Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), seems to be on the way out, pending the outcome of a federal investigation of a 2013 no-bid contract by which she and the mayoral-appointed Chicago school board hired a consultant, the SUPES Academy, to train principals and other school administrators in Chicago. Beginning today, Byrd-Bennett will be taking a paid leave-of-absence. Jesse Ruiz, the appointed school board’s vice president and an attorney, is taking over as interim-CEO. The Chicago Tribune reports: “In 2013, according to CPS records, the district approved a ‘leadership development services’ agreement with SUPES for up to $20.5 million that extended through 2016. District records also show SUPES was hired on a ‘non-competitive basis’ to train school network chiefs and principals.” The school board president says SUPES “had a unique ‘mentor-coach’ component… that was lacking in programs offered by other firms.” Barbara Byrd-Bennett worked as a consultant for SUPES before she was appointed CEO of the school district.
A conflict of interest. A no-bid contract. Not anything too unusual for Chicago, right? There are, however several broader issues that ought to be considered.
The first is political. How come all this was kept under wraps until after the mayoral run-off election only two weeks ago? Catalyst Chicago reports that Carlos Azcoitia, a member of the Chicago school board, “says he didn’t know about Byrd-Bennett’s leave until a few minutes before it became public” last week. And Mayor Rahm Emmanuel “has said that he did not know of the investigation into Byrd-Bennett until she told him about it Wednesday during a luncheon….” But it isn’t as though the allegations were new. Catalyst reported last week that a grand jury has been investigating the no-bid contract, and a federal investigation is already well under way, with subpoenas issued to two of Byrd-Bennett’s assistants, requesting them to appear on April 21.
Sarah Karp brought the no-bid contract to light on July 30, 2013 in an in-depth report for Catalyst Chicago. “Without fanfare, CPS board members recently approved a three-year, no-bid $20 million contract to provide extensive professional development for principals and network chiefs in what is being dubbed the Chicago Leadership Academy. The size and the circumstances surrounding the contract have raised eyebrows among some outside observers. The contract with Wilmette-based Supes Academy is by far the largest no-bid contract awarded in at least the past three years… In addition, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett worked for the company as a coach up until the time she came on board at CPS as a consultant… In a city that is home to major universities and non-profit organizations that train and support principals, the for-profit Supes Academy got the contract without competition.”
Karp followed up in December of 2013, once the training sessions provided by SUPES for Chicago’s principals had begun: “But almost from the start, principals grumbled that the training was too elementary and a waste of their time. Heeding the criticism, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett now says principals can opt out if they don’t want to attend, has formed a committee to offer suggestions on how to make the training better and hired one of her former colleagues from Cleveland to oversee the training.” In her December 2013 report, Karp investigated the individual mentoring in which SUPES Academy was supposed to specialize. “In addition to the workshops, each principal is supposed to receive one-on-one coaching. The coaches receive several thousand dollars for each principal they coach, yet according to coaching logs obtained by Catalyst, two-thirds of the contacts were only by email. One principal told Catalyst that some email conversations are only brief check-ins. Another principal reported that her coach heads a charter school in a small town and his experiences are foreign to her, since she leads an elementary school in a poor, rough neighborhood.”
A much larger question is about the explosive growth in the number of private consulting firms that have sprung up across the states to assist with the prescribed turnarounds under the No Child Left Behind Act and to provide grant writing for and implementation of Arne Duncan’s competitive grant programs under Title I. In a 2012 report, the National Education Policy Center explained, “As evidence mounted against the effectiveness of NCLB corrective actions intended to stimulate improvement, ‘turnaround specialists’ cropped up across the country to meet the demands on schools, districts, and states to swiftly demonstrate test-based effectiveness. ‘Turnaround specialists,’ a term borrowed from the business world, are external assistance providers, private management companies, and principals who claim to specialize in improvement strategies that spur intense test gains. Yet the evidence behind those claims is weak, and their uneven results are beginning to be documented by the media.”
And while not all of the schools whose principals SUPES assisted were using federal School Improvement Grant funds to pay the consultant, a culture of consultants is known to have grown up around the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants (SIG), and Innovation Grant competitions into which the U.S. Department of Education has been diverting funds out of the Title I Formula. A serious problem with the money granted to school districts through the competitions has been that it is one-time money that must be used for a finite project or school turnaround. Such finite grants—without an ongoing funding stream—cannot be used for normal school operating improvements such as hiring more teachers or extra school social workers or more counselors. And such dollars won’t really work to launch something like an imaginative elementary and middle school instrumental music program that could, over several years create the skill level to launch or improve a high school band or orchestra. Deep and long lasting academic investments must be sustained over the years with an ongoing funding stream. The federal grants have been money almost designed to be spent on consultants. But no adequate accountability has been created to ensure that tax dollars spent on consultants have been invested wisely.
Back in 2012, before Chicago got itself involved in a no-bid contract with SUPES Academy, the Hechinger Report, in collaboration with Education Week and the Education Writers Association launched an investigation called Turnaround Watch. Here is what Education Week reporter Alyson Klein wrote, specifically in the context of the School Improvement Grant program: “Faced with the technical and logistical challenges of putting $3 billion in SIG money to use on a tight deadline, states have enlisted an array of consultants, including for-profit companies, nonprofit turnaround specialists and postsecondary institutions. But tracking that cash—and determining whether schools have gotten their money’s worth—remains daunting. The federal government does not tally how private educational consultants have benefited from the turnaround windfall, nor do most states…. In Colorado—one of the few states willing to do such a tally—consultants took home $9.4 million, or 35 percent of the state’s $26.6 million in SIG money in the past two years. That’s paid for instructional coaches for teachers, leadership coaches for principals, analysts to pore over student data, and pricey professional-development seminars on changing school culture. Even some contractors who offer services to SIG school have raised alarm bells about the lack of accountability for outside groups.”