How Barbara Byrd-Bennett Worsened Racial Inequality and Hurt Public Education in Chicago

Alisa Robinson

Barbara Byrd-Bennett's unexpected resignation amidst scandal was the perfect ending to a tenure as Chicago Public Schools CEO that worsened racial inequality and weakened public education.

After serving as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 2012 to 2015, Barbara Byrd-Bennett was recently forced to resign from her position in the wake of a scandal over her approval of a major school leadership development contract with her former employer. Now that Byrd-Bennett’s tenure at the head of the third largest school district in America has ended, it’s a good time to assess the legacy she leaves CPS.

Little about that legacy can be seen as positive. Nearly every major decision that Barbara Byrd-Bennett made as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools benefited wealthy white power brokers at the expense of poor and working-class black students, parents and teachers.

During her three years as CEO, she closed an unprecedented number of predominantly black neighborhood schools and fired hundreds of black teachers while opening charter schools run by wealthy white members of the corporate education reform movement and approving a $20.5 million contract for her former employer, SUPES Academy, an organization whose co-owner has an alleged history of using overtly racist and predatory language in emails to students.

Her time in Chicago was defined by an exacerbation of the school system’s racial and economic inequality. Time and again, wealthy whites gained while poor blacks lost. And, in spite of her position at the top of this prejudicial system, the final black loss was hers.

Where it started

Barbara Byrd-Bennett began her career in education at 19 years old, after she received a postcard inviting her to teach at an experimental district in East Harlem, New York. After 12 years in the classroom, she became a principal in Harlem and eventually a superintendent in Brooklyn. In 1998, after more than two decades working in her hometown, she moved to Cleveland, where she became the CEO of the city’s public school system. There, her performance received mixed reviews. She resigned from her position in 2006 amid allegations of corruption. From Cleveland, she moved to Detroit, where she worked as Detroit Schools’ Chief Academic and Accountability Officer while the city closed 59 schools and laid off hundreds of teachers.

During this period, she would also become heavily involved in the corporate education reform movement, which has worked to transform public education into a free market-based system. That movement escalated after the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 codified the corporate ideals of competition and data-driven decision-making into federal education policy; its agenda is seen clearly in the famous pro-charter school and anti-teachers union documentary Waiting for Superman.

One of the organizations at the center of this movement is the Broad Foundation, where Byrd-Bennett became an Executive Coach” in its Superintendant’s Academy in 2006. The Broad Foundation, along with corporate-backed politicians like Mayor Rahm Emanuel and influential nonprofit institutions pushing free-market reforms like the Gates Foundation, advocates for charter schools, high-stakes testing and merit pay among other reforms that, while often profitable for them and their allies, have neutral to negative effects on students and teachers.

Regardless of these outcomes, however, elected officials like Emanuel continue to enact policies that advance these reforms while institutions like the Gates Foundation provide grants to fund them and organizations like the Broad Foundation train budding school administrators to implement them. Such training is also the focus of another reform organization, SUPES Academy. Byrd-Bennett began working for it around the same time she joined forces with Broad.

Byrd-Bennett’s ties to these organizations and her decisions as an administrator in New York, Cleveland and Detroit sealed her reputation as a representative of the corporate reform movement — making her the perfect person to implement Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s vision for his city’s public education system.

And so, on October 12, 2012, Emanuel announced that he had chosen Byrd-Bennett (or Triple B” as he would come to call her) to become the new CEO of CPS, the fourth in four years. She would replace Jean-Claude Brizard, who had resigned after only 17 months on the job not long after the Chicago Teachers Union’s 2012 strike. BBB, however, was confident that she would be in Chicago for a long time.

At the press conference where Emanuel announced her appointment, she told reporters, I’m not sure if it’s 8 years, it could be 10, it could be 12, but I’m here. I don’t intend to go anywhere. … I’m here, and I am not going.” She lasted less than three years in Chicago — but Byrd-Bennett did leave a mark.

White gains, black losses

On March 21, 2013, Byrd-Bennett announced that CPS planned to close 54 schools. She also stated that CPS would hold two community meetings and one public hearing on each of the 54 schools, as required by state law. What she did not say, however, was that this attempt to get feedback from school communities” would be partially funded by the Walton Family Foundation, an organization that had a multi-million dollar stake in charter school proliferation. This omitted detail, along with the fact that some previously closed schools in Chicago had been sold to charter school operators, fueled some community members’ suspicions that the meetings were a farce and that CPS planned to close neighborhood schools and then open charter schools in their place no matter what they said.

Still, thousands of students, teachers, parents and community members attended the meetings and shared their concerns, fears, grievances and, in rare cases, support, until May 22, 2013, the day the Board would finally vote on which schools to close. In the days leading up to vote, opponents of the Board’s proposal held several protests as a final show of resistance. On the day itself, a crowd waited outside CPS headquarters to get a spot inside the room. The group would grow so large that many people would be forced to watch the meeting on a live feed from a separate holding room” inside the building.

