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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Chicago School Fight

Chicago mayoral candidate Chuy Garcia claims in a new ad that Mayor Rahm Emanuel “took” money from closed public schools and “gave” it to “elite private schools.” Those “private schools,” in fact, are publicly funded charter schools — open to all students tuition-free.

Emanuel and Garcia will face off in an April 7 runoff for mayor of Chicago, after no candidate gained a majority of votes in the Feb. 24 election. Emanuel, who served as the first White House chief of staff to President Obama before resigning in 2010 to run for mayor, has made the expansion of charter schools a priority of his administration. By contrast, Garcia’s campaign website states that the candidate will place “a moratorium on further charter schools” if elected.

In an ad released on March 18, Garcia stands in front of a closed school and states that the mayor “took the money from these schools and gave it to elite private schools founded by his big campaign contributors.”

Garcia has a point about Emanuel’s campaign contributors – which we will get to later – but the schools he criticizes are not “elite private schools.” Although not explained in the TV ad, Garcia’s campaign makes clear in a press release that the candidate is talking about charter schools.

And charter schools, although run by private, nonprofit organizations, are public schools.

A charter school, as detailed in the Illinois School Code, “shall be a public, nonsectarian, nonreligious, non-home based, and non-profit school.” Chicago’s public school district, Chicago Public Schools, describes charter schools as “[p]ublic schools open to all Chicago children.” The first charter schools law passed in Illinois, in 1996, stated that “authorizing charter schools to operate in Illinois will promote new options within the public school system.” Furthermore, the Chicago Tribune writes that charter schools “are approved by the Board of Education but operate independently from the board and each other.”

So while Garcia’s reference to “elite private schools” conjures images of pricey, exclusive prep schools, he’s actually talking about publicly funded charter schools that are open to all students tuition-free. If a school receives more applicants than it has spaces, a “random lottery” is used to determine which students are accepted.

Garcia has every right to his opinion about Emanuel’s policy of seeking to expand the number of charter schools in the city. His assertion that Emanuel is “privatizing our public schools” echoes charter school critics who argue, as the Washington Post put it, that “charters amount to a privatization of public schools because they are run by organizations that don’t answer to the public and in some states aren’t subject to key rules that apply to government agencies, such as open meetings and public records laws.”

In December 2012,  the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a nonprofit operator of a Chicago charter school is a ” ‘private entity’ and therefore covered under the federal law governing the private sector,” as Chicago’s WBEZ reported.

Nonetheless, charter schools in Chicago must be approved by the Chicago School Board, which can pull a school’s charter if it is deemed to be underperforming.

It’s also worth noting that charter schools, though publicly funded, receive less funds on average than their non-charter public school counterparts. The Illinois State Charter School Funding Task Force, an independent state agency established in 2011, said that “on average, charter schools receive 78.3% of the funds that their district counterparts receive. This disparity amounted to approximately $1800 less per pupil in the charter schools.”

Charter School Funding

The ad also implies that Emanuel, as mayor, played a direct role in allocating funds away from traditional public schools and to charter schools. The ad starts with Garcia standing in front of a shuttered school, saying “the mayor shut it down.” He goes on to say that Emanuel “took” money from the closed schools and “gave” it to “elite private schools.”

The mayor of Chicago does play a larger role in education compared with mayors in other cities, but Emanuel does not have direct control over the schools or funding.

The Chicago Board of Education is appointed by the mayor, unlike 98 percent of school boards nationwide and all other school boards in Illinois, as explained in a February 2015 report from the University of Illinois at Chicago. The wave of school closings that Garcia cites occurred in May 2013, when the board voted to close nearly 50 public schools.

Later that year the Chicago Public Schools issued a request for proposal for new charter schools, eventually leading to the opening of 31 new charter schools. 

However, individual school districts in Illinois, such as Chicago Public Schools, receive funding from the state — not the mayor’s office — based on the “general state aid formula,” which allocates funds using “three separate calculations, depending on the amount of property wealth of the local school district.”

In 2014, Chicago Public Schools implemented a new funding formula called Student Based Budgeting, which is “a unified funding formula that applies to both district and charter/contract schools.” In other words, funding for charter schools, like all public schools, is based on standardized calculations set by the Illinois State Board of Education and the school board. Charters are also entitled to start-up costs calculated on a per-pupil basis. A spokesman for Chicago Public Schools told us in an email that Garcia’s “suggestion that funds are somehow ‘diverted’ to charter schools and away from other schools is completely false, since the funds follow the students.”

So, Garcia’s claim that Emanuel personally “took” and “gave” money to individual schools exaggerates the authority of the mayor, even if Chicago’s mayor has more control over the school board than do most other mayors.

Finally, the ad claims that the “elite private schools” that Emanuel supports were “founded by his big campaign contributors.” We couldn’t determine whether any founders of charter schools had contributed to Emanuel’s campaign — and the Garcia campaign didn’t respond to our questions on this topic. However, there is no question that some of Emanuel’s campaign contributors have given large amounts of money to charter schools.

Philanthropists Gary Brinson and Patricia Crown have provided grants to Chicago charter schools through their foundations, Crown Family Philanthropies and the Brinson Foundation. Brinson and Crown contributed $55,300 and $50,000, respectively, to Emanuel’s two mayoral campaigns, according to the state campaign finance website. That does not include contributions from family members. For example, others with the last name “Crown” who list the same address as Patricia Crown contributed $200,900 to Emanuel’s mayoral campaigns.

However, in its backup for the ad, the Garcia campaign goes too far when it claims that supporters “of the private charter school industry have financed Rahm Emanuel’s campaign to the tune of more than $700,000.” In an attachment titled “School Privatization Advocates for Rahm,” the campaign says its $700,000 contribution figure consists of “campaign contributions from charter school supporters, companies that fund charter schools, and those companies’ employees.”

In other words, because an individual like Harvey Medvin, former chief financial officer of Aon Corp., now sits on the board of directors for the Noble Network of Charter Schools, Garcia’s campaign included 30 Aon employees in its list of charter school industry supporters. But here’s the rub: Not one of the 30 Aon employees “founded” or “operated” a charter school, and there is no record of Medvin contributing to Emanuel’s campaign.

Garcia would be correct if his ad claimed that the Chicago Board of Education, appointed by Emanuel, voted to close nearly 50 public schools. And he would be accurate if he said in the ad that some of Emanuel’s biggest contributors are charter school advocates who have helped fund Chicago’s charter schools. But he’s wrong to characterize charter schools as “elite private schools,” and he exaggerates by claiming Emanuel “took” money from public schools and “gave” money to “elite private schools.”

— Alexander Nacht