Pro-Charter Group Spends Big In Chicago Election | WBEZ
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Pro-Charter Group Pumps Big Money In Chicago Aldermanic Race

A pro-charter school super PAC is throwing big money into Chicago’s municipal election, dramatically increasing what it spent four years ago. 

The Action Independent Committee of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools spent less than $30,000 on materials supporting only two aldermanic campaigns in 2015. This year, that spending has jumped to more than $800,000 for nine candidates.

“Our board made the decision to get much more active to support candidates who put student access to great schools ahead of politics,” said Andrew Broy, chairman of INCS Action Independent Committee.

The school system has clamped down on the number of new charter schools in recent years as opposition to charters has grown and the school system’s student population has declined. Chicago’s 121 charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. Critics argue they take money away from traditional schools.

Both mayoral candidates Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot have said if elected, they’d put a freeze on new charter schools in the city. In response, INCS channeled its funds to nine aldermanic runoff races.

“With the mayor leaving, the city council will have a stronger hand in the future,” Broy said. “So making sure we have supportive aldermen in key positions is very important to us.” 

The spending is focused more heavily in some wards, like the 40th Ward on the Northwest Side. The super PAC has spent more than $80,000 in direct mail and “persuasion” calls supporting incumbent Ald. Pat O’Connor and opposing political newcomer Andre Vasquez. 

The group spent $60,000 on a television ad against incumbent Ald. Milly Santiago of the 31st Ward. It spent about $8,500 supporting her opponent, Felix Cardona.

“Aldermen have all sorts of decision-making authority over school expansion in places [and in], zoning decisions,” Broy said. “So [we’re] making sure we have aldermen who want to look at the merits of the case and focus on great schools.” 

Broy said the major contributions at the municipal level will likely continue. He said the group also has about 100 people, most charter alumni or charter parents, out canvasing the neighborhoods ahead of the April 2 runoff.

Bob Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said it’s not new to see educational interest groups donating to political campaigns. For example, the Chicago Teachers Union has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to mayoral and aldermanic campaigns this season. But Bruno said the charter group’s level of spending is exceptional, and it might be because they feel vulnerable.

“They had a friend at the pentacle of political power in Chicago, with Mayor Emanuel, who had firm control over city council,” Bruno said. “They’re now feeling for the first time, quite frankly, that the rules could change in terms of extending charter schools, charter campuses.”

Bruno said there’s also the backdrop of a potential move to an elected school board. Chicago’s Board of Education is currently appointed by the mayor, but both mayoral candidates want to switch to an elected board. He said that switch could be a threat to the charter movement. 

“The elected school board … really grounds democratic voice in the grassroots,” he said. “But those are the same places where the aldermen run for office, where they run for votes. So that really kind of shifts the power base out of city hall, and it really brings it in the neighborhoods.”

Bruno said there’s certainly a fight in this municipal election, and the prize is schools.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

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