching school reforms only weeks after the fall election. From her experience, major changes should be the product of careful negotiations with teacher unions, longtime reformers, school management officials, advocates and lawmakers.
Sit-down with speaker
A little more than a week after the tea summit, Edelman got an audience with Madigan in his Capitol office. He brought along Filan and a second lobbyist, Tom Cullen, another former Madigan staffer. Edelman said he laid out the reforms in broad strokes.
"I asked him whether he was supportive, and what questions he had," Edelman recalled. "And he indicated, just as he had several months earlier, that he was totally supportive of the educational changes that we were proposing. … Then the following day, very much to his credit, he followed through."
Madigan rolled out the Special Committee on Education Reform with four House members from each party.
What stood out even more were two of Madigan's picks: Democratic Reps. Keith Farnham of Elgin and Jehan Gordon of Peoria. Stand for Children had given Farnham $50,000 and Gordon $100,000 during the campaign. Teacher unions had given Farnham no money and Gordon $1,000.
Springfield is a town where subtle legislative maneuvers are extended dinner-conversation fodder. Madigan's appointments signaled an openness to letting education reform play out.
The speaker long has been critical of teacher unions and pushed for more emphasis on students in the classroom. Politically, the unions have shown a willingness to contribute less to legislative leaders like Madigan and more directly to candidates. Stand for Children's ability to raise cash and spend it has the potential to counteract the power that goes with teacher union spending.
The group's other chief tactic was to collect lobbyists. It signed up more than a dozen, including some with ties to legislative leaders and former lawmakers who served in the black and Hispanic caucuses.
The pitch lobbyists gave was multilayered: Layoffs were happening all over the state. Schools are under immense financial pressure. It makes sense to keep the best teachers. The reforms won't cost much. Illinois has one of the nation's worst achievement gaps between whites and minorities.
Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said the presence of so many lobbyists and the group's ability to raise cash send a message.
"They were making a clear statement that, 'If you were not willing to stand with the children, they would find somebody who would,'" Raoul said.
Cutting the deal
The legislative sausage-making commenced. Lightford, the senator from Maywood, took over negotiations.
Stand for Children had as its teammate Advance Illinois, a well-established education reform advocacy group. The Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers were on the other side of talks.
Compromises were key.
Stand for Children wanted new layoff guidelines that stressed performance over seniority to take effect immediately statewide. Instead, they would be phased in over two years as union contracts across Illinois expire.
Advocates secured Emanuel's opportunity to lengthen the school day and the school year. Unions could bargain for a better deal in return, but they won't be able to strike over that issue.
Reform groups wanted strikes in only the rarest of circumstances, following several mediation-style steps. They also wanted to give school boards the power to avoid strikes by passing a new teacher contract with a two-thirds vote. Unions opposed. The solution for Chicago is that it'll take 75 percent of the union's eligible voters to OK a strike.
Up in Wisconsin, a Republican move against organized labor led to protests that are still going on. In Illinois, the contentious issue of education reform ended up bloodless — and with near-unanimous support.
The Senate passed the bill 54-0 on April 15. The House approved it 112-1 on May 12.
On Monday, Quinn is scheduled to sign it at a school in Maywood, Lightford's hometown.
"On this particular issue, this is why I'm here," Lightford said. "This is what I love. This is my purpose."
Tribune reporter Todd Wilson contributed.