All in the political family

The Rauners might have parted ways with the IPI and Dan Proft, but they all continue to spread lies for political gain

(U.S. National Guard)

(U.S. National Guard)

By Ted Cox

In late April, a media outlet calling itself the Chicago City Wire ran a story about apparent malfeasance at Chicago Public Schools. According to the story, a well-to-do selective-enrollment high school — universally acknowledged as one of the best in the state — had used $100,000 in taxpayer funds to send students on foreign trips, even as the district was crying that it was cash-poor in negotiations for a new state education funding formula.

It’s a damning story, charging that CPS was misspending the money it was getting from the state through taxes while asking for still more.

One problem though: it wasn’t true. And even the slightest attempt to accurately report the story would have laid bare just how false it was.

The story concerned Walter Payton College Prep on Chicago’s North Side. Not coincidentally, Payton was just named the top high school in the state by U.S. News & World Report.

According to the story, however: “Records obtained by Chicago City Wire show that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) spent nearly $100,000 for student and teacher trips to the United Kingdom, Italy, South Africa and Costa Rica last year, as district leaders were asking Illinoisans to pay more in taxes to bail out the insolvent, debt-ridden district.

“The payments, totaling $95,224 to Chicago-based travel agency Exotic Journeys Group, covered the travel expenses of teachers and students at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, 1034 N. Wells St.”

The linked evidence consisted of receipts, “obtained by Chicago City Wire,” showing payments made by CPS to the travel agency for a series of school trips to the aforementioned countries. The reporter, cited on the byline as W.J. Kennedy, plucked the name of a Payton biology teacher off one of those forms, and noted that the teacher “did not respond to a request for comment, including whether students had paid for the trips themselves.”

Never mind that a teacher might not bother to respond to any of the Local Government Information Service newspapers or other news outlets well known for spreading fake news and right-wing propaganda.

That’s right, let’s start connecting the dots by pointing out that Chicago City Wire is one of the media outlets run by Dan Proft, a former candidate for governor himself and a longtime political ally of Gov. Bruce Rauner who more recently has abandoned him for not staying in lockstep on conservative principles. For years they’ve demonized CPS and characterized the schools as broken and the teachers as overpaid, suggesting that education spending is inherently corrupt while pitting CPS against other school districts statewide.

But for the moment let’s get back to the truth.

There’s a well-known journalist credo: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” So we simply picked up the phone and called Payton Principal Timothy Devine.

According to Devine, “100 percent of these funds come from families and student fundraising.” As any reasonable reader might have already expected, not a penny comes out of tax coffers. But the funds are amassed by CPS in separate accounts earmarked by school, trip, and country to be visited.

“Checks are cut,” Devine said. “So it looks like the funds come from CPS, but the funds come not at all from taxpayers.”

The political explanation for the reporting snafu comes at the end of the story, where it states: “State taxpayers have historically subsidized CPS heavily, more than all but the poorest south and west suburban school districts.”

So there’s another connected dot. CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union have made convenient whipping boys for Rauner, Proft, the Illinois Policy Institute, and other anti-tax conservatives for years. According to legitimate news sources, Rauner’s wife, Diana, played a key role in replacing senior members of his staff with IPI officials last summer. That alliance went south when the strident new staffers defended a racist IPI cartoon on CPS education funding with a statement saying, “The governor — as a white male — does not have anything more to add to the discussion.” Those staffers were soon shown the door, leading to the schism between Rauner and conservatives like the IPI and Proft. But they continue to work in tandem in attacks on CPS. For them, anything involving either Chicago or taxes is bad, and when those two subjects are combined it’s far worse.



IPI spokeswoman Melanie Krakauer called it "inaccurate" to connect the institute to Rauner. "The Illinois Policy Institute does not support politicians or work in tandem with them on policy campaigns," she said. "We work on behalf of Illinois taxpayers." She pointed out the IPI hasn't written about CPS since January, adding, "To lump the institute in with the Chicago City Wire or Gov. Rauner on a CPS attack is false and must be addressed immediately."

But, at the same time, there's little debate that they're basically pulling in the same direction on taxes, even or perhaps especially when used for public education.

This is nothing new. For one thing, Rauner was one of the primary early funders of IPI. In 2012, while warming up his campaign for governor, Rauner spoke of using unionized state workers in general and teachers in particular to “drive a wedge issue in the Democratic Party.” He particularly targeted “the weak teachers, it’s the lousy, ineffective, lazy teachers, and unfortunately there are a fair number of those ... that the union is protecting.” As a candidate, in 2014, he prepared Illinoisans for a crisis, saying he was out to “do what Ronald Reagan did with the air-traffic controllers.” Once in office, he pledged overtly that he’d bring on that fiscal crisis and use it as “leverage,” saying, “Crisis creates opportunity. Crisis creates leverage to change … and we've got to use that leverage of the crisis to force structural change.”

The following year, he compared Chicago schools to “crumbling prisons,” adding, “They're not a place a young person should be educated.” He suggested CTU had “dictatorial powers,” adding, "The power of the teachers union has been overwhelming. Chicago has given and given and given. It’s created a financial crisis that the Chicago schools face now.” He vetoed last year’s initial bipartisan bid to change the state’s school funding formula by labeling it a “Chicago bailout.”

 So, to bring things full circle, return to that lead paragraph of the Chicago City Wire story and notice how it mentions that money was being diverted for student trips “as district leaders were asking Illinoisans to pay more in taxes to bail out the insolvent, debt-ridden district.”

Rauner might have parted political company with the IPI/Proft faction, but they’re still tugging on the same side of the rope against taxes and their chosen bogeymen, CPS and CTU. And, as One Illinois has previously reported, Rauner’s veto of the new school funding formula last year didn’t just hurt Chicago schools. It hurt districts across the state in need of additional revenue regardless of whether they were poor white, black, or brown communities.

Understand, this is and has been an orchestrated effort to cause misery for public-school students, their parents, and their teachers in order to further Rauner’s anti-tax “turnaround agenda.” And it’s not just in the field of education and higher education. Rauner has brought chaos to child care, home health care, and any number of state agencies, usually in the areas of what’s typically labeled the “social safety net.”

Every action seems coordinated around a divisive political agenda, with Diana Rauner apparently leading the way by sending an estimated 3,000 emails to state employees. The question is, who did the Rauners target to suffer and why?

In the weeks ahead, we intend to show how this was intended to wreak havoc in order to advance Rauner’s political agenda and just who the Rauners made scapegoats.

Returning to the Chicago City Wire article in question, what we found particularly distasteful was the thinly veiled suggestion throughout that these students were off on taxpayer-funded larks across Europe and Central America.

“We talk about global education in our classrooms quite regularly,” Devine said. “But it’s a totally different thing to have students actually experience different cultures and histories and collaborate with peers overseas.

“The vast majority of our trips are exchange trips,” he added, “where our students go stay with a family abroad and then that family’s child comes and stays with a Payton student here in Chicago. It’s a wonderfully enriching, mind-expanding, eye-opening world view.”

You know what? That actually sounds like an opportunity the state, if it had adequate funding, should offer every student in high school, regardless of whether the family can pony up the money to pay for it.

“Oh to dream,” Devine said. “We’re far, far, far from that reality."