The meeting began at 10:47 a.m. For several hours, nine aldermen, CTU President Karen Lewis, Chicago Principals’ and Administrators’ Association President Clarice Berry and an array of teachers, parents, students and community members read their closing arguments as those who would decide the fate of nearly 12,000 students looked down on them from raised benches at the front of the room. There was yelling, crying, praying and heckling; microphones were ripped away from those ruled out of order”; security guards carried people out of the room; and, activists recited familiar chants from the months of protests they had led in the build up to this moment.

After everyone, including Byrd-Bennett, had said their piece, it was time to vote. One by one, each member of the mayor-appointed Board stoically and unanimously voted to close 49 schools. They would also choose to close a 50th, although two members voted to keep this one open.

In the following weeks, opponents of the closings continued to hold protests around the city. Many of those who opposed the Board’s decision also renewed previous accusations that the closings were racist. The allegation, which Byrd-Bennett had previously called an affront to me as a woman of color,” had been notably made two months earlier by CTU President Karen Lewis who, at a protest rally against the closings, remarked, Let’s not pretend that when you close schools on the South and West sides, the children affected aren’t black. Let’s not pretend that’s not racist.”

Those who shared Lewis’s perspective pointed to a CTU analysis of the 54 schools CPS originally planned to close. The report showed that 90% of the schools had a predominantly black student body and 71% had a predominantly black teaching staff. In addition, 2015 study by the University of Chicago would later reveal that 88% of the students who attended closed schools were black, even though black students constituted only 39% of all students in the district.

Regardless of such statistics, however, Byrd-Bennett wanted everyone to move on. Indeed, during a luncheon at the City Club of Chicago, less than a week after the vote, she told to a room of business elites, Whatever has happened this past year, it’s done. We are putting the past behind us. It is time to turn the page.” Byrd-Bennett had delivered for Mayor Emanuel, and thousands of black students, parents and teachers would have to deal with it.

Turning point

The acute rage over the closures developed into chronic distrust, and while people continued to criticize Byrd-Bennett, the School Board and Mayor Emanuel for the closings, the city turned its attention towards new problems, including mass teacher layoffs, the city’s use of public money to fund projects in wealthy districts over poorer ones and residents’ anger at red light camera tickets. But two years later, most Chicagoans would be focused on the 2015 mayoral election and the unprecedented run-off that Emanuel found himself in with unlikely candidate Jesus Chuy” Garcia.

Garcia, a Cook County Commissioner, posed a threat to Byrd-Bennett’s job. He was, after all, convinced to run by CTU President Karen Lewis after she exited the race due to a cancer diagnosis. He had also criticized Byrd-Bennett’s job performance several times over the course of his campaign. Ultimately, however, Byrd-Bennett would not have to worry. Emanuel managed to defeat Garcia by 66,000 votes and that meant that she was safe. Until April 15.

On April 15, 2015, several local newspapers reported that the FBI had launched an investigation into the $20.5 million contract that Byrd-Bennett had quietly approved between closing schools and firing teachers.

While the major papers in the area initially reported controversy surrounding the contract as if it was fresh news, the city’s small, but dogged, education news network knew that the news was anything but fresh. Sarah Karp, from Catalyst Chicago, first questioned the contract in 2013, four days after it was approved:

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, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of board documents. 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.

Others, including the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), picked up on the controversy and became louder with their criticism in July 2013 when CPS announced that 1,036 teachers and 1,077 support staff, many of whom were black, would be laid off because of financial strain on the city. Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader wrote, While CPS is supposedly so broke it’s making principals lay off their teachers, it found $20 million for three years of [principal] training sessions. And somehow the no-bid contract [for the sessions] went to the Supes Academy, a consulting firm in Wilmette for whom schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett used to work.”

The story gained little traction elsewhere until the FBI began its investigation two years later. And six weeks after the investigation became public — after it became an embarrassment for Byrd-Bennett’s newly re-elected boss, Rahm Emanuel — she resigned and her now former boss was able to distance himself from the scandal.

Her legacy

As the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett did what Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Walton Foundation, charter schools leaders and her former employer needed her to do — even when it meant that many of the students, teachers and parents she purported to serve were hurt in the process. She displaced thousands of black students while presiding over the largest mass school closure in American history and then, adding insult to the injury of residents who fought the closures, she opened several new charter schools—schools that would expand the privatization of public education at the expense of quality education for students. She decided that CPS needed to lay off hundreds of black employees in order to save money and then awarded her former employer a multi-million dollar contract for a program that attendees considered ineffective.

She ran a system that helped rich white power brokers at the expense of average black citizens. Yet her position at the top of that system still wasn’t enough to stop it from abandoning her in the end.

In December 2012, two months after accepting Emanuel’s offer to become CPS’s CEO, Byrd-Bennett was interviewed by a Cleveland newspaper. She told the interviewer that she was initially reluctant to accept Emanuel’s offer, but reconsidered after she realized that she needed” to take the job because she felt that she could make a difference.” Had she decided to turn down the offer, Rahm Emanuel would have likely found someone else to perpetuate the inequities within CPS−perhaps another person of color whose race could be used to answer accusations of racism within the system. But even if Byrd-Bennett would not have been able to cut the losses of Chicago’s black students, teachers and parents by sticking with her original decision, she may have, at the very least, been able to cut her own.

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Alisa Robinson is a writer and the founder of Elephrame.
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