March 13, 2001

Chicago Public Education Fund Invests in Schools

CHICAGO—As Chicago Public Schools officials laud the four years worth of progress ever since school reform set out to save the system in 1995, a group of powerful business leaders plan to improve results through what they describe as a venture capital investment in city schools.

The good news in Chicago schools are reports of rising student test scores, including better college entrance exam scores, higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates and improved school security.

The bad news, as leaders of the new Chicago Public Education Fund see it, lies in reports about underperforming students, indifferent teachers and inept administrators.

The solution, Fund President, Janet Knupp told the Chicago Defender Editorial Board last Friday, is seed money, or venture capital investment, in the school system.

Fund leaders hope contributions to Chicago schools will pay off in the form of results that are commensurate with returns that owners of millions of dollars in private money collect when venture capital investments in new ideas pay off.

“For whatever reason, I don’t see the interest, the investment, the concern of the business community,” in Chicago schools, Defender Publisher Eugene Scott told Knupp and other Fund leaders Friday.

Timothy Schwertfeger, Chairman and CEO of Nuveen Investments, Inc., said the Fund’s purpose is to address that very issue by leading the way with money, by offering management advice, and by attracting better school principals to the system.

“We want to improve school leadership and leverage performance and attract truly great teachers,” he said.

“We are hoping to build a management process for school principals to work to achieve their mission and engage the entire community. Our service is intended to be a vehicle to bring everyone to the table, to effect a cultural change that transcends what we are doing in the Fund and to rally people to their city,” he said.

Like all good revolutions, the one hoped for by Fund leaders brings rousing slogans to the cause. “Better school’s are everybody’s business,” Knupp told Scott, echoing Fund board member Martin Koldyke’s catchphrase, “to take the very best ideas on a scale that will impact Chicago public schools.”

Koldyke, chairman of Frontenac Co., a venture capital company, said the Fund’s main idea is not to aim money at highly risky, untried ideas in the hope of lucrative returns, the typical way people understand the definition of venture capital investments. It’s finding “talented people to run the schools,” he said in a statement, although, he added, “We have to follow the money in a true venture capital tradition.”

Schools chief Paul Vallas supports the venture capital idea.“Continuing to improve school leadership is vital if we hope to build on the CPS’s track record of progress. I welcome the Chicago Public Education Fund as a partner in helping us get the best and brightest principals leading our schools,” he said.

Fund leaders stressed they intend to partner with Vallas and the school system as the school board uses the Fund’s private money to “seed the future and grow success exponentially.”

Officials at the Fund point to a 30 percent resignation rate among new teachers in their first five years and an anticipated 80,000-teacher shortage by 2010. They say the shortage will, of all Illinois school districts, hit Chicago’s hardest, and they say the city will need 250 new principals over five years and 2000 new teachers a year for an indefinite number of years ahead.

It will also need more private money, like the $10 million the Fund promised to the school board.

“The system is kind of like an elephant, big and unwieldy, and it collapsed 20 years ago,” said Fund board member Leon Jackson, Multi-Fac Corp. president.

“But the lack of money is only part of the problem. The system is too politicized, and nobody’s running it. We discovered a whole cadre of people who weren’t educated 20 years ago, and we’re trying to dig it out of that hole,” he told the Defender editorial board.

“Where is the business community?” Schwertfeger asked Scott rhetorically.

“Three or four years ago the business community began a dialogue, saying “How do we connect?” The Fund will be that connecting vehicle and be that process. We are trying to accomplish with the Fund creation of a management perspective and get a commitment of the business community to our goals,” he said.

Said Scott, “I think that’s great. We see education as a relatively simple process, one that trains and educates the student, whether college-bound or not, to support the ideals of his or her community. I don’t see how any business corporation couldn’t support the nation’s and city’s educational system.”

Scott’s summation reflected school board President Gery Chico’s view that the Fund’s role is, in Chico’s words, extremely critical to school reform.

“We want there to be independence. We want them to make their own assessment of what works and what doesn’t work. It’s healthy for our system,” he said of Fund leaders. “Chicago Public Education Fund invests in schools.”