Byrd-Bennett Arrest, The Perils Of Privatization

<p>So much of public education is now run by private firms, and so much money is in play, it’s perhaps not surprising that a public official succumbed to greed.</p>

After pleading guilty Tuesday to a scheme in which she accepted kickbacks in exchange for hiring a principal training firm called SUPES LLC, disgraced former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett stepped in front of the cameras in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse and quietly, through tears, apologized.

"To the children of Chicago schools and the incredible educators, I am terribly sorry," Byrd-Bennett said. "They deserve more . . . much more than I gave them."

Her comments were sad and remarkable. She later released a written statement that said she "devoted" her "entire professional life to public education."

The U.S. attorney’s office announced last week that Byrd-Bennett had been charged with 20 counts of mail fraud and wire fraud related to the SUPES scheme. Under Byrd-Bennett’s plea agreement, in exchange for admitting wrongdoing all but one count was dropped. She still stands to receive a hefty prison term – prosecutors are recommending seven and a half years – though she won’t be formally sentenced until the cases of her co-defendants, SUPES owners Gary Solomon and Tom Vranas, are resolved.
 
Since Byrd-Bennett’s indictment was announced Thursday many have speculated as to how a woman with an arguably distinguished career could take such a turn. But others think the answer is simple: The increasing presence of private money in public education – and the fierce competition to get at that money – made such a scenario almost inevitable.
 
Public schools have long outsourced certain services, covering, for instance, transportation and meals. These days, however, numerous jobs are handled by companies, from custodians and nurses and recess monitors. Even instruction is sometimes out-sourced, often through computers via education software.


Not to mention that currently more than a fifth of Chicago’s public schools are run entirely by private entities in the form of charter schools or contract schools. Under state law, schools can only be run by not-for-profits. Yet under Byrd-Bennett, CPS officials devised a way to have for-profit companies run schools by technically making them contractors nestled in a CPS department.

CPS isn’t alone. Private companies are all over education.

Under U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s "School Improvement Grants," the $3.5 billion initiative to improve the nation’s bottom 5 percent of schools, among the ways to qualify for funding: Work with outside companies or organizations.


Related Article: Education Reporter Raised Questions About CPS Chief Two Years Ago


One of the outgrowths of so much public education money available to private companies is that entrepreneurs whose expertise is more in sales or making money are getting in the business of education. Solomon was a disgraced dean of students in a suburban high school district who had spent the last decade being a salesman. Vranas previously started a wireless Internet company and a venture capital firm, according to his biography. Why would CPS or any of the dozens of school districts who had contracts with SUPES or related companies choose to work with these guys?

These companies often promise solutions to a host of problems. Between all of Solomon’s and Vranas’ companies, school districts could get help training leaders, hiring them and theoretically improving schools.

In her statement on Monday, Byrd-Bennett said, "there is nobody to blame but me."

That is true.

But in this atmosphere with so much public education money flying around – and businesses climbing over each other to get that cash – it is easy to see how someone could for a moment put their hands out, stuff some of the green in their pocket and hope that it was not seen.

This blog post was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Sarah Karp, who can be reached at skarp@bettergov.org or (312) 525-3483.

Main photo of Ex-CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett courtesy of the Sun-Times.